Most cuisine-themed television tends to fill me with a sense of claustrophobic despair—those airless soundstage sets, that histrionic chatter, those long static takes of glossy telegenic food—but coming across an old episode of Iron Chef during a channel-surfing session is always a moment of pleasure. There's so much to dig about the Japanese Iron Chef: the opening shot of the flamboyantly costumed Chairman Kaga Takeshi biting lustily into a yellow pepper; the high theatrics and samurai machismo of the cooking competition itself; the glorious inanity of the celebrity tasters. But minutes into the first episode of Iron Chef America (on the Food Network), a four-part series in which famous American chefs Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Wolfgang Puck face off with Iron Chefs Masaharu Morimoto and Hiroyuki Sakai, I realized that the appeal of the original Iron Chef (which, alas, ceased production in 1999 and is now available only in reruns) has nothing to do with food. I can't weigh in on what made Iron Chef so popular in Japan, but its success as an American import has everything to do with language and with the mysterious gulf that separates one culture from another. Sadly, everything that was charming, exciting, and moving about the original show has been, quite literally, lost in translation.
In fact, the translation itself has been lost. The Japanese show's organizing conceit—that Chairman Kaga was a rich, eccentric gourmet, a kind of decadent James Bond villain who organized gladiatorial cooking battles for his own amusement in a "Kitchen Stadium" built in his personal castle—has been replaced in the American version by a straightforward sporting-event-style format. Kaga and his gold lamé epaulets are gone; instead, we have the actor and martial artist Mark Dacascos in a plain dark suit while chummy color commentary is provided by host Alton Brown (star of the Food Network's Good Eats). What made the original show work was its very illegibility, the glimpse it provided of a foreign pop-cultural cosmology as rich and strange as our own. Now that the pageantry has been stripped away, what we're left with is a rather prosaic cooking contest: Two world-class chefs have one hour to put together a five-course meal based around a single ingredient revealed at the beginning of each show.
Iron Chef aficionados will especially miss the famous voice-over. The sound mix of the original Iron Chef was a jolly cacophony of Japanese voices and their dubbed English equivalents, overlaid by sudden bursts of grandiose music (much of it lifted from the soundtracks of American films like Backdraft or, in a bizarre moment of cross-cultural counterborrowing, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story). Chairman Kaga's oracular pronouncements were preserved in the original Japanese and subtitled, perhaps out of respect for his lofty status and glam-superhero style. All the other Japanese speakers on the show, from the hosts, who provided a running commentary on the culinary battle in progress, to the celebrity tasting panel (usually made up of a snooty food critic, a giggling actress, and a couple of well-known actors, politicians, or intellectuals) were dubbed into strangely poetic English (sample musing: "this flavor gives me a feeling of pleasant nostalgia") by a cast of Canadian actors living as expatriates in Japan. Whoever these people were, they understood enough about Japanese culture to reproduce the speakers' intonation, right down to the untranslatable grunts of enjoyment that replace the English-language exclamations of "mmm" or "yum."
Except for a few brief moments of disappointingly generic overdubbing for the voice of Iron Chef Hiroyuki "Fish" Sakai, everyone on Iron Chef America speaks in unaccented, TV-ready American English. This has the effect of making Sakai seem like an exotic foreign element, the emissary for "Japanese culture" as a whole, when his title on the original program was "Iron Chef French" because of his background as a master of Gallic cuisine. It quickly becomes evident that the very notion of turning Iron Chef into an East-meets-West nationalist showdown is a misbegotten concept, given that the show's culinary universe has always presupposed a fusion of world cuisines: The chefs draw from a master kitchen of over 500 ingredients to create crazy-quilt combinations of Chinese, Japanese, French, and Italian cooking. In the Iron Chef world, globalization is older news than the Big Bang.
Tonight's American contender, Southwestern chef Bobby Flay, has already appeared more than once as a guest challenger on the Japanese version of Iron Chef,most notably in 2000, when he disgusted the supercilious Chairman Kaga by not only cutting his own hand and shocking himself on an electric pan, but leaping atop his cutting board and standing on the counter at the end of the contest (in which he got, well, flayed, by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, who will take on Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck in upcoming episodes of Iron Chef America). Though the cutting-board scandal would have made a great setup for Iron Chef America, Flay's showboating antics go entirely unmentioned in tonight's episode, titled "Battle Trout." Because really, it's all about the trout: Flay's smoked trout and guacamole taco, blue-cornmeal-battered trout, and trout-and-coconut-milk soup served in a coconut shell versus Sakai's trout custard and shark-fin soup, seared trout tartar with caviar, and most daring of all, raw trout ice cream, garnished with blueberries, bananas, and a crispy twist of fried trout skin. (This freaky dish won raves from the drably polite tasting panel, made up of Bon Appetit editor Victoria von Biel, high-profile chef Kerry Simon, and former Daily Show comic Brian Unger.)
Iron Chef doesn't aim to teach its viewers how to cook themselves; its purpose is to wow us with displays of world-class culinary virtuosity, and on that level, the Western version is just as jaw-dropping as its Asian counterpart. I don't want to give away the few dramatic twists that pop up during the frantic assembling of this fishy smorgasbord, and torture would not drag from my lips the name of the eventual victor. Suffice it to say that Iron Chef devotees may come for the glamour and spectacle of the original Japanese series, but if they stick around, it'll only be for the food.