Thursday, March 26, 2020

There are No Sports Other Than 25 Year Old Videos of Iron Chef

Chairman Kaga, resplendent in an outfit that simultaneously brings to mind a matador, a figure skater, and late-period Michael Jackson, has summoned the Iron Chefs, he has bellowed out the theme ingredient, and contestants are urgently shuffling towards a podium to grab some vegetables or swallow's nest or some thrashing, wriggling sea creature that they will need to bonk to death with the blunt end of a carving knife.

 Iron Chef debuted in Japan in 1993, came into the United States on the Food Network in 1999, and now it exists in a series of grainy Youtube videos that you can watch right now.  The genius of Iron Chef was how it took a cooking show and perfectly translated it into the grammar of sports television and then added in a charming, campy absurdity.  The entire premise is silly and ultimately superfluous, but the idea of framing a cooking competition in the context of a wealthy gourmand who dressed like the unlucky magician that Siegfried and Roy replaced with a tiger who oversees the entire thing like it is culinary Kumite is an incredible stroke of genius-- there are currently a large number of cooking shows available now from all over the world but only one of them has Chairman Kaga and voice actors dubbing over people with practice in voicing literal cartoon villains.
Though the cooking action takes almost the entirety of the show, to me it's the aesthetics that make Iron Chef so enjoyable.  There is the overwrought music, the iron chefs rising onto a platform like gladiators, Chairman Kaga delightfully overseeing the whole thing.  There is the best part of the show, the ludicrously self-serious introductions of the challenger that sets up a storyline that will frame the entire competition and occasionally veers into the absurd.  The most memorable of these for me is the Cabbage Battle, a redemption story that contains a genuinely shocking turn of events but the person narrating it (a rare replacement for Kaga's usual voiceover actor who according to IMDb is best known as a voice on the Playstation game Crazy Taxy) delivers every line with an insanely overdramatic reading reminiscent of Stephen Toast.

My life has been forever changed by the way this voice actor says the words "basta pasta"

One of the best storylines from in Iron Chef was the rise of the Ohta Faction, a group of chefs led by Tadamichi Ohta and Toshiro Kandagawa that favored traditional Japanese cooking methods and repeatedly challenged Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto because they found his fusion methods distasteful.  They get their own intros to denounce Morimoto and introduce the chef they have chosen to challenge him (invariably described as "hit men" and often have nicknames like "The King of Noodles" or something).  They and dozens of followers with headbands and banners stream into Kitchen Stadium in a show of force.  I can't immediately locate it (the Youtube account that specifically posts Ohta Faction battles cuts off the intros for some perverse reason) but the person they have voicing Kandagawa has a pleasingly villainous grunt. 

There exists no other cooking show, I believe, that features an Opposition Faction for ideological reasons and I am sitting here stewing over the missed opportunity for Gordon Ramsay to be in the middle of berating someone when the lights turn out and all of a sudden 100 members of the Society of Polite Chefs come in to gently shush him or a disastrous clash between the Frugal Gourmet and his arch-nemeses the Profligate Gourmands who are just tossing truffles and expensive cuts of designer beefs onto the floor to trample them while supporters of either faction watch the battle on wooden cage-bleachers designed and built by Bob Vila.

The best Iron Chef episodes are the ones that manage to fit in contrived drama that came out of the show's own success.  Early Iron Chef episodes invented this entire apparatus of the Kitchen Stadium and the Gourmet Society as a bit until Iron Chef became popular enough to actually become a legitimate platform for culinary celebrity and started to function in an eerie parallel to its own premise.  The most entertaining battles are the ones that take this seriously.  For example, there is an episode where Tokyo-based French chef Joel Bruant challenges Iron Chef French Hiruki Sakai with the stipulation that if he wins, he can replace Sakai as Iron Chef French. "His arrogance infuriates me," the Kaga voiceover says, "but how can I refuse?"

Let's be honest and admit that Iron Chef is fake-- or at least, if not entirely fake, the production involves far more time and many more unseen hands than are visible to the television viewer.  This has no impact on the show because the actual judging remains so silly and arbitrary that it is nearly impossible to determine who has won or lost.  The contestants on Iron Chef are professionals with a full complement of assistants that rarely lead to obvious fuck-ups, and they deal in a fancy haute-cuisine that exists at an enormous distance to anything that I have ever experienced.  The audience surrogates come in the form of a celebrity judging panel-- including the bow tie politician who is constantly either in or out of the legislature, a panel of actors and actresses, a fortune teller, a food critic-- some of whom have relevant experience or vocabulary to articulate their thoughts on the food and many others who are just coming up with some bullshit because they are on television. 

One of the funniest things that happens on Iron Chef is seeing a world-renowned chef who has just been bustling in a kitchen, handling red hot woks and chopping vegetables and occasionally feeding an octopus into an ice cream maker in order to plate an insanely fancy meal made sometimes with hundreds of dollars of ingredients into an intricate and perfectly laid-out dish is that a leathered baseball manager who looks like he has probably ingested at least part of a catcher's mitt  on purpose will look at him or her and tell the chef it needs a little more salt.

There are currently almost no sports happening in the world right now, and one of the things I have been doing is trying to imagine the entire bloated apparatus of sports talk media reconfigured to cover old Iron Chef episodes.  There's Stephen A. Smith going on television to chastise the Ohta Faction for bringing on another CLOWN who CANNOT WIN. He can't even BLANCH that ABALONE, Skip.  It's people calling into local sports radio with resplendently honking Chicago accents talking about how they're not sure of this Sakai and they need to see something out of Nakamura.  It is Mike Francesa hammering "Chairman Kogger" for his "awful choice in ingredients. Awful. Who's gonna want an octopus? (35 second pause). Octopus. Not for me. Not my ingredient. Octopus. (12 second sigh) Not for me. Too many appendages.
Let's go to Danny from Staten Island. Oh, you thought it was funny how I was trying to 
make the roast duck that Sakai served to the entire Finnish Cabinet on a state visit and 
I didn't understand how the pressure cooker worked and it took off like a rocket and 
exploded through my roof at the exact moment an entire gaggle of migrating geese came 
by and just unloaded through the hole and I ran out of the house covered in goose 
excrement and my glasses were broken and I was wearing one of those rapping tasmanian
 devil cartoon shirts that I've already explained a thousand times I only had because it was 
a personal gift from John Daly and that's when the news vans came out and caught me yelling 
"who do I gotta call for a goose incident?" at firefighters? Yeah, that's funny. Real sickos. Real sickos 
calling this show. Two and a half hours waiting for that. Real sickos. Can we please get some calls in 
about how Chen Kenichi is good but not great?

Iron Chef lives on in the myriad food competition reality television shows that all borrow various successful parts of the show: innovating dishes on limited time with limited ingredients, breezy celebrity cameos, a panel of stern judges.  But because it is a relic of the 1990s, it remains untouched by the irritating grammar of contemporary reality TV competition shows, and the show is free to be much weirder than any show like that has a right to be.  Iron Chef's cooking is hardly the point.  It is the goofiness of the premise and the dramatics and the silliness-- even Chairman Kaga, ferociously biting into that bell pepper in the beginning of the episode before it pans out to show him standing next to what appears to be a small army of theatrically motionless chefs and he is clearly chuckling through the whole thing.

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