WWF meets haute cuisine on 'Iron Chef'

A hit in Japan, the Food Network show also dazzles US viewers

David and Goliath are back, but this time they're wielding a slotted spoon and a whisk. Leave it to Japanese television to resurrect the struggle of mighty champion versus unknown underdog, and set the entire thing in a kitchen with more than 9,100 square feet of space.

One episode of the program "Iron Chef" introduces challenger Xie Huaxian, a respectable but little-known chef from Yokohama. His imposing opponent is the world-renowned chef Chen Kenichi. He's known as Iron Chef Chinese, and his cooking skills have blocked the path to victory for countless challengers.

In the next hour, the two will use the episode's theme ingredient, lobster, to cook a dazzling array of dishes, matching their culinary wits in a battle judged by a panel of food experts and Japanese celebrities.

Welcome to Kitchen Stadium, home to the Food Network's breakout hit in the United States. Dubbed from Japanese to English, "Iron Chef" brings a World Wrestling Federation smack-down sensibility to the normally staid world of haute cuisine.

Emeril Lagasse notwithstanding, it's the most eccentric food program on the air, pitting brash challengers against a stable of hand-picked gastronomic gladiators, the four Iron Chefs.

Representing Japanese, Chinese, French, and Italian schools of cooking, the cooks go mano a mano against some of the world's finest chefs, accompanied by florid costumes, lavish sets, and campy hyperbole that would make Jesse Ventura proud.

But viewers searching for the secret of "Iron Chef's" success need look no further than the show's vital connection to the whole of Japanese pop culture. The show, which began airing a series of newly translated "prequel" episodes this September, is no tame Julia Child retread. Its charismatic host, Chairman Kaga, presides over Kitchen Stadium clad in outfits worthy of Elton John.

Kaga, a stage actor who once played the lead role in a Japanese version of "Jesus Christ Superstar," is the show's motivating force, an eccentric millionaire gourmet whose dream it was to build Kitchen Stadium.

To a resident of Japan, "Iron Chef" is plugged-in and relevant, with guests including pop stars, famous photographers, members of parliament, and the exotically garbed Maiko girls from Kyoto's Gion Festival. But to a resident of the US, the show is a cornucopia of Japanese curios, showcasing a broad swath of cultural and artistic personalities that might never otherwise see the light of day on American TV.

As popular as "Iron Chef" may have been during its six-year run in Japan, it seems to have found its true following in America, where it has become one of the Food Network's most popular offerings. The New York Battle, which pitted US chef Bobby Flay against Iron Chef Japan Masaharu Morimoto, drew unprecedented ratings for the network.

It aired on June 25, 2000, with more than 960,000 households tuning in to watch the cocky American cook accidentally cut himself, zap himself on an electric pot, and then jump up on a cutting board at the match's conclusion, to the disgust of his more reserved Japanese counterpart, who handily won the battle. The sizzling contest was popular enough to spark two special rematch programs, which aired this past June.

A new type of fire will be added to the show's wok with the Nov. 16 airing of "Iron Chef USA: Showdown in Las Vegas." These two one-hour specials on UPN will feature the stylings of honorary Iron Chef Chairman of the US: actor William Shatner. While there's no word yet on whether Mr. Shatner will adopt the outlandish mannerisms of his Japanese counterpart, the specials are sure to attract a whole new breed of fan to the series.

Beyond the show's zany trappings, fans of fine cooking have a lot of good things to say about the show, which has inspired countless fan sites on the Web and a bubbling underground world of devotees. Drama aside, the program features some of the world's most accomplished culinary artists battling it out with unlimited access to a breathtaking range of expensive ingredients.

"Iron Chef" fan David Rust has followed the show for more than two years, having watched tapes made from Japanese-language television broadcast in California. Mr. Rust, webmaster for Minneapolis multimedia firm Sixty Foot Spider, laughs about the indecipherability of the early episodes.

"We were mostly just trying to figure out what was going on," he says. But like many fans, he found the show helped spur him on in his own kitchen.

"I found that I started actually thinking about what tastes go together rather than relying upon what I've seen before, and what recipes I've used before," says Rust. "Everyone I know has had bacon and asparagus - it's a very common French dish. But when you actually see 'Battle Asparagus' on 'Iron Chef,' you start thinking: 'OK, I've had shrimp before, and I've had asparagus before, and so I know those flavors, but because I see these people joining things, I start thinking, 'What would that be like?' and I put it together in my head. It helps me plan ahead when I prepare dishes."

Not all who view Iron Chef are fans, however. It periodically features ingredients that are alive at the show's outset, such as octopus, lobster, and eel. To the displeasure of some viewers, all are dispatched by grim-faced, blade-wielding chefs. If the show's American popularity is a celebration of the excitement caused by different cultural norms, the scuttling and flopping ingredients are one of the ways the show can cross the line for some viewers.

But with its overall emphasis on creativity, improvisation, and the pure joy of cooking on the fly, "Iron Chef" may spawn a legion of sassy young chefs, adopting the show's devil-may-care attitude toward recipes and deep reverence for cooking traditions. "Whose cuisine reigns supreme?" is the show's traditional prompt for the panel's verdict. In the eyes of its American and Japanese fans, the answer is simple: the Iron Chef's.

For more information, including program listings and topics, visit the Food Network website: www.foodtv.com.

Curry With New Potatoes (or 'Madame Merry Curry')

This dish was originally created by Challenger Kentaro for the Food Network's airing of 'Battle New Potato.' It was later 'reverse engineered' by Iron Chef fan and cooking enthusiast David Rust. We've added chicken to turn it into an even heartier meal. Chunks of apple (preferably Granny Smith, which are firm and tart) could give it a seasonal touch. Those who'd like a less starchy version of this dish could skip either the new potatoes or rice.

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced

1 onion, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped (about 1 cup)

1/2 yellow bell pepper, chopped (about 1 cup)

1 celery stalk chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1-1/2 cups cream

1/2 cup whole milk

1 tablespoon curry powder, or to taste

Salt and white pepper to taste

20 small new potatoes, peeled and cut in half

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch strips

1 cup cooked rice

2 tablespoons butter

Fresh parsley, finely chopped for garnish

In a skillet, sauté the ginger, onion, bell peppers, and celery in the olive oil until the onions turn translucent and just begin to brown along the edges.

Add the cream and the milk, stirring to loosen any of the vegetables. Bring the mixture to a simmer.

Stir in the curry powder. Season with salt and white pepper. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the peeled potatoes and strips of boneless chicken breast and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes.

Blend the butter into the cooked rice.

Pour the potato-curry mixture over plates of rice and serve, garnished with the parsley.

Serves 6 as a main dish.

For more 'Iron Chef' recipes that have been re-created by fan David Rust, visit his website: www.visi.com/~phantos/icrecipe.html.

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