The Return of Iron Chef Japan, Part 2

(Continuation of Part 1)

On Friday October 26, 2012 after 13 years, Ryouri no Tetsujin returned to the airwaves on Fuji TV.

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Except - it's no longer called Ryouri no Tetsujin (料理の鉄人): It's called アイアン・シェフ - Iron Chef, spelled out in katakana (the phonetic character set usually reserved for imported words). I don't know why they've chosen the Anglicized name for the revival, but it could be a reflection of the worldwide acclaim the original Ryouri no Tetsujin has achieved.

Fans of Takeshi Kaga may be disappointed that he isn't reprising his role as the Chairman. The new Chairman is Hiroshi Tamaki, an actor who is best known for his role in the live action version of the classical music theme manga and anime Nodame Cantabile. As the Chairman he is more understated than Chairman Kaga, and frankly lacks his predecessor's theatrical flair. He's not bad at the dramatic pause before announcing the winner though.

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If you remember the backstory given to the Chairman in the original run of the show, he was supposed to be a mysterious rich gourmet and head of the Gourmet Academy, who summoned famed chefs to compete in his own secret Kitchen Stadium. The new backstory is a bit different, and probably closer to the reality: a committee of well known gourmets and chefs called the Iron Chef Committee (アイアンシェフ審議委員会), headed up by the new Chairman, was set up to choose the Iron Chefs, the challenge themes, as well as the chefs who come every week to challenge them. But these chefs are no longer called challengers...but more on that later. In any case of course both Kaga and Tamaki are actors, not well known food authorities themselves, so relegating the Chairman role to that of the master of ceremonies is not a big change.

Incidentally, the new Chairman has a new catchphrase, with which he declares the start of each new battle. It's Good Gastronomy! Doesn't make much sense I know, but neither did Allez Cuisine!

The new, revamped Kitchen Stadium is even more sparkly and over the top, bordering on kitschy. It looks rather like a high end Chinese restaurant. Incidentally, the term Kitchen Stadium has entered the Japanese vernacular due to the influence of the original Iron Chef. It basically means any kind of open kitchen restaurant where multiple chefs can be seen in action.

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The setup of the new Iron Chef will be very familiar to old Iron Chef fans. The commentary gallery is anchored by longtime Fuji TV announcer Mizuki Sano and Yukio Hattori, the avancular food expert who was the main commentator on the original show. They are joined by experts in whatever cuisine is being made that day, mostly from the Tsuji Cooking School, which probably the best regarded cookery school in Japan, plus the guest celebrities who get to taste the dishes - most of whom, as in the original show, don't seem to have a clue about food. Here is Hattori-san with the new Iron Chef French Yosuke Suga. For some reason, Hattori-san looks very orange on the show.

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As on the original series there's a roving floor reporter accompanied by the camera crew, who tells the commentary box what's going on. They started out with 3 announcers, two males and a female, but for the last few shows the female announcer Yurika Mita has been the sole reporter. She's pretty good by the way, and prevents the show from becoming entirely male-dominated.

The Iron Chefs and the Nominees

And last but not least, here are the new Iron Chefs, pictured here with Chairman Tamaki.

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From left to right:

Iron Chef Japanese is Jun Kuroki (34), chef and owner of Kurogi in Yushima, Tokyo, a restaurant that is booked up for six months in advance. He trained under famed chef Kenichiro Nishi of the Kyoto cuisine restaurant Kyo-Aji in Shinbashi, Tokyo. (Nishi, who's dramatically labeled as "A God of Japanese Cuisine!" on the show, famously refused a 3-Michelin star rating.)

Iron Chef Chinese is Yuji Wakiya (55), chef and owner of Turandot Garyuukyo in Akasaka and chef consultant at several other places. He was twice a challenger on the original Iron Chef and on one of those occasions beat Iron Chef Chinese Kenichi Chin (Chen). His speciality is Shanghai style cuisine and 'Nouvelle Chinoise' (Chinese with French influence) cuisine.

Iron Chef French is Yosuke Suga (35), executive chef in famed French chef Joël Robuchon's empire. (Robuchon is declared as "The Emperor Of French Cuisine!" every time he's mentioned on the show. I think they mean Emperor as in the Napoleonic sense, not the ) He has opened several of Robuchon's restaurants around the world. There's a profile and interview of him in English here from a few years ago, when he was opening the Robuchon branch in New York.

The fact that 2 of the 3 Iron Chefs are in their mid 30s is quite notable. In the original show all the Iron Chefs were in their 40s or 50s, with the exception of later additions Iron Chef Italian Masahiko Kobe and Iron Chef Japanese Masaharu Morimoto. This may be a reflection on a change in the culinary world in Japan, where young, talented chefs are given a chance earlier than they used to.

There's a spot left empty on the stage. This is supposed to be filled by an as yet unnamed fourth Iron Chef. Each chef that comes to challenge the Iron Chefs is called a nominee (ノミニー) to fill that empty spot, rather than a mere challenger (挑戦者, chousensha) as they were in the original series.

It's interesting to see what type of cuisine the fourth Iron Chef will represent. The selection of a traditional Japanese, nouvelle Chinese, and classic French chef for the first 3 spots reflects the 3 cuisines the top end of Japanese fine dining. But it's up to debate as to which cuisine is up there with them. Midway through the original series they brought in an Italian Iron Chef in addition to the Japanese, Chinese and French chefs they had, so adding another Italian chef may make sense. But many other cuisines are just as popular these days in Japan.

The Theme Ingredients and the Battles

The format of the show is otherwise quite faithful to the original. There's a not-so-secret main ingredient/theme, one hour to cook, and an assortment of judges, some who seem to know what they are talking about and others (pretty actors and actresses) who are mainly there to be decorative and exclaim "oishii!"

There's a lot of time and respect paid to the backgrounds of the Iron Chefs and the nominee-challenger chefs alike, as well as the ingredients and the actual cooking itself. There's a lot of overhyped drama stuff tacked on too of course. But despite all the glittery surroundings, you never get the feeling that anything other than the food and the chefs are the stars.

I really appreciate the attention and respect they pay to the ingredients. For instance, the theme ingredient in the most recent episode was a special kind of jidori (region specific, free-range chicken) called Awadori that is grown in Tokushima prefecture. Not only did they explain what made the chicken special, they also invited two of the chicken farmers from Tokushima who specialize in this chicken. The Fuji TV website also encourages viewers to suggest the finest local ingredients from their regions

Plenty of respect is paid to the original Iron Chefs too, especially the ones who served the longest: Japanese Iron Chef Rokusaburo Michiba, Chinese Iron Chef Kenichi Chen, and French Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai. Chef Michiba has been both a nominator of one of the challenger-nominees as well as a guest commentator, and Chef Chen has nominated one challenger (his son, the 3rd generation of chefs in the Chen family) and acted as a defacto mentor to one of the Iron Chefs. Chef Sakai has also nominated one of the challengers. I'm pretty sure we'll see some of the other former Iron Chefs too eventually.

And most of all, the chefs are never anything but respectful - to their opponents, their ingredients, and the judges/tasters -- even when some of the latter are note quite polite in their comments. (There's already one regular taster-judge, a woman who's a 'food stylist', who is highly annoying.) There's no trash talking, no yelling. The editing does not try to make the actual cooking any more dramatic than it is. Even when a piece of equipment breaks down, there are no histrionics; they just get on with it. The only signs of emotion that you can see are the sweat on a chef's brow, or the tears they shed if they win or lose - and a few tears have already been shed so far. There's a calm professionalism that is just a joy to see.

So: if you have a chance to catch the new Iron Chef somewhere, I highly recommend it, especially if you were a fan of the original. The skills on display are pretty amazing, and the food is often mindboggling to see. I do hope that this new version will be just as successful as the original, and that some English language network will decide to buy the broadcast rights some day soon.

Here's the official website for the new Iron Chef, in Japanese only.

A dilemma

So now I have a bit of a dilemma. If I were to continue writing about the new Iron Chef, I'll have to include a lot of spoilers. I'll leave it up to you as to whether you want to see more about the show on this site or not. Let me know in the comments how you feel. (Either way not to worry: this site will not turn into an all-Iron Chef blog!)

(Footnote: the original version this appeared as an answer to a question on Quora, but has been much expanded.)

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