The Japanese TV series Iron Chef was a hit with U.S. television audiences because it dished out camp and cuisine in equal measures.
Now the Food Network brings us a domestic version of the competitive cooking show. It's fun, but something is definitely lost in translation.
Iron Chef America, which aired as a four-part special last spring, returns Sunday as a weekly series when the ubiquitous Bobby Flay throws down against Rick Bayless, the chef of acclaimed Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.
Flay and fellow chefs Mario Batali and Masaharu Morimoto make up the Iron Chef America lineup. Morimoto was an Iron Chef in the Japanese series and has a restaurant in Philadelphia. The Food Network promises that Cat Cora (who can be seen on its Kitchen Accomplished) will join the series as the first female Iron Chef.
Future episodes will feature challengers such as Ming Tsai (of Food Network and PBS fame) and acclaimed New York chef Alex Lee.
So can Iron Chef America hold a cleaver to the original series?
Well, no, but then foodies and casual viewers shouldn't expect the quirky appeal of the Japanese series _ which still airs on the Food Network _ to be re-created in a stateside "Kitchen Stadium." Remember the short-lived UPN series Iron Chef USA that tried _ with William Shatner as the chairman (!) _ to duplicate the original's campy charm and failed?
In the new Food Network version, gone are the elements we loved in the original: the vocal dubbing (which reawakened our memories of childhood Godzilla matinees), the exotic theme ingredients (angler fish and shark fin?), the giggling ingenue actors on the judging panel, and the show's hokey premise (a wealthy gourmand pits his handpicked champions against the world's best chefs in his private Kitchen Stadium).
So, in Iron Chef America, what we are left with is the cooking.
And that's not all bad. If the original Iron Chef opened a window into another culture, it also gave us a peek at what goes on in the kitchen. You couldn't help but be amazed while watching Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai deftly peel an apple with a large chef's knife.
In Sunday's Iron Chef America premiere, the secret ingredient is buffalo, and once the chefs and assistants overcome butchering the meat, it is interesting to see the contrasts between the competitors.
Flay deviates from his Southwestern-influenced style; Bayless incorporates buffalo into his traditional Mexican dishes. The hyperactive Flay is all motion, whether using a jackhammer-sized submersion mixer or running with a hot pan.
I wonder if, in the hyperbolic style of Japanese chefs, Flay should be known as the God of the Squeeze Bottle?
Bayless, who remains calm and scholarly, gently scolds floor reporter Kevin Brauch for bungling the pronunciations of chili peppers. Brauch may be the Fine Living network's Thirsty Traveler, but he needs to bone up on his cuisine. He had trouble identifying fois gras and daikon radish in earlier specials.
Or perhaps Brauch should have Iron Chef America host and food wonk Alton Brown (Good Eats) tutor him.
The quirky Brown, with his Mr. Wizard approach to cooking, is perfectly cast as host but would be even better if he had a sidekick to handle the play-by-play while he delivered his color commentary.
The man most identified with the original Iron Chef, Chairman Kaga of the Gourmet Academy, has been succeeded by his "nephew," actor and martial artist Mark Dacascos. The most that can be said of the wooden Dacascos as a replacement for the flamboyant Kaga is that as chairman, he has a good roundhouse kick.
Now, as Kaga would say: Allez Cuisine!
Peter Couture can be reached at (727) 893-8736 or couturesptimes.com.