El Cosmico here, and I've been wondering myself, how can a bunch of kitanai gaikokujin call themselves tetsujin? How am I to enjoy an IRON CHEF show without wacky dubbing?
As all sensible folk know, Japan is the only divine nation on the earth, and as such, the true and proper home of kitchen stadium. Not content to peer across the vast Pacific Ocean, we must pluck what ideas we can from them. After all, I think we're all a bit sore over their taking the whole transistor-radio idea and running with it while baka na beikoku ni wa we were all twiddling our thumbs and asking ourselves...so, how is that really much better than a vacuum tube?
Now, that's all behind us...or is it? A recent poll in Japan Today indicated that roughly half of the Japanese people, thought it was quite likely that the United States would eventually invade Japan. It hadn't occurred to me that we were preparing for such, but then, how would I know if we were? Could we possibly defeat them, though? I hear they have many well-trained Psyduck and Squirtle...
No matter our long range battle-plans, we have a show to steal! Many thanks for the following review are due to a fine fellow referring to himself as Iron Geek. It seems that the American version of IRON CHEF is a bit rough around the edges in its early incarnation. Personally, I think the entire concept of a non-Japanese IRON CHEF show is madness, but it does seem to me that with proper development, the show could become worthwhile. It must evolve, though. Like a Psyduck into a Golduck. Or a Pikachu into a Raichu. Anyway, here's the review:
Iron Chef U.S.A. - Showdown in Las Vegas
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
If memory serves, "Iron Chef U.S.A." is a domestic retooling of a foreign television show; the Americanized version having been born from a perceived lack of inventiveness in contemporary TV. With the pulse-pounding, adrenalin-packed schedule over at the FoodTV Network (insert only partial sarcasm here), it's apparent that Americans really get into their food. But why shouldn't we elevate cooking to a spectator sport? Food's one of those things that's really defined us as a culture! But how is it that the Japanese beat us to this unique and exciting culinary game show?
I'm not sure, but however it happened, we were pissed and had to take our revenge.
I use the term "revenge" because that is probably the best description of what I saw at the taping of the second of two UPN specials that are intended to serve as stepping stones for an American version of the Japanese series. I also use the term since that's pretty much what the floor manager said to us ... that unless "Iron Chef U.S.A." takes off, we'll be "stuck with" the Japanese version. This kind of "we're better than you are" attitude did not bode well for the night about to begin.
However, to be clear, I think that the Americans responsible for this program were acting out of the best of good intentions. If you are unfamiliar with the show, it is centered around an eccentric gourmand who sets out to find the greatest culinary masterpieces in the world by pitting brilliant chefs against each other in one hour cook-offs. The backstory is all made-up, of course, with the Chairman being played by renowned Japanese actor Takeshi Kaga. The contest, on the other hand, is quite sincere. While one of Kaga's "Iron Chefs" defends the honor of his Kitchen Stadium, the battles are intense, creative and usually quite engaging. To add to the suspense and difficulty of the time limit, each chef must also work a secret ingredient into each of their dishes. (Have you ever seen Broccoli Ice Cream before? If not, you've not been watching "Iron Chef".)
I had my apprehensions about the American version before I went in and -truth be told- this somewhat colored my viewpoints. However, let's start with how it began.
Taped in the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas, the American show starts with four Iron Chefs (each one different from the Japanese version) to defend the Kitchen Arena. Why they named it an "Arena" rather than "Stadium" I have no idea. After seven years of the original show calling it a "Stadium", it just ended up sounding wrong, somehow.
One of the differences that you notice right away is the set. It's different. And well it should be. This is, after all, a different country and a different setting. And, to the credit of the art directors, the setting was regal and spectacular. Nice, over-sized columns, draperies and floral arrangements made the set look just as impressive as the Japanese stadium was. But despite how good it looked, there was a problem. You see, the audience is intended -unlike in the original series- to be an integral part of the show.
Some of the set-pieces were so tall that they obscured the view of the monitors that the audience was supposed to be able to watch and see play-by-play images of the two chefs and their creations. Instead, we had to rely upon a floor manager cuing us to applaud, shout, scream, stomp our feet, whistle, yell taunts/jeers and even go "ooooh" and "aaaaah". We couldn't easily see what was going on in order to react naturally. They even handed out cardboard signs that we were supposed to wave during the contest amidst our loud, boisterous shouting.
Now, this is the biggest point of contention I have with the show. At it's heart, "Iron Chef" is supposed to be about a contest of brilliant, culinary artists. The trappings of the the Stadium (-er- "Arena") are secondary, at best. The over-the-top-yet-sincere performance of the Chairman is also just icing on the cake.
The American version replaced the applause and good-natured cheering of the original with the very epitome of the "Ugly American". We were loud. We were boisterous. We were like Julia Child in a spiked collar sitting outside a WWF ring while watching the Undertaker shove a twenty-pound souffle up Mick Foley's ass. We became the stereotype of the loud, uncouth American; and this bothered me most of all because most of the fans they were aiming for, while fond of cheers and applause, are *still* epicurean fans possessed of some decorum.
The show and direction from the floor, destroyed all that.
Now, many fans have cringed at the inclusion of William Shatner as "The Chairman" (the Takeshi Kaga role). However, I'm going to state -right here and now- that Shatner does an Ok job ... but not how most of you would think.
Luckily, from where I was seated (behind the VIP seats), I could see both the teleprompter and Mr. Shatner. The dialogue they put into his mouth would make Dr. Suess cringe at it's over-the-top, silly nature. While the Japanese version of the Chairman was silly through the nature of his grandiose and Liberace-esque persona, he was always sincere. The dialogue written for Mr. Shatner was silly. Very silly. It made him look like a buffoonish caricature rather than a sincere devotee of culinary exploration. And, in so doing, this distracts -again- from the energy of the competition.
Rather, whenever the teleprompter indicated that Mr. Shatner should Ad-Lib, he was witty. He was genial and funny. He was engaging. If the producers of the show somehow come to read this review, take this one piece of advice with you...
Let Shatner Do His Own Dialogue!
His rapport with the audience was fun; his emotions genuine. As a human being who has many years of experience on the stage, he has learned how to interact with live audience members much better than the people who attempt putting words in his mouth!
The trick to playing the role of the Chairman is to play over-the-top without being degrading or lessening the seriousness of the competition. Think of Shatner in some of his more somber moments of "Free Enterprise" ... this is the type of person we need for the role. Lampooning reality, but without distracting from the drama and intensity of the moment!
But there was a lot distracting us apart from the dialogue fed to William Shatner.
The challenger rode in on the back of a motorcycle. The color commentators were dressed as (and acted like) announcers from Monday Night Football. The Chairman kept wandering around the Kitchen getting involved with the chefs rather than letting the floor reporter cover it.
All distractions. All unnecessary.
This brings us to the floor reporter. Sissy Biggers, formerly of "Ready, Set, Cook" on the Food Network (now, replaced by English chef Ainsley Harriott), gets to play the role of the roving reporter on the floor. Now, she's well-equipped to handle this job and her face should be recognizable to folk who watch the FoodTV Network. However, her usual perky self seems a bit out of place here. Not that she can't act serious, it's just that in her bright yellow suit and chipper, melodic tones, she seems more at place in a show by Disney than "Iron Chef". Note to producers: let her culinary knowledge show through, let her lead the announcers and don't ask her to be the same host as she was on "Ready, Set, Cook". She has it in her to be a fine floor reporter on her own ... just coordinate things with the announcers so she can do it.
When the ingredient was revealed as...Dungeoness Crab!
...it was as live and kicking as in any episode of the Japanese version. It was not unveiled with a flourish by the Chairman from under a red cloth, but -rather- revealed from a large, plastic, Tylenol-shaped cannister. A fine ingredient, I'll admit, to test any chef's skills. And, yes, the gruesome butchering of the live crabs (with challenger Kerry dismembering his crabs while still alive) was quite genuine.
Now, as for the coordination of the event, well...
I found out that the previous night's taping went badly. Very badly. It was supposed to start at 7 and finish around 10. Instead, the fans got trapped in the studio until 1 am! The time between finishing the dishes and getting them to the tasting panel had apparently been over 45 minutes for just the first dish! By this time, the carefully prepared foods had cooled to room temperature and things just fell apart. (Reportedly, according to a member of the studio staff who worked on the show, one of the two chefs in the competition was absolutely furious about the situation.)
Even when we were there for the second night of taping, it was clear they needed more time to get ready for a live event. Still, on the second night, things got done in a timely manner and the whole thing was over by 10:30. (Kudos to the floor crews for learning from the previous night's mistakes...)
Finally, where the tasting panel is concerned, there needs to be some improvement. In the original show, the panel of four guest judges was always split up between 2 who knew a lot about food and 2 who were just basic celebrities. In this case, we had 4 celebrities.
I was pleasantly surprised to see one of them being Bruce Vilanch. At first, I thought he was the comedic voice on the panel to make things flow more easily with little jokes and commentary. However, while he did indeed unleash the barrage of humor that's made him so famous, he also -very clearly- knew what he was talking about. He knows his food and is clearly able to differentiate between simple creativity and stunning flights of originality in the culinary arts. Still, what I wouldn't have given for a food critic or other food-saavy person on that panel!
When we were in attendance, the Iron Chef American (Todd English) was picked to defend Kitchen Arena and the challenger, a Chicago-area chef named Kerry, did an excellent job facing him. All of the Iron Chefs, to the credit of the show (over the Japanese version) were originally from the country of origin that they represented. Also, gone is the Iron Chef Japanese and Iron Chef Chinese as individual Iron Chefs, and -instead- they're role is blended into the new Iron Chef Asian.
One tradition that the American version kept, was that of the B.D.J. or "Bimbo DuJour". Fans of the original show will tell you that this is the unintentional addition of at least one member of the tasting panel to be vapid to the point where counting brain cells could be done on one hand. "Iron Chef U.S.A." proved no different. They managed to bring in a Playboy Centerfold (which one, I couldn't tell you ... I don't think it matters, really) who's commentary was rarely beyond the Junior High level.
("Oooooh! I didn't know you could cook pancakes like this!" - in reaction to a layered pancake-like gourmet item prepared by Iron Chef English.)
In the end, the show was Ok. It was an Ugly American version of "Iron Chef" and makes us look like uncultured boobs whose only interest in culinary matters is who gets hit first in the Big Pie Fight. (No, there's not *really* a big pie fight in the show, but it almost felt like it wouldn't be out of place).
"Iron Chef U.S.A." needs to allow it's acting talent to actually ad-lib and deliver original lines. It needs to reduce the boisterous and uncouth nature of the audience participation. It needs to drop the overtones to football in the form of the commentators. It needs to get a wider range of people on the tasting panels; not just actors and singers, but people who actually know what they're talking about. And, last, if they are going to continue to film these before a studio audience, try to show the people in the stands what's happening on those monitors and not just rely upon half-heard whispers from the commentators and cast.
So, who won the contest? Well, far be it from me to spoil your fun but if you've read this far, you don't mind knowing in advance that Iron Chef American, Todd English, was the victor. And, I'll add, he deserved it. His dishes were truly inspired and his presentations were fabulous. I couldn't taste the food, mind you, but his creativity was beyond question. He deserved the win and didn't seem to be a shoe-in or "fixed" match (as is so common in certain Las Vegas events).
I hope the show will evolve and change. To be honest, the original show has a seven-year history for the American version to live up to; it probably had its rough spots, too. However, if American audiences are to warm up to this program, I would hope that the producers of "Showdown in Las Vegas" would try airing a carbon copy of the Japanese show here, first, before deciding to second guess what makes it popular and churn out a glitzy, superficial interpretation.
Well, that's all for now...
Many thanks, Iron Geek, for a fine look at this adventure. Let us all hope together that this show can be improved upon and become a proper homage to the original and only true divine food combat television series.