Netflix has announced the return of Iron Chef to our streaming screens later this year and, as a superfan of the godfather of blockbuster cooking shows, I’m excited.
The original series, Ryōri no Tetsujin (literally “Ironmen of Cooking”), aired in Japan for nearly 300 episodes across seven seasons between 1993 and 1999. It was one of the first Japanese series to be broadcast globally and became a cult classic notable for its flamboyant dubbing and uniquely absurd premise.
A mysterious and weathly aristocrat named Chairman Kaga (played by well-known Japanese actor Kaga Takeshi) is searching for the next Rosanjin (legendary Japanese gourmet and aesthete, Kitaōji Rosanjin). In his quest he constructs Kitchen Stadium, where challengers pit their culinary skills against one of a team of Kaga’s hand-selected experts in different global cuisines, known as the Iron Chefs.
From the elaborate costumes to the rousing Hans Zimmer orchestral theme music (actually a track lifted from the soundtrack to the 1991 Hollywood film Backdraft), every episode had a sense of occasion. It was Friday Night Football, without the ball.
However ridiculous Iron Chef may have seemed, its influence on cooking programming has been genre-defining. It was perhaps the first instance of competitive cooking on television, rather than instructional and domestic shows. Now competitive cooking is one of the most ubiquitous and successful reality TV formats the world over.
In Japan, sports commentary is an artform and Iron Chef celebrated it with play-by-play caller Fukui Kenji and colour commentator Hattori Yukio narrating the action of Kitchen Stadium (previous viewers will also remember the excited interjections of “Fukui-san!” from kitchen reporter Ota Shinichiro). This facilitated another of Iron Chef’s great strengths: diversity. It was the first program to show chefs proficient in different cuisines on screen at the same time, and the commentary of Fukui and Hattori’s commentary were integral to explaining dishes, ingredients and techniques that most of the audience had never seen before. When legendary French chef Joël Robuchon appeared on the show as a guest judge for a truffle-themed “battle”, he noted, “With one theme ingredient you have a matchup of totally different cuisines – French and Japanese. This is very impressive and interesting. I’ve never seen a program quite like this.”
Neither had most of us. Chefs cooking dishes as entertainment was something completely new. These were dishes we were never meant to recreate. There were no instructions given or asked for. This was cooking purely as sport. Purely as art.
As a teenager watching it, I was spellbound. If Robuchon had never seen television like this before, I’d never seen cooking like this before. And it’s stuck with me ever since.
Decades on, my own show The Cook Up still gives a nod to Iron Chef in its theatrical theme reveals, complete with cloche reveal and camera zoom. Keen-eyed viewers might also notice that whenever I cook a recipe that includes capsicum, I walk on to screen holding the capsicum in my hand. It’s my way of acknowledging what I think is one of the most important pieces of visual storytelling in food TV, and one that played at the start of every episode of Iron Chef: a shot of Chairman Kaga standing in the centre of Kitchen Stadium, surrounded by a legion of white-toqued chefs, before Kaga bites into a yellow capsicum with gusto and a barely-stifled laugh as the camera pulls away.
They could have shot that again without the laugh (no doubt they did), but keeping it was brilliance. That laugh tells you all you need to know about the show, and to me it’s the reason why none of Iron Chef’s many imitators since have ever superseded it.
Some, like Top Chef and MasterChef, made competitive cooking earnest. Others, like Nailed it! and Worst Cooks, lean into the inherent absurdity of their premise. Iron Chef did both. It earnestly delivered brilliant chefs, creativity and incredible food, while acknowledging that the very idea of chefs competing was all a bit ridiculous. Kaga’s little laugh showed that, no matter absurd and over the top it got, Iron Chef was always, always in on the joke.