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The High Drama of Competitive Eating

By Zach Bigalke

Last week in the inaugural edition of this column, we discussed the impact that the wave of Japanese competitors in the mid-to-late 1990s had on the sport of competitive eating. Starting with the arrival of Hirofumi Nakajima in 1997, the nation’s invasion of — and unprecedented success in — the Nathan’s Hot Dog Championships revolutionized eating contests from their county-fair mentality and into a major-league conglomerate.

Even before Nakajima made his first fateful foray into the world of the good old-fashioned American binge-battle, the opposite end of the culinary spectrum was also being changed from its core. With an idea that would turn into the longest-running television show in Japanese TV history, cooking shows on television changed forever.

So this week, in the second part of our look at Japan’s influence on the current landscape in culinary sports, let’s look at the show that started it all in 1993, Fuji TV’s Iron Chef

I was first enlightened one summer evening back in 1999. I had actually ditched the kitchen after two years of dishwasher work to take a less stressful summer job at the marina on the sister resort to where I had grown up in Wyoming. And so it was, one evening late after work after coming home from partying with the college kids in the dorms, that I plopped down red-eyed in front of the family television and flipped through the channels.

Slowly working my way through the numbers, I stopped on Food Network, spellbound by what met my vision. There it was, a combination of sports and cooking and a badly-dubbed Godzilla movie — Iron Chef was staring back at me in all its glory, combining intricate delicacies prepared against a one-hour time limit with a rotating celebrity panel of judges and kitschy commentary.

I can’t remember what it was they were cooking that night, only that I set the remote control down and watched the remaining forty minutes in the program with rapt attention.

And then I watched the next battle that followed. Maybe it was the combination of beer and THC in my system that caused me to stop on this channel in the first place, but by the end of two hours in front of the most novel thing I’d seen in some time I was irrevocably hooked.

Those voices — “Fukui-san!” — played a role in the soundtrack of my life ever since. My neighbor while I was in college can attest that I would struggle to fall asleep many a night as one or another old episode played in the VCR from my four or five taped I’d recorded off the Food Network broadcasts.

And I wasn’t alone. Getting the syndication rights to Iron Chef spawned Food Network’s explosion in the television marketplace. The show bloomed as a cult following found the show much as I had (though, I’m sure, with various levels of chemical assistance above or below my baseline). The series had revolutionized the entire idea of what a cooking show could and should be. This wasn’t your mamma’s Frugal Gourmet or The French Chef, that’s for sure…

It all started on October 10, 1993 when Yutaka Ishinabe, the first Iron Chef French, took on Takeshi Maruyama in a salmon battle in the inaugural episode of the show. Before that point, cooking shows were an intimate affair with the host engaging the audience in an educational dialogue. Ishinabe and Maruyama proved that chefs could engage the audience without even acknowledging them or letting them in on their culinary secrets.

It was a revelation — less instructional video than sporting event, Iron Chef turned the formulaic format of the traditional cooking show on its head. The new series quickly captivated large swaths of the audience that had never previously bothered to give a passing thought to the world of gourmet cuisine.

It came at a perfect moment in Japanese culinary history. A culture long ambivalent toward the wider world of food was expanding its horizons as a nascent foodie movement in Japan started to blossom. Iron Chef was the kerosene that turned the spark of changing cultural trends into a bonfire of wider interest.

It taught people about a greater range of foods both familiar and exotic, all while doing everything but teaching viewers HOW to make that food. The mission of the show was not to educate about home cooking but to showcase chefs in their element. Working in double-time to create never-before-seen dishes, the Iron Chefs and their challengers brought forth new innovations in one hour each week.

It was always more than that. There was the storyline that set up the whole premise, the wealthy landowner chairman Takeshi Kaga deciding to invest back in his stomach and use his chefs to challenge the great chefs. This seeming philanthropist, who may or may not have just been investing in his own stomach, created a dual kitchen unseen in the world before just to provide the environment for it. Of course, it was all fairy-tale bluster, Kaga an actor and the palatial stadium on a set in the Fuji TV studios. But nevertheless it was a fun illusion, part soap opera as they introduced more rivalries to the plot and part sport. Like wrestling in a way it operated in that keyfabe realm of fourth-wall suspension of belief, as fans knew that the peripheral storyline was contrived in many places yet chose to overlook that to see the competition behind that façade.

There was the element of a weekly talk show, as commentators Yukio Hattori — the president of the Hattori Nutrition College in Shibuya that provided the sous-chefs for each competitor — and Kenji Fukui broke down the food being prepared and offered random facts while chatting up a rotating cast of Japanese celebrities. With sideline reporter Shinichiro Ohta relaying information to the booth, Hattori and Fukui would give the play-by-play and some color commentary and converse with actresses and baseball players and general managers and novelists and politicians and other members of the Japanese rich and famous.

There were the chefs themselves, quickly celebrities in their own right after the launch of the show. When the show started, though, the prevailing wisdom among culinary professionals was that the show would be a death knell that would prevent a chef from being seriously regarded again in his profession. How wrong they would prove, as the series exploded in popularity that spurred its run as the longest-running weekly series in Japanese television history.

Yutaka Ishinabe, the original Iron Chef French, would take his brief time on the show (just eight contests before “retiring” due to the stresses of the timed battles and the judging) to open a chain of restaurants on the back of his 15 minutes of fame. The first Iron Chef Japanese, Rokusaburo Michiba, had long been a culinary innovator in Japan with a borderless philosophy on ingredients that ran counter to traditional cuisine in the country. Chen Kenichi, son of the man who introduced and revolutionized Szechuan cooking in Japan, brought his heritage into Kitchen Stadium and soon became a fan favorite with his perpetual smile.

Soon Ishinabe left the show, and in came Hiroyuki Sakai. Sakai, a French-trained chef who was had long worked for Tokyo restaurateur Kihachi Kumagai and had recently opened his own restaurant when the call came, spun his flair and his looks with his impeccable presentations to become a ladies’ favorite. Then Michiba left in 1995 with health issues, and first Nakamura Koumei and then Masaharu Morimoto would come in to replace him as Iron Chef Japanese. Koumei, who long spurned the advances of Michiba and the show’s producers as he feared the loss of his job, eventually relented and joined the crew; after leaving the show, he opened his own chain of restaurants even after never living up to the lofty expectations set by Michiba. Morimoto, who was working at Nobu in New York, came over for filming and spun his popularity in syndication to become an Iron Chef on the American version of the show as well as opening his own American outlets.

But as much celebrity as the show would bring, at its heart it all came down to the fact that what Hattori and Fukui were commenting upon was at its core a very real yet wholly untapped form of sport. Sport indeed it was, as the chefs sweated over preparing food at its freshest and preparing a multi-course meal in one hour from raw product to finished plate. Bumping and weaving through the side-by-side kitchens, each chef were able to see their opponent flailing away right next to him.

(And it was largely men, though women did make appearances from time to time and held their own against the Iron Chef at an equivalent success rate as the men.)

They were very real challengers in every respect. The first to take down an Iron Chef was Cheng Kazuhiko, who managed his way through the presentation of live octopus by Chairman Kaga to create dishes that the panel of judges voted better than that put forth by Iron Chef Chinese Chen Kenichi on November 21, 1993. Two years later Iron Chef French Hiroyuki Sakai would lose another octopus battle, squeamish with the live creatures as Tadamichi Ohta (no relation to the sideline reporter) finally appeared as a challenger and deftly worked his way through the hour to defeat his opponent.

Ohta had already made appearances as the leader of the Ohta Faction, the largest rival group to the Iron Chefs that purported to be the keepers of true Japanese culinary tradition as opposed to the television interlopers. Because of this introduced rivalry we would see the introduction of guys like Toshiro Kandagawa, Ohta’s prize pupil who took three of his five showdowns against the Iron Chefs over the six-year run of the series. He won his first battle in 1994 against Chen, lost to Michiba and Sakai in 1995, and then took down Koumei in 1997 before stepping to the sidelines to consult for Ohta’s future challengers. He then returned in whites to avenge his loss to Sakai in a 2001 special.

There was the cross-cultural battles, as chefs from around the world were brought in to compete. In the first season, Italian chef Paolo Indragoli lost to Chen in the globefish battle before Ishinabe was toppled by French chef Jacques Borie in the only loss of his abbreviated career. With France and Italy leading the way, eleven countries outside Japan would eventually see representatives make their way to Kitchen Stadium. The international dream had been realized…

And then the show would come to a close, as rising production costs would bring Fuji Television to close down the set on September 24, 1999. During the course of the show they would plow through over $7 million worth of ingredients, over a million a year spent for an average of $23,800 per episode. Progressively becoming more and more opulent it eventually became too expensive to sustain. But by then it had already helped do more than its fair share toward revolutionizing food in Japan.

The international dream would be rekindled in syndication. It would soon do the same in the United States and other nations in which it was syndicated, campy dubbing of the voices served to lend the energy to the talk-show portions of the show where overseas audiences were more often than not unfamiliar with the guests and provided another starting point to nab a different vein of fan who otherwise would never have thought of cooking. Ultimately it helped engage even more non-traditional cooking show fans to the budding Food Network and other cooking-specific channels worldwide and allowed those emerging networks to prosper.

Both directly and indirectly, the millions spent on ingredients that ultimately doomed the show as a long-term viable format for Fuji TV have served to educate several generations of eager gourmands on just what it is that a chef can do with ingredients that you cannot. It caused a boom in the concept of chef as celebrity, made the top restaurants in the world achieve temple status unlike ever before. And it helped familiarize viewers with ingredients that they otherwise might never have seen on the daily quick-fix cooking shows that dominated the landscape at the time.

Still syndicated nearly twenty years after its inception, with episodes lingering on YouTube for fans to relive, the phenomenon spawned innumerable imitators as well as helping blossom other culinary competition formats at a more serious and respected level. Just like Nakajima and Kobayashi helped turn competitive eating away from the carnival days of yesteryear into major-league sport, so too did the Iron Chefs make Americans look hard and deep at the cooking competition as something more than the pie-and-jam contests at the county fair…

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