Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
-Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
To some people, Iron Chef was just a TV show. It ran for about a decade in Japan and had a few, less successful spinoffs around the world. Among a sea of reality TV cooking shows, it might not stand out a whole lot.
I’m here to tell you that those people are dead wrong. It might just be the nostalgia goggles talking, but I’d wager to say that Iron Chef was the most significant cultural contribution that the Japanese have ever given the world.
Okay, that might be going a bit far, but I contest that Iron Chef was a fantastic franchise that reflected a fair amount of Japanese culture, and did so in style.
Iron Chef, for the uninitiated, is a competitive cooking show with a fairly simple format: a world-renowned chef challenges an “Iron Chef” — a chef who specializes in one type of cuisine. Over the course of an hour, the two chefs compete in an arena called Kitchen Stadium to make the best dishes all utilizing one, common ingredient. At the end, the two are judged to see whose cuisine reigns supreme.
Given how many cooking shows are around now, it seems strange that Iron Chef ran for nearly a decade. Iron Chef contained a multitude of elements that culminated in a recipe for success.
It probably shouldn’t be any surprise that Iron Chef took off as it did in Japan. Japan is a veritable paradise for food lovers, boasting both unique delicacies not available elsewhere in the world, and skilled chefs who are able to craft wonderful dishes.
You can gauge Japan’s love of the gourmet by its Michelin stars. The Michelin Guide is the undisputed authority on gourmet restaurants, with its coveted three star rating the highest honor in the restaurant world. For a while, Japan boasted the more Michelin Three-Star restaurants than any other country in the world. (Eat it, France!)
You can see Japan’s love of gourmet food in Iron Chef through its ingredients. In spin-offs like Iron Chef: America, chefs use ingredients familiar to the common man: things like hamburger and beer. In Japan’s Iron Chef, the special ingredients include things like foie gras, caviar, and lobster.
(Those ingredients came at a price. One estimate puts the budget for ingredients on the show at around $8,000,000.)
The food wasn’t the only reason behind Iron Chef‘s popularity — there’s no doubt that part of the reason Iron Chef was so popular in Japan and around the world was the drama. The spectacle of Kitchen Stadium with its chandeliers, torches, high ceilings; the aura of the Iron Chefs, the supposed heads of their fields; and the sweeping, orchestral music that underscored it all.
But no element tied the show together more than Kitchen Stadium’s leader, Chairman Kaga. Portrayed by actor Takeshi Kaga, Chairman Kaga was the enigmatic leader of Kitchen Stadium. With his mane of hair, eccentric outfits, and ever-present gloves, Kaga’s look was incredibly distinctive.
Of course, Kaga’s presentation of the secret ingredient was a highlight of the show:
Kaga shared Japan’s love for the gourmet — it’s claimed that he consumed over 2,389,995 calories during the course of the show. (And yet, managed to maintain his figure!)
Unfortunately, it seems that the only way to see Iron Chef outside of Japan is catching it on TV or more questionable means. I haven’t been able to find a reliable to buy DVDs or catch it on a streaming site.
Regardless of its availability, Iron Chef has left its mark on Japan and around the world.