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"Iron Chef" and the Food Network

By Robert David Sullivan

MARCH 13, 2000:  One of my favorite film moments is Stanley Tucci preparing an omelet at the end of his 1996 film Big Night. The scene is one long take, as close as you can get to a live performance at the movies, and when I saw it the audience seemed quietly awestruck. It was like the time I went to a Harold Lloyd movie from the 1920s and somebody introduced the film by reminding the audience that he did all his own stunts, even dangling off the edge of a skyscraper. Tucci and Lloyd both used the technology of film to reach a wide audience, but they completed their most memorable scenes without editing tricks, which are the cinematic equivalent of a safety net (hence the double meaning in the title of the Lloyd film, Safety Last).

Harold Lloyd, of course, is a lot closer to the traditional image of a daredevil. He's associated with an age of glorious recklessness that featured Harry Houdini, Charles Lindbergh, and construction workers eating lunch atop skyscraper skeletons. Some guy stabbing at egg yolks with a fork just doesn't seem to be in the same league. And yet we've got an entire cable-TV network dedicated to the exploits of such culinary masters. Maybe "samurai" is a better term, for the biggest cult hit on the Food Network is Iron Chef (Fridays and Saturdays at 10 p.m.), a Japanese import that marries all the elements of WWF wrestling to the act of boiling rice. Iron Chef has trash-talking competitors, intimidating (but silent) audience members, and stove-side interviews conducted by a mousy guy in a tuxedo. And it has brutally pushed aside reruns of the Two Fat Ladies -- the British motorcycle-riding duo who use bacon strips as the all-purpose culinary equivalent of duct tape -- as the Food Network's hippest program.

I'll concede that a few loyal viewers of Martha Stewart's daily Food Network tutorial may actually try to duplicate her feats, but people can't be watching Iron Chef to get ideas for Sunday dinner. Not even a Super Stop & Shop carries unisex salmon -- which an Iron Chef color commentator described as "a very rare salmon with an immature sexual organ." (Amazing how much of this culinary banter would fit right into an Olympics telecast.) No, the fascination seems to be in the chefs' intense concentration (why didn't they call it Zen Chef?) and their ability to lose themselves in an activity that, for all the modern gadgetry, is as primal as sex. It can't hurt the show's popularity that a lot of us feel guilty about how little we cook -- or use our hands for anything except clicking a mouse and occasionally wiping a kitchen counter free of residue from take-out Chinese. For that matter, I wonder whether the rising popularity of sex manuals comes from a fear that if we can collectively forget how to bake bread, we'll soon forget how to make whoopee.

The stars of Iron Chef, and most Food Network programs, aren't terribly eloquent. True, Iron Chef is dubbed from its original Japanese, but Emeril Lagasse doesn't have that excuse. The irritating thing about the star of Emeril Live! is not that he has pet phrases but that he has so damn few of them -- he "kicks things up a notch" about as often as he draws breath. I just flicked on the Food Network in time to hear somebody on Cooking Live Primetime confide to viewers, "Fire transforms everything that it comes in contact with." This ain't National Public Radio.

But you don't need eloquence to look comfortable on camera, as the contestants on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire prove. The Food Network isn't paying Emeril to beef up his vocabulary; all he needs to do is look as if he knew what he's doing and not panic at a little grease fire. And this is TV at its most primal.

For years I've been arguing that television dramas are as good as motion pictures, but there's no denying that TV's chief appeal is in its unscripted, or at least unedited, programs. Live television will never be as dominant as it was in the early 1950s, but it's significant that so many of the top-ranked programs are live: the Super Bowl and the World Series, presidential debates, awards ceremonies for every conceivable branch of show business, and stunts like the real-time episode of ER a couple of years ago.

In many ways, cable TV is just reliving the early history of regular TV. Aside from movie channels, most of the popular cable networks rely heavily on live programming: sports on ESPN, call-in shows on CNN, storm-tracking on the Weather Channel, and now Emeril Lagasse making a lemon poundcake on the Food Network. Even the content is surprisingly similar to early TV, when the major networks enticed prime-time viewers with wrestling matches, what would now be called music videos (except the camera never moved), and live instructional programs such as I Love To Eat and You Are an Artist.

One cynical view is that people enjoy live television because they hope to see something awful happen, but taped cooking shows like Iron Chef are just as popular, even though there's no prospect of watching someone slice off a finger. (For that we have to watch Dan Aykroyd's blood-soaked impersonation of Julia Child on Saturday Night Live -- and come to think of it, is there anyone in the world who looks more like a samurai chef than Julia Child?) The Food Network may be the nicest manifestation of the trend toward "reality TV"; everyone here performs without a net, but the chefs always come up with something edible. If you want to watch regular people make complete fools of themselves, you're pretty much wasting your time here and might as well go back to C-SPAN or Court TV. The darkest example of "reality TV" may have been Fox's Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire, in which a 34-year-old woman agreed to marry an asshole because she felt too embarrassed to disappoint the home audience. None of the chefs on the Food Network would be so easily intimidated, though I sometimes wonder whether the volunteer tasters from the audience on Emeril Live! and Ready! Set! Cook! are holding back grimaces so they don't spoil the show.

The omelet scene in Big Night resonates as an example of multi-tasking, which seems to be evolving as a primal skill for Americans. Tucci is not only making an omelet but also acting in a film that he's also directing. When I watch the Food Network, I salivate at the calm efficiency of someone like Ming Tsai, the genial host of East Meets West (and owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley). He slices, he dices, and all the while he throws out little observations that you can steal for your next dinner date. ("Sashimi is the Japanese equivalent of steak tartare.")

Iron Chef adds a ticking clock and a dose of competition to the basic cooking-show premise. It takes place in Tokyo's "Kitchen Stadium," and each episode pits a guest chef against one of the regulars (there are Iron Chefs for Japanese, Chinese, French, and Italian cuisines, all of them from Japan). For one hour, they scramble to make a meal using that week's "surprise ingredient" (like that unisex salmon). A guest panel, which seems to be made up of Hollywood Squares-level celebrities, picks the winner -- which is usually the defending Iron Chef.

The Iron Chef for Japanese cuisine is something of an innovator, so he attracts challengers who want to preserve tradition. "The right-wing group has sent in its first hit man, the Hokkaido Bear!" said the program's host, "Fukai," at the top of one show. "He's really going by the old book," Fukai commented as the defender, whose full name was Shuichi Fujii, used an abalone shell to scrape the meat out of his salmon. There was a moment of excitement when Fujii had some trouble using a wooden utensil: "The paddle for the rice broke, but he doesn't miss a beat!" But once again the Iron Chef stole the show, this time by using a hair dryer to prep his salmon for the oven. "The use of the blowdrier has thrown a little more gasoline on the fire between these two camps," Fukai said over a shot of scowling audience members. There's a lot of respect paid to the old ways on this show, but I suspect that viewers, both here and in Japan, are more impressed by the idea that they can use a bathroom appliance to start dinner.

The Food Network has a smily-face counterpart to Iron Chef in Ready! Set! Cook! (weeknights at 6 p.m.). Unlike their Japanese counterparts, the professional chefs who compete on this American show don't bark things like "I can't afford to lose!" They do have to deal with the show's perky host, Sissy Biggers, who keeps asking "What's your plan" or "What are you going to do with that?" One gimmick of the show is that the chefs have to incorporate kitschy ingredients like Cap'n Crunch cereal and licorice whips into their dinner menus. In one episode, the theme was "ingredients that kids hate," and the goal was to make an appetizing meal out of liver, lima beans, Brussels sprouts, and eggplant. ("I'm gonna fry everything," one competitor said to the pesky Biggers.) Even more so than on Iron Chef, the chefs on Ready! Set! Cook! are inspiring in their unflappability and resourcefulness, and they get only a half-hour to cook dinner.

"Don't be afraid" is kind of a mantra on the Food Network, and I've heard more than one host reassure viewers that anyone can make the dish shown on screen -- that each recipe is made up of steps no harder than frying an egg. Iron Chef, with its host describing "the invincible men of culinary skills," is an exception to this democratic spirit. Maybe it's closer to the way some of us feel in the Microwave Age: it is damn impressive to be able to fry an egg.

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