“Allez cuisine!” With an emphatic karate chop, the room explodes into action. Spitting grease, flashing knives and flying hands whip up a whirring cacophony — vegetables and meats give way beneath quivering fingers. Welcome to Commons-cum-Kitchen Stadium; this is Iron Chef Yale. This past week, in round one of the competition, budding chefs cobbled together recipes to be reviewed by dining hall staff.
Using the secret ingredient, a local seasonal vegetable, contestants aimed to prove their culinary mettle in order to advance to the big stage — for college, for pride and for the love of cooking. French gastronome Brillat-Savarin had the right idea when he mused, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” In the world of an Iron Chef, you are what you cook.
“Iron Chef” was born on Oct. 10, 1993 on Japan’s Fuji Network. The epic saga of Chairman Kaga’s castle-kitchen-stadium and the gladiatorial combat of his “Gourmet Academy” graduates matched renowned chefs in extreme culinary battles. Though the show’s dramatic plot may have been lost in translation (along with the meaning of Chairman Kaga’s flamboyant gymnastics), the culinary intrepidity sought by “the Chairman” was consistent across cultures. From a $40,000 swallow’s nest to cod roe ice cream, episodes explored the untouched corners of cuisine.
On Sept. 24, 1999, after more than 300 epic battles, “Iron Chef Japan” retired. Dubbed reruns of the Japanese show, however, garnered such success — feeding the country’s kung fu fetish and foodie fever — that a star-studded, spotlit American incarnation debuted in 2005.
“Iron Chef America” appealed to the burgeoning interest of the Food Network era: Who are these people, salting our spaghetti with their sweat, screaming over hissing skillets and clanging oven doors?
Since 1963, Julia Childs has cooed away on PBS, her voice the soft soundtrack of my childhood afternoons when my mom ironed and I played Barbies on the living room floor. But Childs had nothing of the blue-collar charisma of Emeril, the eccentricity of Mario Batali, or the sex-appeal of Giada DeLaurentis. Or, rather, her charisma lacked the color-enhanced and digitally-remastered TV vehicle that seduces today’s Food Network viewers. Her persona was distant and dreamy, like the ephemeral flavors that fill her memoir, “My Life in France.” In contrast, Anthony Bourdain’s brutal memoir of a career in cooking, “Kitchen Confidential,” embodies the stark realism that fuels America’s interest in food’s hidden faces. His descriptions of the dark underbelly of restaurants — copulation, conspiracy and cocaine — seem made for TV.
Today’s “Iron Chef” is a smorgasbord of celebrity. The “champions” await a challenge from each decorated contender like dolls in spotlit cellophane. Their food is perfomative — 20 of the 30 points are awarded for presentation and originality — and the chefs themselves are powdered and primped like news anchors. Batali glides in bright orange crocks, jovially stirring and spicing, as his competitor, drenched in sweat, hands shaking, hollers at his sous chefs. In short, it’s about cookin’ good and lookin’ good.
The rules are simple: Contestants arrive with their sous-vide apparatuses, gelato-makers and smokers but don’t know their secret ingredient until the sprightly Chairman commands, “ALLEZ, CUISINE!” The screen hiding the ingredient lifts, and contestants, grimacing with dismay for the cameras, begin grabbing. Sous chefs scurry amid the chaos as a field reporter volleys information to geeky host Alton Brown. Chefs present a maximum of five dishes to the judges — a temperamental panel of food critics, magazine editors and professed foodies.
According to Michael Auslin, former DUS of East Asia Studies at Yale and judge on “Iron Chef: Battle Sablefish,” the judges’ often venomous commentary aptly assesses some of the concoctions that they were forced to taste — roe in sake with truffles, anyone?
Game day: Nov. 6. Foodies will emerge from those residential college dining halls where they fan picturesque slices of cucumber across their plates, concoct imaginative sandwiches and salivate over undiscovered New Haven restaurants, to showcase their culinary skills in Commons. Will we discover the next Mario, Emeril, or Giada? Or will we watch Dean Salovey’s moustache quiver mid-maceration with disgust? Stay tuned to find out.