By Emma Silvers
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Although aired in only a few cities stateside, Iron Chef -- a gladiator-style cooking show filmed in Tokyo and rebroadcast here on Fuji TV -- has blossomed into something of a cult phenomenon. Like Trekkers, followers of Iron Chef plot their weekend around the "most revered" time slot; they have favorite characters, favorite battles, favorite uniforms, and favorite musical interludes. They circulate videotapes, trading preferred episodes and dubbing copies for chums living in cities deprived of the wonder that is Iron Chef. They browse Web sites and log onto chat groups. They create art to honor the show's judges and chefs. They create drinking games based on the show's commentators. Slightly unstable fans even assume the style and affectations of particular guests.
If any of this seems odd, you've probably never seen the show.
Who could possibly resist the seductive charms of Kaga Takeshi, the Liberace of Japanese MCs, as he bites into a bell pepper and gazes into the camera with a roguish smirk? Who could remain impassive as dry ice fills the Kitchen Stadium and the Gong of Fate resonates through the crowd? Who would be unmoved as a challenging chef is ripped to shreds by the acidic comments of Kishi Asako, "the East German of Iron Chef judges"? Who could remain apathetic as the mystery ingredient is lowered from the ceiling in a puff of smoke? Who wouldn't desire to see this spectacle live?
"One show this spring will be recorded in the United States," says superfan Manny Yamashiro, "but it will be filmed in New York. If the Bay Area wants live Iron Chef, someone will have to create it."
"Welcome to the Oakland Branch of the Gourmet Academy," says a cheerful young man standing outside a huge live-in warehouse in Oakland. Twenty-eight-year-old "Kaga" Todd Evans and his three roommates have decided to re-create Iron Chef in their home (they have two kitchens), and word has spread across the Web like squid ink. If squid ink could travel by fiber optics.
At 2 p.m. the warehouse is already packed with people discussing the finer points of Iron Chef: disgusting battles (Battle Frog Fish or "Bloody" Battle Rabbit); best chefs (French Iron Chef Sakai Hiroyuki, who is more passionate than the very serious Japanese Iron Chef Nakamura Koumei, but not as goofy as the Chinese Iron Chef Chin Kenichi); adored judges (Kageyama Tenmio, a novelist who recently died in a house fire); and most-often-repeated phrases ("if memory serves"). Children, journalists, food lovers, and TV junkies of every shape and size mingle near the potluck buffet while a "technical crew" scrambles to hook up video monitors throughout the building.
In the challenger's kitchen, 31-year-old vegetarian/Jewish chef Morrisa Sherman is surrounded by friends and family. She reviews her ingredients list -- a wild assortment of fruits, vegetables, and fungi donated by Giovanni's Produce -- while her gregarious, and numerous, assistants check over the cutlery. There are rumblings in the crowd that Sherman's vegetarian status may hamper her chances of victory, but Sherman is optimistic.
"I have experimented for many days," says the jovial chef with a smile. "Today, I am confident. I will do my best to present a good challenge for the Iron Chef. I will uphold the honor of my family name. That is the dao of the chef."
On the other side of the building, "California Iron Chef" Tanith Tyrr turns a stern eye on her fleshy pile of fowl -- squab, ostrich meat, foie gras, a duck with protruding tongue and vacant eyes. Tyrr comes from a multigenerational Iron Chef-watching family (both in Japan and in America) and maintaining the integrity of the show is crucial to her.
"I will be taking some chances today," says Tyrr from under a majestic red satin headband, "preparing food in the true spirit of Iron Chef. I do not know the judges, and it is possible that some of the dishes will be way too Iron Chef for their tastes."
Familiar music coming from the video monitors announces the beginning of the show. All eyes turn toward the screens and Kaga Todd appears biting into a bell pepper. He gives the camera a bawdy leer. A woman in the audience squeals with delight as the live-action Kaga Todd simultaneously invites the challenger to "call to life the Iron Chef." Sherman screams something unintelligible, and Tyrr appears from behind a curtain in a cloud of smoke. It is the first California Confront.
The theme ingredient descends from the ceiling masked in red cloth and dry ice. Kaga Todd peels back the cloth and announces Battle Matzo! Sherman smiles and grabs numerous boxes of matzo before pushing her way through the crowd back to her kitchen. Tyrr's assistants ceremoniously clear a path and aid her in carrying her load.
At the judges' table, Hal Robins performs the role of commentator Fukui Senji, giving blow-by-blow descriptions of the action in each kitchen, although not always accurately. ("The Iron Chef is using Meyer lemons, the citrus made famous by director Russ Meyer.") Video monitors carry the drama back to audience members: Tyrr is boiling quail eggs, and Sherman is slicing asparagus lengthwise. The celebrity judges -- Patrick Duffy (as the deceased novelist Tamio), Stuart Mangrum, Lorelei David, and Michelle Mangrum -- add their commentary, which, in the spirit of the show, can be disheartening at the very least. ("The duck hasn't been cooked yet, and there is little time remaining. Duck sushi would be very interesting!") Moral advantage is discussed. ("Tyrr kills all of her fowl with kindness. How does Sherman kill her vegetables?") The time remaining is a matter of confusion. The challenger's team is looking panicked. The judges are quick to point it out. ("Is that sweat on the challenger's brow?")
A shelf collapses in the Iron Chef's corner. The crowd begins chanting for the challenger. Tyrr shoves a strawberry in the beak of her duck "to mask the birdishness of the dead fowl." Sherman produces a striped sea bass. ("Fish is just a quick-moving vegetable.") A black cat runs through the kitchen. ("Is this a fresh ingredient?")
Finally, just as the crowd begins to be disillusioned with the commentary ("That's fresh wasabi she's grating, not okra!"), and just as the judges begin grumbling about filling their stomachs elsewhere ("Run for the border anyone?"), the countdown begins. With New Year's-style excitement the crowd explodes on "1." Sherman looks harried but the first dish is ready.
While grateful for food, the judges are still critical. The challenger's menu consists of spiced-mango charoset and hummus on matzo crackers ("The matzo is not fully integrated into this dish"), Cajun-spiced matzo balls in vegetarian consomme ("Excuse me for being selfish, but I like more salt in my broth"), vegetable and ricotta scacchi ("This is a dish of plain honesty"), Dutch-oven-steamed stuffed fish ("This is a dish I would serve at my home"), and layered pear ice cream torte ("A sundae on Saturday, how poetic"). Sherman is humble, but hopeful.
The Iron Chef's service is elegant in presentation and complex in nature: matzo-sour cherry "cappuccino" with French-pressed beet foam ("Unexpected harmony, a very Iron Chef moment"), matzo-brei with wasabi aioli ("Very disappointing. The matzo is soggy"), matzo-farfalle popover with seared duck breast ("This is ambrosia, a stunning ensemble of flavors"), and matzo puffed pastry with white truffle marscapone and black truffle matzo ice cream ("Forgive me if I am being selfish, but I do not believe that mushroom is a dessert"). While the Iron Chef is a touch defensive, she remains humble before the judges, and after much deliberation, she is proclaimed winner by a very small margin. The crowd applauds and disperses quickly in search of vittles.
"This is a proud moment," says Tyrr as a few cameras flash in her direction.
"Did you notice any of the judges taking bribes?" asks Howard Sherman, the challenger's white-haired father. There are one or two fur coats on the judges' podium. Anything's possible.
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By Silke Tudor