I remember my first exposure to food television vividly. As a kid I would be in the basement flipping through channels to find something, anything to watch before my designated TV time was over and I must succumb to slumber. When I first came across an episode of the original Iron Chef being rerun on Food Network, I was mesmerized. It was my first experience seeing international television and while at first I was entertained by the theatrics and drama—the Chairman as he bit straight into a bell pepper, the colorful outfits of the Iron Chefs representing each country, the over-the-top dubbing of everyone on screen—I soon became enthralled with the dishes, learning about ingredients I hadn’t yet seen and seeing them creatively incorporated into a multi-course meal in just 60 minutes.
As I got older, searching for episodes of the original show became a ritual for me and my friends when we were partying, shouting “Allez cuisine!” through clouds of weed smoke. My dad followed Food Network’s American version like other people follow their favorite sports teams, calling me with updates about the Iron Chefs’ stats. And the show must have struck a chord with people of all ages because it’s been replicated time and time again, with the latest iteration, Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, streaming on Netflix now.
A brief history of the original Iron Chef, 1993-1999
Iron Chef first aired on Japan’s Fuji Television on October 10, 1993. The beginning of each episode (all of which are currently streaming on Peacock, you’re welcome) sets the scene for the show. Inspired by French chef Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Chairman Takeshi Kaga has built Kitchen Stadium, a place where he hoped to “encounter new original cuisines which could be called true artistic creations.”
Chairman Kaga gave the best chefs in four different cuisines—Japanese, Chinese, French, and Italian—the title of Iron Chef, and on each episode one of the Iron Chefs takes on another master chef from around the world in a 60-minute head-to-head culinary battle based around a secret ingredient (according to Japanese food site Pogogi, a total of $8 million was spent on ingredients for the show alone), each time revealed with a dramatic flair that still infiltrates the show today. As many or as few dishes could be created within the hour as the chefs preferred. Though typically chefs would produce four, there have been instances in which contestants turn in just one dish, or as many as eight.
Judges, often other chefs, food critics, or celebrities, assign each dish a point value, and whoever has the most points at the end of the episode wins. There are no monetary prizes, just respect and the satisfaction of competing against (and defeating) one of the best chefs in the world.
If the musical score from the show sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same one used in the movie Backdraft. Technically, Hans Zimmer provides the soundtrack for the original Iron Chef, though according to Wikipedia, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Aaron Copeland, and several musicians who worked on various Star Trek films are among the show’s credited composers.
Secret ingredients ranged from traditional Japanese ingredients like udon and natto to broad universal ingredients like carrots and beef. Over the course of the series, only one American chef won: Ron Siegel, who at the time was working as the executive chef of Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco. Other U.S.-born chefs did compete, however, including Bobby Flay, who made an enemy of Chef Masaharu Morimoto when he stood on Morimoto’s cutting board in the final moments of the 1999 Iron Chef episode based in New York. While Flay aggressively raised the roof (while shouting “raise the roof!”), Morimoto said, “He’s not a chef—after finishing, he stood up on the cutting board, that’s not right…cutting boards and knives are sacred to us.”
The series aired 309 episodes in total and ended on September 24, 1999, the same year that dubbed versions of the episodes started airing in the U.S. on Food Network.
Iron Chef comes to America (in many forms), 2001-2018
In November 2001, the first iteration of an American version of Iron Chef aired as Iron Chef USA, two specials on UPN with chefs Jean-Francois Meteigner, Alessandro Stratta, Roy Yamaguchi, and Todd English, with William Shatner stepping into the Chairman role. A review of the specials from SFGate at the time ran with the damning headline, “‘Iron Chef USA’ an abomination / UPN remake is an insult to food fans.”
Food Network tried its hand at creating a more appetizing version of the cult classic in 2005, titled Iron Chef America. The premise and rewards were exactly the same: chefs battle Iron Chefs one-on-one to create a multi-course meal using the secret ingredient in 60 minutes. This time around Alton Brown and Kevin Brauch hosted, providing on-the-floor commentary, and actor Mark Dacascos stepped in to play the new Chairman, who in the lore of the show was actually the nephew of Chairman Kaga. At the beginning of each episode, a similar intro plays out explaining the history and premise of the show, though in the final moments Dacascos trades the bell pepper for an apple to bite right into.
There were 11 Iron Chefs in total over the course of the series, with Bobby Flay and Masaharu Morimoto among the original Iron Chefs (I wonder if that was awkward). Cat Cora made history as the first female Iron Chef, ranks later joined by Alex Guarnaschelli and Stephanie Izard, both of whom earned their spot in the spinoff competition series The Next Iron Chef. Iron Chefs could then battle each other for supremacy in the spinoff Iron Chef Gauntlet. The final episode of Iron Chef America aired on July 22, 2018.
Does Netflix’s Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend live up to the original?
Despite its flashy name, Netflix’s new iteration of the show mostly goes back to following the original series’ format (and according to Deadline, Iron Chef Mexico and Iron Chef Brazil will be hitting the streaming service soon), only this time the winners are presented with a golden knife—the decadence of the item feels very in step with the set dressing and outfits of the 1990s Japanese Iron Chef. Mark Dacascos returns to Kitchen Stadium as the Chairman with Alton Brown and Kristen Kish providing color commentary. Filling the Iron Chef role are some familiar celebrity chefs: Curtis Stone, Marcus Samuelsson, Gabriela Cámara, Dominique Crenn, and Ming Tsai.
The challenges are certainly amped up a little this time around. In the first episode, Iron Chef Curtis Stone and his challenger need to not only create five dishes with the secret ingredient (lamb) but must also make all the dishes inspired by street food and use fire in not only the cooking of all the dishes but the presentation of at least one. It’s a lot to think about in 60 minutes, which makes things both more exciting and, at times, harder to follow.
The original Iron Chef can never be replicated. The unironic flair and groundbreaking concept were unmatched when it first aired (then re-aired for an American audience). There was truly nothing like it. These days, food TV is saturated with competition cooking, and watching acclaimed cooks go up against the clock with strange ingredients is unfortunately nothing new. As a result, for the uninitiated, Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend might get lost in the shuffle.
But this new, streaming version of the show is worth your time. The added challenges really do keep things compelling, and the combination of Dacascos, Brown, and Kish harkens back to the original show’s dynamic. If nothing else, let this series inspire you to go back and watch the original. You’ll be gleefully screaming “allez cuisine!” before every meal.