When the cooking-battle series Iron Chef hit the Food Network last year, the Japanese import went from cult phenomenon on late night public-access cable to cult phenomenon on every cable box in the country. In New York, the obsession has spread quicker than this year's flu. "The first time I saw it, my jaw hit the floor," says Razorfish co-founder Craig Kanarick. "I watched it at ten, and then I stayed up till one to watch it again." It's easy to see why: Easily the most surreal cooking show ever created -- and quite possibly the most surreal show of any kind ever created -- Iron Chef is a weekly cook-off that pits four "Iron Chefs" against challengers from restaurants, hotels, and cooking schools. Each one-hour battle, staged in the baroque Kitchen Stadium at the Fuji television studios in Tokyo, revolves around a "theme ingredient" -- anything from abalone to eggplant -- that competing cooks must include in every piece of a four-to-six-course meal. A celebrity panel judges the results. It's The Seven Samurai diced with the Ginsu knife ad, plus a dash of The Running Man.
So who's New York's hometown favorite on Japanese TV? Until the show stopped taping last September, after a seven-year run, Nobu executive chef Masaharu Morimoto was the Japanese-cuisine Iron Chef (the others specialize in French, Italian, and Chinese food). Compared with running a TriBeCa restaurant, says Morimoto, cooking on TV is "10,000 times more stress because Iron Chef is never supposed to lose." Happily, Morimoto won most of his battles -- though Battle Cod Roe, against Yamashita Yuusuke, was a draw, and Battles Egg and Porcini Mushroom were outright defeats.
The show's premise -- a wealthy gourmand (played by Kaga Takeshi, who also portrayed Jean Valjean in the Japanese production of Les Misérables) stages culinary battles to satisfy his jaded palate -- is fictional, but "this is serious battle," says Morimoto, 44. There are no prizes -- only honor is at stake.
The martial motif may attract some viewers, but Kanarick says it's the design freak in him that the show appeals to. "They're designing something beautiful and functional," he says. For others, the appeal is strictly cultural. "I trained with a bunch of Japanese guys at work," recalls Wall Street bond trader Hillel Drazin. "They all love it. Food is really serious business over there." In October, Drazin began e-mailing friends a weekly tip on the upcoming IC episode's theme ingredient. The list quickly became an online free-for-all, with upward of 50 messages a day. Naturally, Drazin isn't the only Iron Chef aficionado online. A San Francisco woman who calls herself "Iron Steph" runs IronChef.com, where every episode is indexed by air date and theme.
For American viewers, the seven-year-old ingredients will remain fresh for a while: Though the program's been canceled in Japan, the Food Network will soon have 300 shows as yet unseen in the U.S. And there may be a dessert course. "I've been leading a subtle campaign to re-create this in the States," says Razorfish's Kanarick, who's had informal discussions with MTV. "We could get Mario Batali, Jean-Georges, and Wolfgang Puck to be our Iron Chefs."