''Iron Chef'' comes stateside--The Food Network's spectacular Japanese cook-off rides a tsunami of culty cool to New York

As if the atmosphere at Manhattan’s Webster Hall weren’t charged enough, Food Network star chef Bobby Flay suddenly, violently recoils from a stove-top saucepan, shouting ”I’m getting electrocuted over here!” It appears the kitchen sink he’s been using has sprung a leak, and as water pools on the floor among a tangle of camera wires, a hush falls over the audience at the nightclub-turned-TV studio.

Eventually, with the frenzied assistance of a plumber and cleanup crew, Flay is able to get back to work, his simmering gourmet creations intact. Unfortunately, the snafu has caused him to lose time and — something even more precious under these circumstances — face. For Flay is the New York restaurateur who’s been chosen to represent America in a special Stateside production of Japan’s top-rated TV show, Iron Chef. And, as with all things Iron Chef, the stakes are seriocomically high.

The key to Chef‘s allure is its you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it indefinability. But here goes: An imperious fop named Chairman Kaga, constructs a state-of-the-art Kitchen Stadium, stocked with every available foodstuff known to man, wherein he amuses himself with weekly beat-the-clock competitions among the world’s greatest cooks. This fictitious character recruits Japan’s actual culinary superstars — masters of the world’s major cuisines (Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese) — as a home team of sorts. It is against these ”Iron Chefs” that international challengers vie (by concocting, as creatively as possible, a multicourse dinner based around a single top secret ingredient) for supremacy, renown, and honor. Lots of honor.

”The premise is ridiculous — an eccentric billionaire hiring a stable of chefs to battle in the world of high-end cuisine — but it takes this really far-out concept and completely commits to it,” says Food Network producer Matthew Stillman, who, after spotting the show on a lowly international cable-access channel, brought it to his net’s attention (Chef began airing last July). ”It’s hyper-stylized and elegant and overwrought in a way that seems fitting somehow.”

In fact, it’s Chef‘s extravagant trappings and genre-stomping pastiche that have turned it into a campy hoot. Bedecked in red drapery and stainless steel, the Kitchen Stadium seems more appropriate for a high mass than a cook-off. Pomp and circumstance attend the picking of an Iron Chef by that week’s challenger, not to mention the presentation of the secret ingredient (anything from plain white rice to ostrich eggs), which rises on a platform amid dry ice and rhapsodic music. The subsequent hour-long showdown is relayed by a breathless play-by-play trio who adopt the rhythms and intensity of sportscasters. Each week’s motley panel of judges (featuring actors, artists, a parliamentary representative, a fortune-teller, and, invariably, a giggly ingenue) recalls the B-list fromage of bygone American game shows like To Tell the Truth. Garnish it all with Godzilla-worthy dubbed dialogue and — Voila! — a Stateside cult phenom is born. Chef has given Food Network (which has licensed 52 of the nearly 300 Chef episodes thus far, with plans for 26 more by year-end) its first non-Emeril Lagasse-related hit, a younger, more male demographic, and a much-needed injection of cool. Chef currently ranks third with a bullet among the net’s series (behind Emeril and Good Eats), and has inspired the de rigueur gaggle of minutiae-filled fan websites and college viewing parties, complete with an Iron Chef drinking game.

Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters
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