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Feeding Frenzy.

By Adrienne Martini

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  Television used to be a vast sea of nothing-ness in which, every once in a great while, something truly unique would surface, only to later drown in the aforementioned watery depths of network mediocrity. For every M*A*S*H*, there would be six Too Close For Comfort's. And, suddenly, cable was born and TV metamorphosed into a diverse menu of de-lish options. Sure, it started small and still features some really crummy programming developed just to fill all of the new airtime, but some hidden gems that would otherwise have been missed by the big three keep finding their own special niches (and audiences) to fill.

One such has been brought to the country at large by the Food Network. Originally a Japanese phenomenon that later went on to create a cult following in New York City and San Francisco, Iron Chef, a food/sports hybrid, is now burning up the national cable-waves (with some dubbing and sub-titles) at 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The show, as conceived by the honchos at Tokyo's Fuji International in 1993, is a modern-day gladiatorial contest, with food instead of lions. What it has become is modern-day Godzilla-camp with substance—at least when viewed through Western eyes.

Loosely, the show's plot is this: A rich gourmand, Kaga Takeshi (whose amazing outfits must simply be seen to be believed), has assembled a team of "Iron Chefs" who exemplify the best the culinary arts have to offer in four different style of cuisine: French, Japanese, Italian, and Chinese. With every episode, a poor non-Iron Chef is brought into the ring, known as Kitchen Stadium, to compete against one of Takeshi's champions. But before the contest can begin, however, Takeshi unveils—with the requisite smoke and pomp—that battle's theme ingredient, which ranges from the mundane (rice and bamboo shoots) to the extraordinary (live squid or Spanish mackerel). Both chefs then have one hour to complete as many different dishes as they can that best exemplify the theme ingredient.

What follows is like the world's most exciting football match, with a panel of commentators and plenty of sweat. Two announcers give the play by play, with Fukui Kenji providing the narrative and Hattori Yukio giving the color. Of course, there is a man roving the kitchen stadium, the irrepressible Ota Shinichiro, whose high-pitched shouts of "Fukui-san" precede his colorful descriptions and reporting of interchef trash-talk. And there is a panel of judges—ranging from would be rock stars to ditzy actresses to an actual nutritionist/food critic—that give their final opinion of the dishes and decide the winner. Their comments can be bone-cuttingly harsh or mind-bogglingly bizarre—and almost always oddly amusing. Which, in a way, is the perfect description for the show itself.

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