Friday, June 17, 2022

Iron Chef and why Alton Brown clearly doesn't get it

Real Iron Chefs - accept no substitutes

I don't remember the first time I saw the original Iron Chef, but I do remember how it felt.  Yes, there was confusion and amusement in the mix, but mostly I was filled with excitement and curiosity.  I still love the show, and am hopeful every time there's an announcement of a new version.

Of course my hopes are crushed every time.  I suspect the reason is that a large portion of the audience (along with the new shows' producers) are looking for something in the show that is very different from what I want to see.

The Real Thing

Here's the thing; in spite of the bizarre trappings, the costumes, the music, and the occasional hokey "plots", the original program was all about the food.  It focused heavily on the preparation and presentation, it emphasized the chefs' skills and specializations, and would always try to explain the "how", "what", and "why" of the chefs' decisions.

... even Sakai's failures were amazing

It was almost like they weren't even aware of the costumes or absurdity of what they were doing.  They had cooking to do!

The shows had me hooked.  I like learning about different cuisines and it routinely illustrated the differences between historical and regional cooking styles.  

I like learning about different cultures and the show provided all sorts of insights into Japanese culture (such as when the actress made a comment along the lines of, "I usually like crab brains fried, but that looks fantastic").

The show was even downright practical.  As a self-trained cook, I ended up learning some actual, useful cooking techniques while watching. 

Then along came the US food celebrities and good old American corporate marketing.

Morimoto is ok, but the other two ...

All Hat and No Cattle

Starting with Iron Chef America the focus was no longer on the food.  Instead it shifted to the chefs and their egos.  The American producers seemed to care only about the style and not the substance.

There were still plenty of camera shots of food cooking, but they were a lot shorter with lots of cuts.  Put it to some catchy, inspiring music and they'd be a perfect cooking montage for a romantic comedy set in a professional kitchen.  There was still "what" but much less "how" and "why".  We got lots of quick flashes of something flaming in a pan, some frantic chopping, stuff in a blender, and then - BAM! - there's a final dish.

I rarely, if ever, could learn anything from the chefs because I could never actually see what they were doing.

And the quality of the "Iron Chefs"?  Well ... Morimoto aside (because he's from the old show), I think it's safe to say they've been less than stellar.  Yes, Flay has a chain of restaurants, but they seem to all be hamburger joints.  Batali was forced to sell his interests in his restaurants because of his bad behavior.  Cat Cora has built a resume of unimpressive, failed restaurants.  Michael Symon's places are mostly bars that sell hamburgers.

Others on the show have had more successes and better fit the title of "Iron Chef", but compared to the chefs in the original show it starts to look like they're much more interested in stardom and business opportunities than actually cooking.

Side note:  I'd have watched "Beat Bobby Flay" with a lot more interest if it had involved baseball bats.

The Return?

Once again Iron Chef has risen anew from the cooking fires, and this time I'm feeling mostly trepidation with just a hint of hope.

There's good reason for the trepidation.  When asked about differences between the new show and the previous version, Alton Brown noted, "The second one is that because it’s streaming, people can binge the whole thing and that allows us story arcs that are longer than just one episode."

Story arcs?  [*insert sound of a forehead being slapped*] It's supposed to be a frickin' cooking show, Alton!  Any "story arcs" are supposed to be a garnish, not the main course!

I can only assume Alton sees the show as flashy entertainment - rather odd considering how he's positioned himself as doing educational food programming in the past.

Taking one for the team

The only episode of Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend that I've watched so far is Episode 4: "Battle Medieval."  I skipped ahead because of my interest in the cuisines of medieval Europe.  My opinion is ... mixed.

Let's get the most painful part out of the way first.  Whoever decided that they should have a "medieval" theme needs to be moved to a job where they're not allowed to make decisions.  It was painfully clear that none of the chefs have any amount of knowledge about medieval cuisine ... or even medieval history.

To make it simple, almost every single sentence uttered on the show that included the word "medieval" was completely and depressingly wrong. 

Yes, I could write thousands of words of explanation on why each sentence deviated from well documented reality, but there's no point.  The people who need to read those words have no interest in doing so.  All the information is already out there and a lot of it is in a form that is incredibly easy to access and understand.  You can lead a horse to water ...

There were no utensils in medieval times, hence there are
no utensils AT Medieval Times. Would you like a
refill on that Pepsi?
(this was hysterical to me until I realized people actually believe it)

There were other things about the episode that bugged me.  For example, there's still too much of the "music video" editing style, and they really need to either get rid of the "Chairman's nephew" or tell him to dial it back.  The constant mugging for the camera reminds me of some of my classmates back in 5th grade, and it was only entertaining back then because school was boring.

On the Up-Side

The cooks actually seem to know what they're doing, especially Dominique Crenn and Curtis Stone.  Kristen Kish presented herself well, but given her background she spent way too much of the show being upstaged by Alton.  He could improve his reputation significantly by admitting when he doesn't know something and letting her provide the answer rather than just making something up.

Medieval history horrors aside, I'm willing to watch at least one more episode.  The food was interesting and I didn't hate the chefs.