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The Great Food Fight

Japan's "Iron Chef" may be the most exciting food show ever aired. As its American audience grows, we want to know: Who is the man behind the "Iron"?

October 14, 1998|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He's crazy about "Ben Hur." He loves "Columbo." He looks exactly like Micky Dolenz of the Monkees. He's Toshihiko Matsuo, the creative genius behind the Japanese television cooking spectacle known as "Ryori no Tetsujin" or "Iron Chef."

For its many dedicated viewers--not only in Japan but in the handful of American markets where the show can be seen--"Iron Chef" is simply the most entertaining TV program ever. But in producer Matsuo's mind, it's a virtual fight to the death, in which dueling chefs have just 60 minutes to complete an elaborate gourmet dinner for four judges. As if the time pressure weren't enough, each of the chefs' five courses must showcase a surprise theme ingredient--foie gras, for instance, or cod roe--revealed only at the beginning of the program.

"It's the Peckinpah of the culinary world," says TV cooking celebrity Graham Kerr, referring to the director of "The Wild Bunch," "Straw Dogs" and other bloodstained cinema classics.

The host of the show, played by the well-known Japanese actor Takeshi Kaga, is a nameless eccentric millionaire living in a medieval castle. In his employ are four Iron Chefs, each a master of one cuisine: French, Italian, Chinese or Japanese. At the beginning of each episode he struggles to identify a challenger worthy of his chefs' talents and his own jaded palate. This he often does while contemplating a cream puff in the sallow light of an oil lamp.

At last, pleased with his decision, he devours the pastry in a single, ravenous bite. It's Julia Child meets "Dark Shadows" crossed with "World Wrestling Federation." In fact, the show's play-by-play commentary is handled by Japan's best-known baseball announcer and the color commentary comes from a super fast-talking ringside reporter who used to cover professional wrestling.

While watching Matsuo's show, you can't help but wonder, "Who on earth thought of this?" When my wife and I were invited to witness a taping of the show at Fuji-TV's ultra-futuristic studios on Tokyo Bay, we were on the next plane--not only to see it but for the chance to talk with Matsuo.

A 10-hour flight to Tokyo later, all but wiped out from jet lag, we set out from our hotel to meet Matsuo for an interview that the translator previously told us would take only an hour or so.

Getting to our rendezvous with Matsuo was a mission worthy of a secret agent. We were told to be in front of an ice cream parlor near the Roppongi district of Tokyo at 7 p.m. After retracing our steps several times, we found the designated meeting spot.

A fortyish man with a modified early Beatles haircut stood on the corner: Matsuo himself. He wore a collarless retro linen jacket with a gray and charcoal button-down shirt. With him was a kittenish young woman in a leopard skin leotard who could have been one of the Tilly sisters, or maybe the Cat Woman. She was Hanako Aso, one of the show's assistant producers.

The translator we had engaged over the Internet was nowhere in sight. As I had been warned, Matsuo spoke no English. After we exchanged business cards and spent several minutes trying to communicate in pantomime, Matsuo led us to a bistro a few steps away, improbably named Cricket Cha-Cha.

Fortunately, Hiroko, the translator, had arrived. So had Masaharu Morimoto, the executive chef at Nobu in New York, who had recently been anointed the third Iron Chef of Japanese cuisine. Champagne was poured. Appetizers arrived at the table.

I took out my list of 35 critical questions that any self-respecting "Iron Chef" viewer would want to ask Matsuo. But what I thought would be a quick interview over drinks was about to become an evening spent lingering over a dinner worthy of "Iron Chef."

A small plate of two artfully arranged marinated sardines was the first course. After asking us several times whether we minded smoke, Matsuo lit up a Mild Seven. For the rest of the evening, his fingers were never without a cigarette.

The sardines were fabulous. Four perfect, slightly tart bites. Then the table was cleared and we were presented with the second course: a small swirl of angel hair pasta misted with just a hint of a tomato sauce and topped with a small piece of roasted crab. Again, it was just four bites. Four perfect bites, accompanied by a dry white wine.

Even for a longtime viewer, there is much that is obscure in "Iron Chef." I wanted to know more about the mysterious gourmand host. Matsuo explained that the character is supposed to be fabulously wealthy and a bit crazy, like mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria, who was also famed for having a pseudo-medieval castle. Like Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, he has done everything there is to do; to relieve his ennui, he decided to host cooking competitions, on the suggestion of his faithful culinary advisor (played on the show by Yukio Hattori, head of a well-known cooking school in Japan).

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