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TV Preview

'Iron Chef America,' as Saucy as Its Predecessor

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2005; Page C08

When U.S. television big shots adapt a popular show from abroad into one that is all-out American, things can get lost in the translation. Luckily, though, the changes ordered up for Food Network's "Iron Chef America" maintain enough of the original flavor.

The weekly series, premiering on the cable network tomorrow night at 9, is based on Japan's epic and campy "Iron Chef" cooking challenges of yore as well as its more recent TV specials.

It's not at all unsportsmanlike to recap "Iron Chef America's" ancestry in order to note what's different here. In the Japanese original, an actor (Takeshi Kaga) reigned over each head-to-head challenge, playing the part of an unleashed chairman/lord with Michael Jackson's sense of style. Kaga pitted his own squad of cuisine-specific, deadpan Iron Chefs against the best in the world. The heat of battle took place most often in a 9,100-square-foot studio -- the elaborately outfitted, duel-purpose, Gourmet Academy-crested Kitchen Stadium. There were oddly cast tasting judges and partisan onlookers and small armies of assistants in toques, and, always, a secret ingredient, revealed in a flourish. The effect was three-ring, all the way.

The new "ICA" format is less momentous battle of stature, more cooking camaraderie. The low-key martial artist (actor Mark Dacascos) and Food Network's own "Good Eats" host, Alton Brown, serve as chairman-host and ongoing commentator. Brown's chops as amiable food wiseguy make him a natural for this job. What he doesn't know off the top of his head he finds online as the show's going on. New York celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Masaharu Morimoto (aka Iron Chef Japanese III) are the "legends of strength and taste" who will face a legion of challengers. But it appears that no maniacal force has put them up to it.

This Gourmet Academy action is packed into a 375-square-foot studio in New York's Chelsea Market -- the same space Emeril Lagasse uses for his show. "ICA" kitchen equipment is more high-end home appliance than strictly professional, which sometimes causes gas-powered pains among the chefs. "Dude, you killed this," Flay says to an assistant tending a stovetop mango chutney in the first episode vs. Mexican cuisine pro Rick Bayless of Chicago. (Washington's own Roberto Donna of Galileo, Laboratorio del Galileo and Osteria del Galileo is scheduled to compete against Morimoto in early March.)

Viewers get to hear Flay say this because he's miked. It's clear that the chefs can all catch the comments of Brown and floor reporter Kevin Brauch (cable TV's "Thirsty Traveler"); at one point, Brauch mangles the name of a chili pepper so badly that Bayless corrects him, and Brown mistakenly refers to tortilla dough as cheese.

Still, there's enough "simultaneous saucing" (Brown's observation), and sufficient attention is paid to the battle's secret ingredient, buffalo meat. And there's an entire other level of deliciousness in the three judges' verdicts. Different personalities will move on and off the panel, but Vogue food writer-author Jeffrey Steingarten fills the chair from which the most shots may be fired: "The buffalo's overdone," he says flatly of Flay's Grilled Cowboy Breakfast, and he screws up his face at Bayless's honey and fava bean-crusted buffalo.

By the end of the first episode, the hustling Flay maneuvers his menu beyond his usual Southwestern range. The slabs of meat and ribs that Brown declares "not endangered!" have been turned into curry-glazed buffalo steak with yogurt sauce and the second-attempt mango chutney, among other dishes that all look good enough to eat, assuming you're not vegetarian. The calmer Bayless sticks to his Mexican roots, presenting dishes that include deep-fried, vertically sliced, skin-on plantains to go with his carne tartara -- again, all appealing and incredibly arranged.

The judges' scores are tallied and the battle's decided by a single point. Someone in America always wins.

Iron Chef America (60 minutes) airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Food Network. A repeat of an "Iron Chef America" preview special will precede the show at 8.


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