The Cutting Board Is Sacred

Everything I ever needed to know about the Japanese I learned watching Iron Chef

The Japanese do not like us. And by "us," I mean you, the American.

No, they don't like you a bit. They may say they do—you may say they do —but they don't. This is not because your subs sink their fishing boats or because their planes sink your battleship Arizona in your movie about their attack and how it affected Ben Affleck. No, it runs deeper than that—even deeper than the shared dependence on consumer electronics and Cheap Trick you'd like to think inextricably binds your two countries.

I know this because I have seen Iron Chef, the clearest window on Japanese culture today.

If you've never seen it, Iron Chef is a cooking game show in which top chefs, usually Japanese, are pitted against one another to come up with their best, most outrageous dishes in an hour using a theme ingredient. Their dishes are then given to the judges, who ooh and aah and grade them. Then the Chairman—the show's host, dressed like a matador who got lost in Rip Taylor's closet—comes back out and announces the winner.

Iron Chef teaches us that the Japanese are more serious, doing much more with much less—such as the wonder that is salmon head-cartilage tartare—whereas Americans tend to be fat tubs who wouldn't know hard work or subtlety if it bit them on their gooey white asses

This may seem like a lot to take out of a Japanese cooking show in which the big moment comes when the Chairman —dressed in ostrich feathers, Dacron, papier-mâché and zinc—takes a bite out of a bell pepper and declares a winner, but there it is. You take insight where you find it.

I found it one night watching the show when American restaurant critics Tim and Nina Zagat were on the panel of judges. The Zagats seemed always to say the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way. You could see the pained expressions of their Japanese hosts, suffering the Zagats because that's what you do with Americans because, you know, they have all the money.

But Iron Chef's charged atmosphere leaves many of its participants near breakdown by the show's end. Under such circumstances, decorum can give way, and on this show, it did. By the end of the episode, one of the chefs was berating the Zagats, saying he wanted to create a global cuisine so broad that "even the Zagats could appreciate it."

Okay, I thought, they don't like the Zagats; to be honest, I didn't like the Zagats. But then it hit me that the one Iron Chef who worked in America, Mashaharu Morimoto, seemed to always take hits from opponents and judges for not truly cooking—or being—Japanese. His dishes were often dismissed as too flashy, different for the sake of being different. American.


... but the fans seem to like him.

"He seems so bold and careless," a taster said last week, watching Morimoto compete against American chef Bobby Flay. "A bit American."

Later, when Flay played to the crowd at the expense of doing his job, a judge said, "The way he does everything is so American!"

The Flay/Morimoto contest was a rematch enormously hyped by the Food Network, where the show has become something of a hit. The pair had initially met in a contest in New York. At the end of the cooking portion of the Iron Chef episode, playing to a raucous crowd, Flay jumped on his cutting board to give the raise-the-roof sign and generally show off. Morimoto, probably the show's most popular chef, was outraged.

"This man is not a chef," he fumed to a stove-side reporter. "In my country, the cutting board is sacred."

And the air went out of the room. The Americans who came to cheer Morimoto were confused. Why was he doing this? This was a goofy show about cooking. Why was he taking this all so seriously?

And there you have it.

Americans find Iron Chef funny because the participants take it seriously —so seriously that an old chef named Kandagawa Toshiru shaved his head for the competition and broke down weeping when he won. It's hilarious because our only point of reference for something that takes itself that seriously is professional wrestling.

A staffer at the Food Network told me she has Japanese friends who bristle when Americans tell them how funny they find the show. "They'll tell people, 'It's not supposed to be funny. It's very serious,'" she said.

Apparently, work means something to the Japanese. No, apparently, doing your best job means everything. No questions, no excuses. When the master chef brought his protégé to compete on the show and then spent most of the competition punching the kitchen help in the head—and by "punching," I mean he hit them in the head with a closed fist traveling with great speed and landing on its target with a force seemingly greater than the mere mass and speed of a fist—because he didn't like the way they were doing things, the kitchen help never missed a beat. Peel, slice, get punched. Peel, slice, get punched. Part of the job description.

And then there was the restaurateur who brought a young chef to compete against Morimoto because Morimoto was not true to Japanese cuisine (wink, wink: American). The young chef battled Morimoto and split the judges 2-2. When they went to overall scores, they were still tied, and the contest was thrown into a 30-minute overtime cook-off. Again the judges were deadlocked. They went to overall scores again, where Morimoto finally won . . . by a point.

After it was over, they interviewed the restaurateur, the young chef at his side. When they asked him what he thought of his chef's performance, the restaurateur didn't say how proud he was or how well the fellow had performed under pressure or how close he had come to winning. He said, "Next time, I'll bring a chef with more stamina!"

What's more, the young chef stood there next to the guy and took it as if he had it coming. Maybe he did. He lost.

The Iron Chef airs on the Food Network. Fri., 10 p.m.

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