OK, so I've withheld judgement of the new Iron Chef:America series until I had a chance to see the first "real" episode featuring Chicago chef and Mexican food expert Rick Bayless versus Bobby Flay.
Here's my evaluation of how this show stacks up against the traditional Japanese Iron Chef, or at least my impressions of both.
First, the good:
1. Stadium - The Kitchen Stadium they've constructed for Iron Chef:America is great. It's at least on a par with the original show.
2. Announcers - While I'm not sold on the roving floor reporter, I find Alton Brown to be one of the most engaging and well educated people on the Food Network. Picking him to announce was genius. Plus, when he doesn't know something, he'll admit it. Rick Bayless used a preparation Alton wasn't familiar with and Brown admitted he didn't know what it was. Later Brown came back with the information which someone else had researched for him without presenting it as his own knowledge. The smartest people know how to say "I don't know, but I'll find out."
3. The Iron Chefs - OK, not everyone likes Bobby Flay and Mario Battali, but they know their stuff. Having Mashuharu Morimoto on links the Japanese show and the American version nicely. Good personalities and differing styles make for interesting television. I'm glad they lost Wolfgang Puck. The guy is important in food circles, but I just don't think he comes off well on improvised television.
4. Disasters - "Dude, you killed this sauce." - Bobby Flay to one of his assistants. Conflicts make for good TV. The floor reporter's "Chef Flay is barking at his staff" made Flay stop a second in momentary exasperation. Good television.
5. Judges. I've been favorably impressed by the judges. Jeffrey Steingarten is the best of the bunch and is not afraid to say insightful things like (paraphrasing), "The problem with tasting a dish for the first time is that you can't compare it to anything else. This may be the best example of this dish in the world, but I just don't care for it." But would it kill them to put a psychic or member of the government on like they do in Japan?
Now the bad:
1. The chairman - OK, we're supposed to buy the fiction that this guy is the original chairman's nephew, but I'm just not feeling it. He's a karate wizard? Is that supposed to feed some stereotype Americans have about the Japanese? The otherwise horrible first try at an American Iron Chef got the chairman right by having the pompous but always entertaining William Shatner play the role.
2. Predetermined battle - It was obvious that Bayless had been picked to battle Bobby Flay from the preshot interviews cut into the program. No! No! No! One of the best moments of the original show was the macho challenge aspect when a challenger entered, was asked who he chose to challenge, and SHOUTED out the name with gusto. That tension is important and it's been lost. And for Pete's sake, why put Bayless against Flay when a battle of two ENTIRELY different styles would have been more interesting? I would have loved to see Morimoto's Japanese fusion or Battali's Italian versus Bayless's traditional Mexican.
3. Bring your own stuff - It's not a fair fight if each competitor can bring their own gadgetry to the mix as Bayless did. Bayless brought at least two food ingredients and a tortilla press - items Flay did not have access to. If there's aged masa and a tortilla press on one side then aged masa and a tortilla press should be on the other side as well.
4. No gross out factor - Let's face it. One of the main reasons Iron Chef was so appealing was the "weird" or "gross-out" factor. Japanese food is very different from Western food. They value different textures more than we do and enjoy flavors we'd find odd at best (of course, I'm sure they feel the same about us). Let's get some of that into the mix or at least kill the main ingredient live. Squiggling tentacles during the octopus battle on the original made it one of the best episodes ever. Of course, I guess with a secret ingredient of bison, that might be a little difficult.
5. Cumulative scoring - by which I mean we don't get to see how each judge voted. Come on! It was always fun to see how Fortune Teller Kuzuko Hosoki scored the dishes much lower than anyone else. Cumulative scores are dull. What is this - touch screen voting in Ohio?
6. The fix was in - Unless this is the video editor's fault, my impression is the fix was in. This being the first battle, it was important that the Iron Chef won. Flay did win by one slim point (saving face for Bayless by such a narrow battle) despite multiple comments about the flavor of Flay's food being off while the televised commentary about Bayless's entrees was almost uniformly positive. The winner had clearly been predetermined. Seeing the scores from each judge would make it clear exactly how it was fixed.
I will continue to watch the show, but I think it has a long way to go before it achieves the goofy weirdness that makes the original Iron Chef such a treat.
Note:I've had this story in the hopper for a couple of days, but coincidentally Adam over at The Amateur Gourmet also posts his review of the show today. He liked it better than I did, though I agree with his comments on Bayless's likeability.