BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 10, 2006
To understand the phenomenal popularity of the Food Nework's "Iron Chef," you have to understand the phenomenal popularity of "sous vide." Sous vide, which is French for "under vacuum" or "in a vacuum," is a culinary technique in which food is cooked in hermetically sealed clear-plastic bags at very low temperatures that allow a chef to keep his eye on precise details of the cooking process. Premiering almost exactly one year ago, "Iron Chef America" pits two world-class chefs against each other in the "Kitchen Stadium." They have one hour to make several dishes with the "secret ingredient" of the day: tilapia, tuna, chicken, yogurt, etc. Three judges sample the results at the end of the competition and then declare the winner.
You want the connection between sous vide and the show now? What do you think this column is, the journalistic equivalent of McDonald's? Please be patient.
Patience, of course, is exactly what most cooking shows these days are not about. Whether it's Mario Batali or Bobby Flay slugging it out with a challenger on "Iron Chef America" or Rachael Ray's lessons in 30-minute trailer-park delights, the idea behind most food-preparation series these days is to create the culinary equivalent of a car chase or gunfight. Yet in the case of Rachael Ray, a proud, happy amateur who engagingly drops and spills things, laughing at herself all the while, the purpose of the show is as much to instruct as to entertain. "Iron Chef" wants merely to keep you on the edge of your seat, in the style of any of the competitive reality shows.
It's hardly surprising that the trend of turning every mundane activity into a do-or-die struggle to win has now surfaced in the kitchen. Soon they'll have people on a row of toilets straining for the evacuation to end all evacuations. As the money culture grows, as competition becomes more widespread and intense, the catharsis of seeing competition ritualized and formalized to the point of absurdity seems to be proliferating.
Still, you would think that the kitchen is the last place on earth where the spectacle of competition would flourish.
After all, if home is the center of existence, the kitchen is the heart of home. The hearth was in the kitchen. Food, the basic stuff of life, comes from the kitchen. The kitchen used to be where women, the creators and possessors of life and of all the secrets of sustaining life, used to gather--in most cultures, it still is. In Soviet Russia, revolution, counter-revolution, endurance, and dissent all were hatched in the kitchen. All the warmth of the world is, in principle, in that room.
The difference, though, between "Iron Chef" and other cooking shows on television now, as well as the difference between those shows and similar programs on television years ago, is that earlier series like Julia Child's and "The Galloping Gourmet" really sought to teach viewers how to cook. You entered into almost an intimate relationship with these people, as they chopped, diced, heated, and stirred, talking, digressing, explaining, opining, telling stories the whole time. You can certainly still bond with Rachael Ray, or with Emeril, or the two fat ladies, when they were on (I used to love them), though the self-conscious camera and the emphasis on keeping the audience entertained puts these figures at a further remove from you than previous cooking hosts. With "Iron Chef," though, no one gains any kind of insight into the culinary arts.
For all its corny, quasi-parodic opening theatrics, the Japanese "Iron Chef" slowed down when it came to the contest itself. Fewer sous-chefs helped the famous adversaries out, and the commentators seemed more interested in the chefs' specific operations. In "Iron Chef America," the camera whizzes from one scene to another, the different sequences separated by the sound of two knives clashing together. The show, in fact, is modeled on a sporting event--you get minute-by-minute commentating patter, and even instant replays.
There are a few reasons why sous vide has lately become so popular: In some ways, it's a high-falutin' version of the clear plastic pouches you get with TV dinners--remember when a TV dinner was something you ate while watching TV and not something you watched being made on TV?; the cool French words make you feel tr?s special when you pronounce them; the idea of food being vacuum-sealed is appealing in this germ-conscious age.
But perhaps the strongest reason for sous vide's allure is that it's a perfect reflection of a particular state of mind. On "Iron Chef America," the most ordinary and necessary of tasks, one which is often mere drudgery after a tiring day at work, has been made the subject of American apotheosis. Cooking has become the apple of the media's eye. Which means that anyone who performs this most quotidian of functions--i.e., just about every adult--is a potential cynosure of electronic attention. A potential star. And not only that, but food no longer has its dark side; on "Iron Chef America," food is not a few hours of digestion away from waste, or a few hours of oxygen away from disintegration and stench. No, on this show, food itself is unperishable and immortal. As Brillat-Savarin famously said, you are what you eat. On "Iron Chef," the viewer is, for one hour, vacuum-sealed against the ravages of time, ordinariness, and the outside world. The show is an iPod for the stomach, and a sous vide for the soul.
Lee Siegel is a senior editor at The New Republic.
By Lee Siegel