The Joy Of Cooking

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Cooking as a giving, communal activity exists only in Olive Garden commercials and the segments of Martha Stewart Living in which Martha is off-camera. In actuality it has morphed into a brutal sport, with celebrity chefs jockeying for high Zagat ratings, cookware deals and TV contracts. Add to that the Japanese shame of losing face, and you've got a game show that makes Survivor seem like Hollywood Squares.

On Iron Chef, the Japanese TV show that has become a hit for the Food Network, a challenger is sent into a Thunderdome-esque "kitchen stadium," where he or she competes against one of four Iron Chefs (who specialize in Japanese, French, Chinese and Italian cooking--although they all basically cook Japanese food). The two contestants are given an hour to prepare a meal in which each course must focus on a single ingredient that they don't know ahead of time. A panel of judges gorge themselves while delivering criticism to the chefs' faces, and then determine a winner. The camp elements--histrionic introductions, bad dubbing, overexcited play-by-play announcers, B-level celebrity judges, the Mentos- like opening in which the host bites into a yellow pepper and laughs evilly--only serve as an excuse for the real draw: watching a cocky chef get his comeuppance at the hands of an Iron Chef, who rarely loses.

So it was only a little shocking that a good-size portion of the audience at a recent New York City taping of the show was rooting against Manhattan chef Bobby Flay, a man who makes Bill Gates seem humble. Flay, who has his own series on the Food Network, was chosen to represent the U.S. in a special episode that will air June 25 at 10 p.m. E.T., and that marks the Japanese show's trip to America. Things didn't go well for the owner of the Southwestern-influenced Mesa Grill. "You ever see pro wrestling?" he said after the match, accusing the show of being rigged. "It felt like a Don King production." Flay says he was given inferior cooking space and equipment. "I cut my finger five minutes in. I got electrocuted four times, and they didn't stop the show. Eventually they brought me a rubber mat so I could stand safely." Flay is a big whiner.

But he did have to fight the crowd. The "Beat Bobby Flay" chant was, at one point, led by eight-year-old Tommy Mothershead, who had traveled from Arizona to see his hero, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, do battle. Mothershead was dressed in a homemade facsimile of Morimoto's silver robe and hat that looked either more or less ridiculous on him, depending on how long you thought about it.

Others in the crowd had got tickets beforehand and had flown in from as far away as California, while those who lined up outside the studio had only a 1 in 50 shot of scoring a seat at the taping. If they did indeed come for the camp, the show outdid itself, though the producers' efforts were sometimes a bit forced. The contest was held at the dance club Webster Hall, and the theme ingredient, Dungeness crab, was lowered from a disco ball. "Do they get the joke, or do they think it's serious?" asked Flay afterward. They hired Australian former talk show host Gordon Elliott as emcee. They get it, Bobby.

The network went a little overboard in its excitement, taping a one-hour special (also to air on June 25, at 9 p.m. E.T.) about Iron Chef's trip to the U.S., which includes a very weird visit to the home of Nina and Tim Zagat, the restaurant-guide magnates, who served as tasting judges on the Flay show (joined by Donna Hanover and a randomly selected audience member). The pregame show also features Iron Chef's interview with TIME, in which Morimoto, who cooks at Manhattan's Nobu, kept talking about how unfair it would be if the theme ingredient turned out to be guacamole or salsa. "Not that I can't do it," he insisted without any irony. "If he says Mexican, I feel confident I could create something interesting." Maybe Flay is right about their not getting it.

But the competition itself was very real. The battle ended with the kind of anger usually reserved for NHL playoff games. "He is not a chef," Morimoto declared after seeing Flay, upon completing his meal, jump on a table, point his palms toward the sky and yell, "Raise the roof, yo!" to the audience. Morimoto walked away disgusted. "He stood upon the cutting board. Cutting boards and knives are sacred to us," Morimoto said. Imagine what the Japanese would make of screaming Cajun chef Emeril Lagasse.