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Wokin’ and Rollin’ with ‘Iron Chef’

“Iron Chef” ran on Fuji Television between 1993 and 1999
With the coronavirus forcing more people to prepare meals from home than ever before, here is a look back at the production of Japan’s ultimate combat cooking program for the U.S. market. Note: This article first appeared in 2004.

TOKYO (TR) – “The day of dread” is how Bill Bickard describes his average Thursday during the recording season.

“I keep my mind fresh the one day before I have to get down to it,” says Bickard, the English voice of announcer Kenji Fukui on Food Network’s “Iron Chef” program, a repackaged version of the now defunct “Ryoyi no Tetsujin” for the U.S. market.

The day he gets “down to it” is not the day of recording — that takes place on Saturday in a Tokyo studio. He is referring to Friday, the day of preparation in his apartment. This day will consist of roughly eight hours of editing a script of one of the original episodes of the popular Japanese combat cooking show. “If I have food in the house, I might not even leave,” he explains of his focus on that day.

Though Bickard is developing amusing phrases like “Flamola!” and “Bang a gong, we are on!” — some of the show’s trademarks — this is indeed work. With a VCR, red pen and script of dialogue, he matches the pictures of the culinary action on the screen with these irreverent, over-the-top sportscaster-like phrases, a recipe that has been a major reason for the show’s cult status amongst both finicky gourmets and amateur bbq cooks.

Matching the action on the screen

The show centers around Chairman Kaga and his courageous team of Iron Chefs — “the invincible men of culinary skills,” who have been culled from around Japan to compete against world-class challengers in Kaga’s own Kitchen Stadium. Amid torches and a building drama, each episode begins with the colorful Kaga, an eccentric, flowing-haired gourmand, introducing an opponent for one of his Iron Chefs, each of whom possesses a cuisine specialty, and a theme ingredient that will be used in a “battle” to prepare a series of dishes. To determine a winner, tasting of the dishes by a panel of judges takes place when the battle, as Bickard says, “is OHVAH!”

The actual cooking battle is the show at its most intense, and is played out like a sporting event. The back-and-forth banter between Fukui, color man Yukio Hattori (or “Doc”), field reporter Shinichiro Ota, and various guest commentators, who have ranged from politicians to baseball players to actresses, keeps the show flowing. Cameras poking into mixing bowls like close plays at home plate, the sight of a chef’s sweat-soaked forehead, and reporting from the kitchen floor on cooking strategy that mimic football sideline injury reports further impart that sports feel.

Bill Bickard

The key to Bickard’s job is matching the action on the screen with the dialogue. He is not translating from the original Japanese; that is the work of his boss. Instead, he spices up the translations, with alliterations and slang being an integral part. Sometimes the results have no resemblance to the original. As an example, when the original script has Fukui stating, “A blender full of garlic,” Bill instead whips this up to “Hope he’s got some mints for the tasters!”

“When I am in the studio, I want to make it so I can do this thing as smooth as possible,” he explains of his thinking during preparation. “If I read what is there (in the original script) it just wouldn’t come out smooth or would be too choppy. Plus I want to put it in my words; I want to do it in my style.”

To get a feel for his style, Bickard reads from an original, unedited script in which Iron Chef Kenichi Chen is working with pineapples:

All right! Kitchen Stadium welcomes the first challenger representing Thai food, aiming to take down Iron Chef Chen. Chinese cooking vs. Thai food which branched off of Chinese food. The battle of pineapples will determine whether Thai food has developed beyond Chinese cooking or not. This is going to be a great one.

Bickard shakes his head upon finishing. Then, with his thin frame moving to the edge of his seat, and right fist in the air (left clutched around the bundle of pages), he reads his red pen rewrite:

All right! Kitchen Stadium welcoming the first challenger who specializes in Thai food. It’ll be Iron Chef Chen’s spicy Szechwan fare against challenger Morikawa’s heat-seeking Thai dishes, dukin’ it out with pineapples, the theme…we are set. Let’s get it on!

Spicy dialogue is one thing; filling time is another. For the same show, the schedule demands that the following bit be eight seconds:

Today, we should be expecting a lot different spices. Doc, are you ready?

“Well, that’s three or four [seconds],” Bickard surmises. “If I don’t prepare something beforehand I’m just going to be hemming and hawing in the studio.” The following is his solution:

And Chen already slicing up pineapples there…while on the other side, the 39-year old Morikawa…looks like garlic. And Doc, ready for the spices?

“I give it that sports drip,” Bickard says of his improvisation. “I have important things to say; I’d rather add some background information with a sports-rap style.” This approach is taken for a reason: Fukui himself is a professional sports announcer. In the original Japanese, Fukui routinely adds phrases about baseball to the mix.

“Cutting board cam”

Keeping it fresh is always a concern, and with wordiness being a common aspect of the Japanese language, it is not simple. Bickard continually reminds himself to not get stuck in a rut with the phrasing and puns. The call “not much talk but a lot a wok” was used just once, and “finding favor with flavor” finds itself on the air occasionally. Such old standbys as “double-barrel chopping action” and the show’s signature “Whose cuisine reigns supreme?” are fixtures. “Cutting board cam” is a recent addition to the lexicon.

Since the original Japanese show has been discontinued — it ran between 1993 and 1999 — the English dubbing currently taking place is of back episodes specifically for use by Food Network. The dubbing of one episode takes roughly six hours. During the battle sequence, the voices for the four or five main characters can work through a script within an hour. The various other components of the show, like the opening segments, display of dishes, comments of the tasters, recap, and interview sessions with the chefs, are all recorded individually with the appropriate voice. Added later are some sound treatments, occasional echo effects on the voices, and other post-production work.

Bill Bickard (second from left) in the studio

This recipe has proved to be quite popular. Three years ago, UPN used William Shatner to portray Kaga for “Iron Chef USA,” a program which lasted only two episodes. Food Network as well debuted “Iron Chef America” earlier this year with Alton Brown taking announcer and color duties.

Total camp just won’t work

It is hard to ignore that a lot of the show’s great success – as evidenced by multiple fan web sites and marathon showings on Food Network — goes beyond cooking; a main ingredient certainly is the cheese factor. The irony inherent within elevating top-notch chefs to that of warriors as the ostentatious Kaga, meanwhile, sinks his teeth into a bell pepper can easily be seen as parody. Bickard acknowledges this, however, only to a point. “Camp can’t carry this show,” he says.

Bickard argues that if one is going to appeal to a mass audience, especially on Food Network, total camp just won’t work. “The whole cheesey thing,” he maintains, does not overshadow the fact that these are some world-class chefs going at it here — this is some dead-serious stuff. They are fighting out there, putting their reputations and abilities on the line. There is no prize money. There are no awards. It is all about personal pride.”

And for Bickard, too. He admits that while his output can be simultaneously witty and “a little lame,” there is an element of satisfaction for him in that the show is on American television. “As the ZZ Top song says, ‘I’m bad, I’m nationwide,'” he jokes.

A “simple guy in the kitchen” whose beef and cheese burrito wrapped in a steamed tortilla is his signature dish, Bickard got his start in college radio doing sports announcing. During his 20 years behind the microphone, some of his work has included hosting call-in talk shows, providing his voice for video games, and doing the public address announcing at Tokyo Dome for various foreign sporting events. His work with “Iron Chef” began in 1999 when he successfully passed a series of auditions through a company for which he was doing voice work in Tokyo. He’s been “wokin’ and rollin'” ever since.

For Bickard, each week of recording is a challenge. It is a chance to create something new, to make someone who watches the show want to watch it again. “I have an opportunity to do that,” he says, “so why not take advantage?”