For those fans of Iron Chef (料理の鉄人) and the newest iteration Iron Chef America, you probably already know the premise. It takes top chefs from each cuisine – French, Japanese, Italian, and Chinese just to name a few – and has them going up head to head against another chef with a secret ingredient.
Growing up in the United States, it was a great treat to watch the original guard (OG) Iron Chefs make a name for themselves. The original show had all Japanese chefs and was in Japanese. The top Japanese chefs, Hiroyuki Sakai (坂井宏行), Masaharu Morimoto (森本正治), Masahiko Kobe (神戸勝彦), and Chen Kenichi (陳建一), were legends and were virtually undefeated during their tenure as Iron Chefs. So it was a great pleasure for me to finally come to the country where the greats practice their crafts even to this day.
To those in the know, Tokyo is home to the most Michelin-starred restaurants and is quite well deserved. It now has the distinction of housing the biggest names of Iron Chef history. And I was lucky enough to go to each of their restaurants and will highlight them below.
1. Iron Chef Chen Kenichi (Chinese)
The most humble-seeming of all the Iron Chefs who belies his use of the spiciest of ingredients – the Sichuan peppercorn. It is such a rare occurrence to find decent spicy food in Japan that it is worth it to go to Kenichi’s restaurants for this factor alone. It is not a surprise that he has one of the longest winning streaks of all Iron Chefs (17 at last count)!
Despite such cooking pedigree, his lunch specials are an amazing deal. For less than 1,100 yen (or 10 USD), one can enjoy his most famous dish, Mapo doufu (麻婆豆腐), which is tongue-numbingly spicy. This is available in all his restaurants, but the one in Akasaka (赤坂), Akasaka Shisen Hanten (赤坂 四川飯店), makes it an art. This lunch special not only serves the flagship dish, but also gives egg drop soup, some side pickle dishes, tea, and even all-you-can-eat rice – the perfect accompaniment to the spicy dish.
The rest of his menu is also a marvel of Chinese cooking and definitely should not be missed – shark fin and bird’s nest are but a few highlights.
2. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto (Japanese)
Arguably one of the most famous Iron Chefs with an impressive array of restaurants throughout the world.
Random fact: Morimoto used to be a Japanese major league catcher before getting sidelined by an injury. Lucky for us, this has translated to amazing culinary creations albeit sad for the baseball world.
His flagship restaurant in Tokyo, the eponymous atelier morimoto XEX (atelier 森本 XEX) in Roppongi (六本木), has earned a Michelin star. This particular restaurant highlights his amazing sushi and fresh sashimi skills with imaginative and creative sushi rolls not seen anywhere else.
The restaurant space itself has won multiple design awards, especially as it showcases teppanyaki (鉄板焼き), or dishes made on flat steel tables, where patrons are seated in a circle to watch a culinary show and have amazing food at the same time! There is also an upstairs lounge to enjoy drinks and desserts.
One definitely cannot go wrong in patronizing this restaurant. The chef’s choice (omakase) comes highly recommended. This is also the place for celebrity sightings as it has been one of the favorite places for Hollywood’s elite.
3. Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai (French)
Best known for his showmanship and beautiful French food presentation, Chef Hiroyuki Sakai is one of the most loved Iron Chefs out there.
His flagship restaurant, La Rochelle in Tokyo, is the height of elegance. It really does feel like a bit of France has been transported to Japan. The exterior, with gorgeous ivy on its walls, is reminiscent of a European church or even a castle. The restaurant has also been the site of multiple functions and weddings!
Sakai takes seasonal Japanese offerings straight from the sea and farm and makes them come alive in a truly magical way. The best part is that he still works occasionally and even comes on his days off just to deliver produce and fresh meat straight from the source.
Along with his Iron Chef compatriots, he can be seen in the restaurant and enjoys mingling with his customers. Each of his courses are very much like pieces of artwork with freshness jumping off the plate with its vivid colors and flavors. A definite must-see and -try if you’re ever in the vicinity of one of his well-acclaimed restaurants.
4. Iron Chef Masahiko Kobe (Italian)
The youngest and least-known of all the OG Iron Chefs, Chef Kobe is also known in the culinary world as the “Prince of Pasta.” A very well-deserved title given all his training in Italy where he was one of the top chefs of the 3-star Michelin restaurant, Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence. Although he is the only chef to have lost his first Iron Chef battle, he has remained undefeated thereafter.
His flagship restaurant, RISTORANTE MASSA in Ebisu (恵比寿), is, in one word – amazing. Pasta is made fresh every day and unlike the other Iron Chefs, he personally works here daily. His restaurant is also a small space for no more than 10 tables, which makes for a more intimate setting for a special evening out or even a romantic meal. If you are a pasta lover, his restaurants are definitely the place for you.
Of course, none of the pictures or even the descriptions can do their food justice. If you’re an Iron Chef fanatic, then Japan is a must-go-to place for your gastronomic adventures. And of all places, Tokyo truly is the culinary capital of the world. It is where you can easily taste four different cuisines from amazing top chefs all in one place.
For those looking for a good deal, make sure to check out their lunch specials as they tend to be less expensive. For those without budgetary constraints, then the chef’s menu along with the wine pairings are a must. There really is something for everyone.
Make sure to say hi to all the Iron Chefs and happy eating! Itadakimasu (頂きます)!