"What is this?"

That's how it starts. You're cable-surfing and land on a slick kitchen set where samurai chefs wielding machetes hack heads off live carp, wrestle thrashing squid and dice endangered abalone, as tuxedoed commentators excitedly give the play-by-play in B-movie-dubbed English.

"What's he doing over there?" an off-camera observer may ask in eager, inquisitive tones. Or an on-the-floor reporter anxiously signals to an announcer, "Fukui-san, Fukui-san, Bobby just added squid ink!"

For one frenzied, dangerous, incredulous hour, two chefs go knife to knife against the clock, boiling, baking, steaming and sautM-iing the "theme ingredient" - it could be foie gras or it could be plain white rice - into an elaborate, five-course meal.

A panel of celebrity judges that usually includes a gushing actress taste each course then offer comments - "I feel like I'm floating on a cloud" is typical hyperbole - and declare the winner. The prize? Not a measly $1 million, but "face," a much more valuable commodity in honor-bound Japan.

You're glued to the screen. This is hilarious and it's touching. It's haute camp cuisine, and unlike any show, let alone any cooking show, you've ever seen. What is this?

Overnight you, too, are an "Iron Chef" acolyte, watching the late-night Food Network program in a required ritual with roommates, family and friends. Of course you tape it when out of town, something you haven't done since "Twin Peaks" was around. Such viewing habits have made "Iron Chef" the Food Network's second highest-rated show, behind "Emeril Live!" with New Orleans restaurateur Emeril Lagasse.

Soon, you're also an insatiable collector of "Iron Chef" trivia, trolling Web sites that detail program highlights and subscribing to online mailing lists laden with behind-the-scenes gossip.

You're now an authority on the wisdom of not dubbing the dramatic pronouncements of Chairman Takeshi Kaga, the flamboyant millionaire proprietor of the Kitchen Stadium and the show's only actor. You know the temperament and idiosyncrasies of each of the four noble chefs who rule the Kitchen Stadium - Iron Chef Japanese, Iron Chef Chinese, Iron Chef Italian, Iron Chef French - and you've acquired a soft spot for one of them.

With other "Iron Chef" heads, you can fondly recall the night a challenger baked the featured ingredient, asparagus, in a bed of lobster worth thousands of dollars and tossed the lobster. Or the episode when Masaharu Morimoto, Iron Chef Japanese and co-owner with Robert De Niro of trendy New York restaurant Nobu, gratefully thanks Fuji Television for providing him with a mountain of quivering abalone, strictly regulated in U.S. fishing waters. (You'd think he had just received a new heart.)

And now, you can anticipate the Iron Chef New York Battle airing in two parts tomorrow night on the Food Network. The Iron Chefs have been invited to challenge cocky celebrity chef Bobby Flay, owner of Manhattan's Mesa Grill and Bolo, as well as host of his own Food Network program. The matchup differs from the usual show - for one, the theme ingredient doesn't rise from the floor on a bed of dry ice, but drops from the ceiling in half of a glittery mirror ball. There is a live audience - also a new twist - and the crowd spirit is more akin to a pro wrestling match than the reverential halls of super chef-dom.

Japanese dish warmed over

Most "Iron Chef" cognoscenti already know who won the war, taped in March at Webster Hall in New York City, but will still watch it gleefully. If you're a newcomer to the Iron Chef cult, you can back into your new obsession by viewing this show, and then those that have preceded it.

Because, the funny thing is, Iron Chef was pulled off the air in Japan last year by Fuji Television Network after six stellar seasons. With the exception of occasional overseas battles, the 2,500 entrees prepared by the "Iron Chef" crew have long since been digested. But not before the show had become an underground hit in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it aired with English subtitles on international cable-access channels.

"It became a cult item among the foodies in San Francisco, who are the most intense foodies in the world," says Tom Lifson, an authority on Japanese culture and a Bay Area resident. The show aired at 8 p.m. so fans would "cook dinner, open a bottle of wine and watch this outlandish contest," Lifson says. "It was very satisfying: the luxurious ingredient, the lack of concern for cost, the ability to have expert assistance. It was all fantasy stuff."

Lifson would watch it with his grown children and their friends. Inevitably, they were "convulsed, completely into it. It had the character of a good party show."

The appeal of "Iron Chef," Lifson says, lies in the Japanese knack for taking disparate narrative strands - the gladiator, the wealthy recluse, the game show premise - and weaving them "together in a combination that would never, ever occur to the Western mind." In this way, the Japanese are "very syncretic," he says. They "paint from a global palette."

Would the Japanese, who take their cuisine and expertise very seriously, be offended that Americans double over in hysterics while watching it? Maybe, Lifson says, adding, "Irony is not one of the central characteristics of the Japanese mind." More to the point, Lifson says, they are "flattered that people are paying attention. They know it's baroque. It's over the top for the Japanese, too."

When the Food Network picked up "Iron Chef," it dropped the subtitles and the uproarious commercials for Korean liquors and cars, much to Lifson's dismay. But then, through the Internet, word of mouth and cable television, the show became a bigger hit, albeit among a relatively small audience of connoisseurs of kookiness.

Baltimorean Gabe Wardell, a programmer for the Baltimore Film Festival and Cinema Sundays, learned about "Iron Chef" from a friend in California. The next thing he knew, he was a die-hard fan, tuning in weekly and signing on to unofficial, but extremely thorough, Web sites, many of which the Food Network has recently ordered to shut down.

"I was just totally taken with it," Wardell says. "It's the combination of campiness - Kaga is like Liberace - and yet the thing I respect most of all is the seriousness with which they approach the cuisine. I have learned so much about the cooking and what it takes to be an A-list chef."

The most outrageous episodes are "usually when they have things like eel and octopus, things that are alive," Wardell says. "They have to go to a tank and grab it and turn a living creature into a five-course meal in the course of an hour. It's that gladiator thing, 'Let's watch them slay the beast and turn it into something quite beautiful,' " he says. "The funny thing is I'm actually a vegetarian."

In March, Wardell and friend, Scott Huffines, owner of Atomic Books, traveled to New York with other "Iron Chef" fanatics to see the cook-off live. There are few things that come along that are as exciting, Wardell says. He and Huffines hustled to snare tickets when they received word of the taping on an Iron Chef mailing list.

"I started watching it maybe a month or two after it went on the air, just by chance," Huffines says. "I was just drinking beer, flipping channels on cable, and I saw the pork belly battle, which was gross enough. I thought, 'What is this?' "

Huffines, as well, has become addicted to "Iron Chef" and its fan sites. He has scheduled his life around the show ever since. "A lot of my hip downtown friends had no idea what the show was," he says. But his suburban buddies, hooked on digital cable, caught the Iron Chef tsunami right away.

Huffines not only saw the great New York cook-off, he couldn't wait until this weekend to see it on the air. One of his Japanese customers agreed to airmail him a copy of the program as it was broadcast in Japan in exchange for a discount on his next comic book order. The show has no subtitles, so Huffines, Wardell and fellow Iron Chef fiends couldn't understand a word of it. So what. It was still a hoot, and they got to see themselves cheering among the culinary-crazed crowd. This weekend, they'll gather again for the dubbed Food Network version.

Electrifying live

From the moment Kaga bites into a big apple, until the final shot of the littlest Iron Chef fan in his homemade Iron Chef Japanese costume, this weekend's cook-off is an excellent primer on the trademark quirks of a truly enigmatic phenomenon.

In Part I, the chefs arrive in New York City to much fanfare, making promotional appearances at the Culinary Institute of America and on another Food Network hit, Gordon Elliot's "Door Knock Dinners." Part II features the actual battle, and it's not giving too much away to say that in the heat of competition, Flay is electrocuted on the set. "You can get a buzz pretty good there," a cheery commentator notes as water floods Flay's kitchen and he recoils from a zapping cooking pot.

And amid the macho "Raise the roof, yo!" rantings of Flay and his supporters, one Iron Chef gets downright angry. When Flay leaps atop a cutting board, his arms raised, it is all too much. "By the way, he's not a chef," the proud gourmet warrior says to a reporter. "After finishing, he stood up on the cutting board. That's not right. ... Cutting boards and knives are sacred to us."

It's left to the panel to decide who is a true chef - and who is the greater chef. Leave it to one judge, plucked by lottery from the audience, to summarize the experience, while proving his formidable knowledge of the Iron Chefs. Sampling one heavenly concoction, he says, "I feel like I'm floating on clouds!"

'Iron Chef'

What: Two-hour New York battle

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday

Where: Food Network (check cable listings for your local channel assignment)

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