The chef as entertainer is not a new concept. From Julia Child to Benihana, and cotton-candy spinners to Emeril, there is a history (especially on television) of chefs turning the art of cooking into a show that's as enjoyable to watch as the food is to eat. Food Network is basically the Barnum & Bailey (or Circue de Soleil these days) of the cooking circus, with Iron Chef as the main event. Like many television shows (American Idol and The Office from the UK), Iron Chef is a stolen from Japan, where the sushi chef is considered an artist and treated as such (cooking on display above diners at the bar). Iron Chef inspired a network-wide notion that cooking shows, although informative, weren't very dramatic. By adding competitive challenges like Bobby Flay 'throwing down' against unsuspecting chefs, a level of drama and excitement was added.
Not unlike NASCAR, the least interesting are the cake-offs, where pastry chefs create art-like cakes, only to have the idiotic task of walking them across a room and leading to their inevitable destruction on the floor. Although all of these competitions are judged in a subjective manner, the real enjoyment comes from watching the amazing work under intense pressure. I don't care who wins the Iron Chef battles. I just enjoy watching the transformation from raw ingredient to original, visual delicacies.
I saw a rerun recently of the beet battle between Iron Chef Morimoto and chef Homaru Cantu. I'd never seen Cantu's scientific take on cooking, but it was fun to watch. Chef Cantu has some of the most innovative cooking techniques in the world, including edible photographs of sushi, chemically generated champagne fizz and hollow frozen beet ice balls made around balloons (pictured). Morimoto even stepped it up, dying the napkins with beet juice and using liquid nitrogen to make his ice cream, but it didn't compare to the polymer oven or corkscrew utensils that Cantu brought. Somehow in the end Cantu was awarded less points for originality which shows how silly the scoring process is. Regardless, it was one of the most entertaining Iron Chefs I've seen, and Alton Brown's commentary only escalated it to the level of terrific television.