What Iron Chef Taught Me About Writing

Originally posted 7/14/2011

A few years ago I found myself flipping through a book about Iron Chef. I haven't seen the show in years, and the book was about the early Japanese version of the show that I used to watch with my wife and some friends about ten years ago (not the newer, less goofy American one with Alton Brown). The book had an interview with one of the chefs, Morimoto, the Japanese wizard behind the restaurant Nobu, and he made a point about cooking that applies equally well to writing.

For those of you not in the know: Iron Chef is a kitschy cooking face-off in which the contestant (a top-notch cook at some big-time restaurant) challenges one of the show's four "iron chefs" to see "whose cuisine reigns supreme." The show's host, a very scary Japanese man with an Elvis hairdo and a Sergeant Pepper wardrobe, chooses a special "mystery ingredient" for the day (could be sweet potatoes, or sea urchin roe, or conger eel -- did I mention the show was Japanese?), and then the contestant and the iron chef race to prepare six or seven different meals. Celebrity judges (the American version of the show, interestingly, often featured one of my favorite writers, Jay McInerney) then rate the dishes based on presentation, taste, and originality.

In the interview I read, Morimoto noted that although he loved being on the show, he found it incredibly stressful. We're judged based on both originality and taste, he said, but it's so hard to make something that's amazingly original AND yummy. People have been eating for millions of years, and the reason we've come to eat certain things together (like pork chops and apple sauce, or pasta and tomato sauce) is that they taste good together. The reason we don't throw hugely disparate ingredients together (chocolate and fish sauce! steak tartare and burnt caramel!) is that it would taste really, really bad. On the show, Morimoto was always trying to be original and push the envelope by conceiving weird and unheard-of combinations, but finding such alchemies that also happened to be delicious was tough.

I think about this a lot. Many of my favorite books, films, albums, and TV shows succeed so well because they combine odd elements in a unque way. Yiddish Policeman's Union told a tale that was equal parts hardboiled noir, Jewish identity narrative, and speculative history; The Wire combined novelistic scope with crime stories with soap operatic storylines with big-picture political scope; Odelay found the common ground between folk, hip-hop, dance, and pop. And there are even crazier mash-ups coming out every week, in bookstores and cinemas, combining comic books with adventure stories with mysteries, etc.

As a writer, I want to capture this level of fun and play, the zaniness of combining ingredients that aren't supposed to go together. But there's a certain boiling point beyond which the originality metabolizes but the taste begins to suffer. Because if you push the experimenting too far, you wind up with a nasty avante-garde entree that makes you want to vomit. We've all read books or seen films that took their little experiments too far, that strayed so outside the established norm of story that you couldn't follow the plot (or, the opposite, there was no plot), or whose experimentation felt forced or simply wrong in an indefinable, gut-level way. Which is the risk you take when you, say, add a dash of pepper to your ice cream, or add a time traveler to a book about the politics of post-9/11 America (as my forthcoming book The Revisionists does).

So, when I'm devising my stories and working out the kinks, I try to push boundaries and do new things, I try to have fun and show my readers something they've never seen before (hopefully something they've never even thought of before), but I always try to step back and ask myself, "Does it still taste good?"