Behind the scenes on Iron Chef Australia

Three moderately wise monkeys: Leo Schofield, Larissa Dubecki & me

Iron Chef Neil Perry looks knackered. You’d think he’s just played in a grand final. Well, in cooking terms, this is one, replayed every week with your Premiership up for grabs.

Welcome to Kitchen Stadium, home of Iron Chef Australia, a new version of the cult Japanese show that like MASH reruns, continues on SBS a decade after they stopped making it.

I’ve joined Iron Chef as a restaurant critic to pass judgement on Neil’s food. No, I’m not the giggling Japanese actress and no, we’re not dubbed into American accents. Sorry. This is an Aussie show with a favourite story: the underdog taking on a legend. It’s David v Goliath with sharp knives. You don’t have to be a foodie to love Iron Chef Australia. It’s a race, an exciting and delicious hour-long sprint between the best in the business.

Neil Perry’s been cooking for more than 30 years, but as he tells me later: “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done”. He’s just given his all, supported by Phil Woods, Rockpool’s head chef. This is a heavy hitting team. Perry is taking the defence of his reputation very, very seriously.

The Master of Modern Australian cooking is in a title fight: a 60-minute punch up with Matt Stone, a frighteningly talented upstart from the environmentally-focussed Greenhouse restaurant in Perth. He’s just 23 and was recently crowned Australian Gourmet Traveller’s Best New Talent.

This is like Frazier v Ali at Madison Square Gardens. Both chefs, with help from two sous chefs, have just one hour to produce four dishes each using the secret ingredient. They don’t know what’s coming and it’s all made from scratch. Not everything goes to plan.

But it’s the first day of Iron Chef and things are running later than Sydney busses. We’re a little irritable and tired and it’s past my dinnertime. No doubt the live studio audience is feeling the same, despite the gags and lollies handed out between takes.

I’m sitting at a dining table overlooking Kitchen Stadium with fellow restaurant critics Leo Schofield and Larissa Dubecki. It’s all a little boring until The Chairman, martial arts expert Mark Dacascos, star of Iron Chef America, reveals the secret ingredient. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose and the next 60 minutes my heart pounds as I snack on my fingernails.

Over the next six nights of filming, I have my dream job. Not only do Australia’s best chefs cook right in front of us, then they present four courses each and I have to give them the thumbs up or down to pick a winner. It begins with two nights of stunning dishes by Neil Perry, followed by Iron Chef French Guillaume Brahimi from Guillaume at Bennelong at the Opera House. Finally, Iron Chef Italian, Guy Grossi, from Melbourne’s legendary Grossi Florentino, serves his irresistible food.

Meanwhile, the challengers don’t hold back. We’re dining like kings on the finest ingredients. The chefs demand the best and every day, there’s a mad scramble by the food wranglers scouring the nation for special ingredients. These chefs use every culinary trick in their books to impress us. It’s Australian truffle season and while they cost around $2500 a kilo, they’re used generously on the plate. It doesn’t swing things in their favour, but it doesn’t hurt either, although there goes half the production budget.

The other challengers include Chris Bandenoch, the beer guy from Masterchef, with his girlfriend, fellow contestant Julia Jenkins. Then there’s Dan Hong, the Sydney dude from Lotus. He rides into town like a young gunslinger ready to shoot first and cook later. Looking at Dan’s biography, I discover he lists me as his biggest fear. He thinks I don’t like his food. Wow. It’s not true but now Dan’s got to cope with the pressure of cooking in Kitchen Stadium as well as the paranoia of discovering I’m one of the judges.

Every battle is thrilling. You can feel the pressure and tension. Every night I wonder and worry about whether they’ll make it in time. This is like watching a Formula One race. These guys fly around corners at high speed and occasionally, spin off the track. Mistakes are made. Jagged nerves spill blood. Seasoned pro cuts their fingers.

Host Grant Denyer plays Stadium doctor, bandaging sliced fingertips. We start to wonder if we’ll find missing limbs in the food.

It’s all so serious except that commentator Richard Cornish cracks me up. He’s one of Melbourne’s smartest food writers. Imagine a cross between Rabbits Warren calling footy and Murray Walker doing F1 and you’ve got some idea of what Richard’s call is like. The Chairman’s a pretty serious guy, although one night, we can’t look at each other without bursting into laughter. One day it’ll be leaked on to Youtube. Grant, like the weather he presents of Sunrise, if full of sunshine and warmth. He’s easy to like but knows bugger all about food. That’s a good thing because Grant asks questions that help explain what’s happening. And there’s a lot happening. Chefs use all the kitchen wizardry, from a Thermomix, a blender that also cooks, to sous vide, a hot-water bath to gently cook meat.

The Iron Chefs’ personalities emerge: Neil’s quite chatty. Guillaume concentrates hard before loosening up with a few jokes at the expense of his French birthplace. Guy likes playing up to the live studio audience. He’s so in control during one battle, he cracks open a bottle of wine to drink before it’s over.

Leo and Larissa show their skills too. Leo brings a global eye and long memory of the Iron Chefs’ careers. Larissa is incisive and forensic, with a knack for nailing just what’s going on. I crack jokes or sometimes, crack the you-know-whats if I don’t think a dish is up to scratch.

I’ve got a great face for radio, so it’s no surprise how much time we spend in makeup. When my sister-in-law comes in to watch a taping, she thinks I look like Bert Newton’s long lost twin. At least it makes a change from being told I look like Matt Preston’s little brother.

It doesn’t take me long to get used to having someone fix my makeup and hair every few minutes, fetch me coffee on demand, iron my shirts and straighten my tie. You get a little spoilt in TV land. Everyone’s so helpful and this production, in Melbourne’s massive Docklands studios, is bigger than Ben Hur. A staggering 125 people work on the show. The days are exhaustingly long, running almost around the clock.

I’m amazed at how draining making TV is. We’re on set for up to 13 hours a day, but Grant Denyer is still bouncing around the set grinning. I’m looking for a glass of wine.

Judging scene from mushroom challenge: Iron Chef Brahimi v Dan Hong

 Iron Chef Perry v Matt Stone

* Six episodes of Iron Chef Australia screened on Seven in late 2010. While some episodes attracted more than one million viewers, no further episodes have been commissioned.



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