Iron Chef UK a real test of the pressure cooker
Govan-filmed cookery show Iron Chef is currently one of the most bizarre shows on UK TV. Brian Donaldson finds respected Scottish chef Nick Nairn at the heart of the madness
Amid a flurry of dry ice, a swirl of bright lights and stomach-twisting camera moves, a Japanese TV host back-flips his way between rows of white-clad chefs. His eyes bulge as he kisses a red pepper and introduces four cooks who will each create a dish against the clock. Nothing too exceptional in that, you might think except their key adversary is dubbed the Iron Chef, whose task is to produce all four dishes in the same amount of time. You’ll be less than amazed to hear that this Japanese idea (first broadcast in 1993) has been through the blender of two US versions, an unsuccessful one with William Shatner and a less terrible attempt on the Food Network. If you thought your gymnastic host The Chairman is eccentric, cop a load of Olly Smith, a man who looks and sounds as though he’s been kidnapped from the set of Brass Eye, as he booms out stuff like ‘speak to me in beef!’ and ‘it’s like watching an ox cut up an ox!’
So what on this scorched earth is the massively respected Michelin-starred Scottish chef and cookery school guru Nick Nairn doing in a TV studio like this? Having initially resisted the programme-makers’ attempts to get him involved as an expert foodie analyst, an exchange with some enthusiastic American clients persuaded Nairn that he’d regret not getting on board this cult phenomenon. He went away and watched an episode of the US version from 2008 which featured Jamie Oliver and Nairn was hooked. ‘I was given assurances that it would be serious about cooking in amongst all the Iron Chef madness. From day one, it’s been high camp meets high gastronomy but with a certain integrity as the Iron Chefs themselves are serious cooks. But, no, I was never that worried about bringing food into disrepute or belittling it, but the mad theatre stuff seemed to work in Japan and in the States, so hopefully it’ll work in the UK.’
British TV viewers’ first exposure to Iron Chef and its Kitchen Stadium came late last year when Charlie Brooker and guests ripped it apart on his Channel 4 show, You Have Been Watching. In a small screen world of ever increasing programme space, there has still been criticism that the schedules are crammed with too many cookery shows. One thing’s for certain, there isn’t a single one anywhere quite like Iron Chef. ‘Ready Steady Cook is in a small television studio with a wobbly set but you walk onto the set of Iron Chef in the old Govan toon hall and jaws just drop; it’s a whole different league. It’s a massive space with a crew of about 120 working on the production; there were three guys on the lighting desk alone and one guy’s job seemed to be the dry ice and smoke effects. The guy who directed it, Jonathan Bullen, directs The X Factor, so it was a big number and it felt exciting.’
But within such a flashy, fast-paced, highly-pressurised environment, and working with sharp edges of all lengths and widths, surely some of the chefs must have come a cropper? ‘There was nothing that would worry health and safety,’ chuckles Nairn. ‘But there were more minor cuts in this than anything I’ve worked on. Normally the nurse sits in a corner and reads Jane Austen novels or something but our nurse was quite nimble on her feet because you don’t want to see blood on the telly.’
Channel 4 are certainly investing a lot of faith in the show, spreading it across five evening nights a week. Whether successful or not, TV viewers won’t know what’s hit them. ‘It will either hack people off and they won’t get it or it’ll move food on a bit. I turned Masterchef on a couple of nights ago and although I’d enjoyed the last couple of series, I just think it’s a bit dull and formulaic now. You know that there’ll be the dopey one, the good looking one, the really good cook, the absolute crap one. Iron Chef will take things on to a different realm.’
Iron Chef is on Channel 4, Mon-Fri, 5pm.