The hard men - and women - of cooking

Iron Chef is a fast and furious TV cook-off that makes 'Masterchef' look tame. The US version has viewers hooked. Will we love it too? By Gerard Gilbert
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Cooking doesn't get tougher than this," Gregg Wallace declares at the start of each episode of BBC1's MasterChef. Well, I'm sorry me old china, but it's just got a whole lot tougher – not to mention more bizarre. Welcome to Iron Chef UK, the new Channel 4 version of Michelle Obama's favourite cookery programme, Iron Chef America – itself a copy of a Japanese TV show with demented samurai overtones. Imagine Ready Steady Cook had been taken out of its cosy studio at BBC Television Centre, dumped in a high-tech sports arena with cuddly Ainsley Harriott replaced by an enigmatic, hard-staring Japanese man known as the Chairman, and you're beginning to get the picture.

"It's a concoction of high-energy gladiatorial cooking in a kind of sports arena with very high-class cooking at its heart," says Adam MacDonald, executive producer of Iron Chef UK, struggling to summarise the show. Or: "It combines the energy of a game show with the sophistication of top-class Michelin cooking. On the one hand it's very serious, sophisticated cooking, on the other hand it's kind of big, slightly bonkers competitive environment. It's not the sort of show I would have enjoyed pitching off paper, but luckily I had tapes to show people."

Without the benefit of such a tape, I shall try and summarise the ingredients. Taking place in a "kitchen stadium" into which you could probably fit four or five MasterChef HQs, our "very best warrior chefs from the four corners of the world" – Martin Blunos, Judy Joo, Tom Aikens and Sanjay Dwivedi – are the culinary superheroes, the so-called Iron Chefs, and each week they compete against a different set of visiting amateurs or minor pros. From Monday to Thursday, the four challengers, who cook one course each, are up against one Iron Chef, who cook four courses in the same amount of time – the top-scoring challenger of the week going on to Friday's final. Got that? The main ingredient – beef, say, or red peppers – is revealed at the start of the show, the chefs having to improvise against the clock.

Frankly, however, that bald description doesn't begin to convey the full, fruity flavour of Iron Chef UK, with its Japanese host, called the Chairman, and its cartoonishly insinuating presenter, played – hopefully it's a performance – by wine expert Olly Smith ("join us after the break when we will erupt in a frenzy of judgement"). Michelin-starred chef Nick Nairn provides commentary in the style of Phil Thompson on Sky Sports' Saturday results show. "It's like watching an ox cut up an ox," he says, as Martin Blunos bones some beef. "There's power there, but there's also finesse." It's all deliciously over the top.

"We tried not to go overboard on the OTT because a little bit of camp goes a long way", says MacDonald, not totally convincingly for those who have seen the end result. "We almost banned people from saying it's camp, because we treated it very seriously ... and that actually produces this kind of strange campness."

The Chairman (played by a certain Eizo Tomita) is a nod to the origins of the Iron Chef format, which started life in 1993 on Japanese television as Ryori no Tetsujin. "We haven't gone into a huge explanation about the origins of the show", says MacDonald. "We have a Japanese chairman but we don't particularly explain why he's there; we just kind of allow the audience to work it out for themselves".

The Japanese version of Iron Chef, which ended in 1999, had an afterlife as a surprise cult favourite in the US after it was picked up by the Food Network and dubbed in English. Part of the appeal to Americans was the dubbing, which gave the show a campy charm that evoked the dubbed kung fu movies of the 1970s. Audiences were also amused by some of the over-the-top culinary concoctions – dishes such as soft roe in sake with truffles, and foie gras with flatfish.

Promisingly, the first American adaptation, Iron Chef USA, had William Shatner as the Chairman, but floundered on the commentators' ignorance of food ("What? It's the sperm? We eat that?" was one famous reaction to sea urchin roe). It was succeeded in 2005 by the more successful Iron Chef America, which followed more faithfully the Japanese original's format. Jamie Oliver has been among the challengers, while earlier this year fan Michelle Obama invited the show to the White House, and even announced the special ingredient (a sweet potato from the White House garden, rather anticlimatically).

The American Iron Chefs include such culinary titans as Mario Batali (one of the principal subjects of Bill Buford's 2006 book Heat, in which Buford went to work in a New York restaurant kitchen) and Masaharu Morimoto, the former head chef at Nobu in New York. Global diversity was the aim when casting the British version, says Adam MacDonald. "So we've got somebody who is an expert in Korean-Asian food, and Martin Blunos who, while he's sort of a West Country lad, has this Latvian, East-European heritage, and Sanjay Dwivedi, who does a kind of French-Indian fusion food."

The most eye-catching of the Iron Chefs is however Tom Aikens, Britain's youngest ever two-starred Michelin chef, whose high-profile financial problems in 2008 left a string of disgruntled suppliers after some of his restaurants arose phoenix-like from the ashes of administration, their former debts wiped clean. Why, I asked Aikens, had he now decided to go down the television route?

"I've always traditionally turned everything down but the format of Iron Chef really excited me", he says. "It's really intense and fiery and gives you a real feel of what it's like cooking under pressure. You have your one main ingredient, you can be very elaborate or very simple, and the only thing you are up against really is time. Every programme I was literally within 30 seconds of getting the dish out, so it was really, really tough – like in a professional kitchen.

"As regards television itself it's obviously a great way of getting yourself out into the public arena a bit more; I can't see how it won't 100 per cent help my own sort of PR. I guess people will see what I'm like as a chef in my kitchen as well as see what I do." And for Adam MacDonald, it was important that the Iron Chefs weren't over familiar. "We didn't really want any chefs who have done seven or eight years of Ready Steady Cook," he says. "We wanted the audience to think of them as Iron Chefs first and foremost".

On the subject of Ready, Steady, Cook – not to mention the BBC's roster of other well-loved cookery challenge shows like MasterChef and The Great British Menu – will the blindingly hectic pace and macho OTT-style of Iron Chefs resonate with their audience? "Unlike Ready, Steady, Cook, which is specifically designed for people at home to be able to cook that meal that evening, the complexity and sophistication of some of the meals we produce is going to be pretty tricky to replicate at home," says MacDonald. "We're going to be reproducing the recipes on the Channel 4 website and there will be tips about how you can make your own simple versions of these Michelin-starred meals. And as for MasterChef ... a couple of people have said to me, 'You are clearly positioning it as a rival to MasterChef.' It hadn't really occurred to me. It's almost a different genre really." Quite what that genre is, isn't entirely clear – perhaps it's sui generis. What's clear is that Gregg Wallace is no longer going to be able to shout his "cooking doesn't get tougher than this" claim with a clear conscience.

Iron Chef starts on Monday on Channel 4

Who the iron chefs are

Judy Joo

The only female Iron Chef learned Korean cookery on her mother's knee, and is (ironically in this context) an advocate of the slow food movement, having started Slow Food USA's first inner city schools project in Harlem. Dining at Gordon Ramsay's eponymous restaurant in London, Joo introduced herself to the chef and spent the next two years working in his kitchens. She says her strengths are "unique use of flavours/ingredients and beautiful presentation" and if she were a superhero she would "travel back and forth through time". Handy if you overcook the fish.

Tom Aikens

Born into a family of Norwich wine merchants, Aikens worked under Joel Robuchon in Paris before taking over at Pied à Terre in London and becoming the youngest British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars. He then opened the Michelin-starred Tom Aikens in Chelsea, and two further restaurants before his eateries went into administration in 2008. He says his strengths in the kitchen are being "very focussed and calm", while if he had a superpower it would be "to run fast". That might help when confronted by angry creditors.

Sanjay Dwivedi

Chef-patron of Zaika in London, one of the first Indian restaurants to be awarded a Michelin star, the Delhi-born Dwivedi began his catering career in a family-owned hotel before becoming the personal chef to The Rolling Stones during their Bridges of Babylon world tour. His strength is "getting the best of both worlds – Europe and India", and if he had a superpower it would be to "tidy up by twitching my nose like in Bewitched". What would the hygiene police make of that?

Martin Blunos

With his Goth handlebar moustache, Blunos is a regular face from cookery TV, having won two Michelin stars for each of his eateries, Restaurants Lettonie in Bristol and Bath, and he was chosen to cook for the Queen during her jubilee year celebrations, which was documented in the BBC series All the Queen's Cooks. His strength in the kitchen is "the ability to carry on when the s**t hits the fan", and if he had a superpower it would be "the power to stop the s**t hitting the fan". Best seat in his restaurant? Near the fan.