A test of mettle

Author: Leo Schofield

The man standing in the corridor of the vast, labyrinthine film studio in Melbourne's Docklands is wearing a smart black chef's jacket with bright green trim. Emblazoned on his chest is his name, Guy Grossi. Hang on a minute. Isn't Guy Grossi Italian? And doesn't he have black hair? This bloke is blond. "I'm just the accountant here," he tells me. "I'm standing in for Mr Grossi while they adjust the lighting." Said accountant is one of the 125 people - camera operators, lighting specialists, food stylists, make-up artists, photographers, sound recordists, wardrobe people, runners and fetchers - involved in the production of the Australian version of the phenomenally successful international TV cooking show Iron Chef. Oh, and we mustn't forget the dish pigs.

As I exit the studio at midnight, bleary-eyed after a 13-hour day of shooting (as one of the show's judges), I encounter two young chaps in kitchen kit. Have they been assisting with food preparation? "No, mate. We're just the dish pigs." Behind them is a ceiling-high cairn of pots, pans and plates that must be scrubbed and shiny for tomorrow's shoot. They will finish this chore around 4am.

It is impossible for anyone who hasn't been involved in filming a TV series to know how complex the process is. The set itself is gobsmacking, a huge square like a boxing ring without the ropes. Set on an angle, it contains two big V-shaped kitchens, bristling with whiz-bang equipment, not just normal stuff like ovens and cooktops but space-age sous-vide gadgetry and blast chillers that can transform a custard into ice-cream in minutes. It's here that young upstart cooks, some only in their early twenties, will take on the Iron Chefs: the ubiquitous Neil Perry, suave Frenchman Guillaume Brahimi and the aforementioned Grossi, the ebullient Italian maestro from the eponymous Melbourne restaurant. Perry says it's the most stressful cooking experience he's had in his life. "It was extraordinarily hard. I couldn't believe how quickly the hour went and putting up four dishes in that time is really extreme. I was completely spent at the end of it. But it was really fun. Fingers crossed the general public likes it."

Iron Chef or Ryori no Tetsujin, literally "iron men of cooking", is of course the popular television series that originated in Japan 18 years ago. This upscale bake-off pits aspiring guest chefs, usually young and relatively unknown, against the marque name Iron Chefs. It's become something of a cult classic, and its format has been adapted as Iron Chef America, and now as the Seven Network's Iron Chef Australia.

The trio of superstars of the stove in the Aussie version represent three great food cultures but they are by no means prescriptive, working with a range of outré ingredients and influences as broad as those chosen by their challengers. In doing so, they throw down another kind of challenge to the providores: there have been last-minute scrambles and frenzied ring-arounds for exotic produce such as white soy (not located) and a special mushroom that had to be flown in from Sydney, arriving less than half an hour before the starting bell.

Iron Chef Australia differs from other cooking shows in that the actual cooking takes place in real time. If the chefs require pasta, they must make it from scratch. If they fancy a particular cut of lamb, they have to dismember a whole beast to get it. It makes for fascinating viewing, and as a judge, I was spellbound observing the process at close quarters.

In a tent tucked away on a corner of the set, skilful food stylist Carol Reilly has spent hours arranging each night's secret ingredient on a large table described on the show's call sheet as "the altar". This lady is an artist with an innate knack for making any kind of food look sensational. She can make a pile of meat look like a 17th-century Dutch still life. (One of her most recent jobs was to cook 600 hamburgers for a Hungry Jack's television commercial just to produce a single perfect one.) Shrouded in a swirling mist of stage smoke, these extraordinarily inventive culinary altarpieces are revealed only when the starting siren sounds, at which point the chefs and their assistants charge, demolishing them in seconds as they pile raw produce into bowls and trays and rush it back to their stations. A second foray to the densely stacked pantries behind each kitchen provides the remaining ingredients and the game's on.

Not everything works. There are some disasters, even the occasional gashed finger incurred during high-speed slicing and dicing, but the contest continues. One of the challengers inspects a failed dish, hurls the contents into the sink and begins all over again, cooking against the clock to the last second. When the hour is up and participants down tools, each team must have prepared four different dishes, all featuring the secret ingredient, all plated and ready to serve - no easy call even for the most experienced cook. And being a member of the Iron Chef team has been an exhilarating experience for us judges too, providing not only some memorable gastronomic experiences but reassurance that there is some phenomenal young cooking talent out there, from every state in Australia.

During the action the race is called with a Flemington-like frenzy by Melbourne foodie and GT contributor Richard Cornish (the action is captured on no fewer than eight cameras, working mostly in extreme close-ups), but there's also the Chairman, a character played by Mark Dacascos and imported from Iron Chef America. Dacascos is an American actor and martial artist who is required to perform, in addition to the famed chomp on a capsicum at the beginning of episodes, a sequence of back flips, and, with the impressive unblinking gaze of a Toltec mask, to deliver a few brief link lines replete with pregnant pauses.

During down time, Dacascos takes singing lessons via Skype from his teacher in Los Angeles. He is preparing for his first engagement on his return home, participating in the next instalment of this culinary saga, an audition for Iron Chef the musical.

Iron Chef Australia airs 7.30pm Tuesdays on Seven.

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