Gail Simmons and Chris Nuttall-Smith, from ‘Iron Chef Canada,’ talk making show uniquely Canadian

L to R: Lynn Crawford, Rob Feenie, Hugh Acheson, Jai West, Gail Simmons, Chris Nuttall-Smith, Susur Lee and Amanda Cohen for Iron Chef Canada. Corus Entertainment / Food Network Canada

Iron Chef Canada is bringing some epic culinary battles, bold flavours and bragging rights to Food Network Canada.

Based on the popular Japanese sensation, Iron Chef Canada pits world-class chefs against the legendary Canadian Iron Chefs: Hugh Acheson, Amanda Cohen, Lynn Crawford, Rob Feenie, and Susur Lee in intense culinary battles.

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In every episode, the Chairman invites one talented challenger to go head-to-head against one of Canada’s most iconic Iron Chefs in a one-hour, five-dish duel for culinary supremacy in Kitchen Stadium.

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The Chairman kicks off each battle revealing the secret ingredient – the mandatory item that must be incorporated into each of the Iron Chef and challenger’s five-dish line-up.

The Chairman turns up the heat in Kitchen Stadium when he introduces his Culinary Curveball, an unexpected ingredient that must be incorporated into at least one of the courses each chef presents.

Iron Chef Canada is hosted by acclaimed culinary expert and food writer Gail Simmons; noted food critic and writer Chris Nuttall-Smith provides play-by-play commentary as Floor Reporter, and Jai West is Iron Chef Canada’s enigmatic Chairman.

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Global News sat down with Nuttall-Smith and Simmons to discuss food, Canadian ingredients and what makes this cooking competition stand out from the others.

Global News: What do you think makes this show stand out from other cooking competition shows?

Chris Nuttall-Smith: This is the original. Iron Chef started in Japan and became an absolute cult favourite through the 1990s. So many chefs and so many food people say ‘Oh my god, it’s the first food show I ever watched.’ And it keeps going. The central idea behind it is to face great chefs against each other with a secret ingredient and give them an hour and see what happens. You get to see what ideas, what deliciousness pours out of their head. It is absolutely intoxicating to watch and so amazing to be there on the floor as well.

Gail Simmons: It’s almost like the gladiators of our time. It’s this incredible kitchen stadium that we were able to recreate here in Canada and we get to bring in two of the greatest fighters in this industry to battle against each other. I just really loved seeing the talent that came together. All Canadian, the ingredients, the produce, the culture and the nuance of what makes Canada so special really comes out in the food that they create.

Chris, as the floor reporter of the show, do you feel any of the contestants’ nerves when you approach them to ask questions while they are cooking?

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CNS: Do I feel their nerves, yes I do! I began apologizing after the first few episodes beforehand saying, ‘Look, I’m so sorry. You’re going to be really stressed out and I’m going to come around and ask you what you just put in your sauce. You’re going to have to get over that.’ I go up to them and ask what they’re doing and Gail will be like, ‘Chris, go tell me what’s happening over there.’ And I’ll look over and say, ‘I can’t go near there!’ But I do. (laughing) Both of us in different ways, me from the floor and Gail overseeing, we’re there to translate what’s happening to people at home. We’re using our senses and using our experience to do that.

GS: There’s so much happening so quickly. One hour isn’t a lot of time so for us to even capture a bit of it is an accomplishment. We are running, looking and just trying to stay in the race and keep up with these amazing chefs. It’s intimidating.

It takes me like an hour to grocery shop so watching these chefs prep, cook and serve within an hour is really impressive.

How does it feel to bring this series to Canada?

CNS: Amazing, there’s so much talent here. To have this show for these chefs to go and test what they’re made of against the Iron Chefs, who by the way are five of the great Canadian talents. To have competitors come in and test their skills against these chefs is brilliant.

GS: I find it to be a moment of pride for me. I was so honoured to be part of the brand. When they told me they were making an Iron Chef Canada, I said there is no question I would do whatever I had to do to be part of it because it really is a moment where this is just the right time for Canada. There’s so much talent, so much innovation and imagination. There’s so many upcoming chefs who are doing things here that you’re just not going to see anywhere else. I think it gives us a great opportunity to step back and really be proud of the food in this country.

Are the secret ingredients used this season going to make the show more uniquely Canadian?

GS: Sometimes but all the ingredients I think make it uniquely Canadian. We try to not be too cliché about it. There’s definitely ingredients and battles in Iron Chef Canada that you would not see in any other country for sure.

CNS: Some of the secret ingredients are things that home cooks would rarely use. And other ingredients are ingredients that we all have in our pantries. You get to see these absolutely incredible chefs at the top of their games working with ingredients that we all have and use.

What is the best meal you’ve both ever had? What was it, where was it, who made it?

GS: Ever? I mean I couldn’t possibly tell you. I eat for a living so I can’t even remember half of the meals. Even on the show alone, we witness them making the meals and we get to taste them all. But doing 20 years of television, I’ve really been able to eat across the globe. Often my favourite meals aren’t because they are the fanciest or most elaborate. They’re the ones that are the most emotionally connected to me in the moment I’m in. I think that great meals and great food have so many factors to them. It’s about who you’re with, where you are and what’s happening in your life at that moment. That’s what’s so beautiful about sitting down at the table and having great food is that it brings all those things together.

CNS: So everything that Gail just said. And Cafe Il Nido in 1991, I was in the 11th grade. It’s at Robson and Thurlow and I was with my girlfriend at the time. And we went in and I had never been to a fancy restaurant and we had gnocchi, which was something I hadn’t even heard of before. And they served us wine even though we were underage and it was one of the most amazing meals. Was it the greatest meal I’ve ever had, no not by a long shot. But at the time it was. A great meal is emotionally resonant and it’s a moment in your life. It’s not just about what’s on the plate.

That’s such a great way to look at it because for me, I had a homemade tamale in the Mayan jungle in Mexico and it was the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. And now thinking back to what you two just said, it makes sense that I loved it so much because there was a lot happening around me and I was experiencing new things.

CNS: See, context is everything. And I bet if you had that tamale at home alone, you’d be like, ‘Oh, whatever, it’s an OK tamale.’

GS: Another day, another tamale. (Laughing)

What do you think inspires chefs to come on this show and compete?

GS: I think inherently chefs are competitive because the industry is competitive. Owning and operating a restaurant at one of the highest levels is some of the hardest work that anyone ever does. They understand that sense of urgency and they love to be competitive because that’s what they do every single day. Getting through a dinner service at some of these restaurants is a battle at some extent and it has to be done perfectly every single time. By nature, they love battle. I say on the show every time, ‘They crave to feel the rush of battle,’ and they really do. And it’s about bragging rights, pride and challenging yourself in the industry that you’ve dedicated your life to be part of.

Is there anything that you two are excited for the viewers to see this season?

CNS: All of it, I mean look, it sounds like just an easy answer but…

GS: It makes our mouth water.

Especially smelling everything and being in the room. It probably smells amazing.

GS: Yes!

CNS: And when you’re there, you know you just witnessed something incredible but you never entirely know how it’s going to translate to television. After watching the first episode, I’m just utterly blown away. I’m so excited for people to see how beautiful and how smart and how delicious and how tense these battles are.

Iron Chef Canada premieres Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Food Network Canada

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[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

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