Iron chef, the hit Japanese → US culinary cage fight is finally coming to Channel 4 on April 26th. This is a foodie ‘Battle Royale’ with pride -as well as £1000 – at stake. The format, for those of you that don’t know is thus. The four resident Iron Chefs – Tom Aikens, Martin Blunos, Judy Joo and Sanjay Dwivedi – take on challengers from kitchens all over the UK to create dishes that will impress ‘The Chairman’ and a table of judges. Ringmaster to the whole event is Olly Smith who does a commentary aided by Nick Nairn. This is food as sport.
Each hour-long bout has a main ingredient that must feature in the dishes, and whereas the four challengers create two starters and two mains, the Iron Chef has to create all four. From the preview episode I saw there’s tension and drama mixed with some Banzi style interjections from the chairman and Olly which offer some comic relief. It’s fun to watch, and will hopefully do well in that early evening slot.
To find out a bit more I had at chat with Iron Chef Sanjay Dwivedi about the show and his cooking. It’s obvious from the start that he really loved the challenge of Iron Chef. “What was amazing, and I think better than the American version, was the set. When I first saw it I was shocked. …. it looks sexy”.More than that though he hopes people will not only enjoy the contest, but also attempt the dishes at home. “It’s a fun cooking programme, where people can learn a lot as well”. I ask him what was the hardest challenge. “One of the secret ingredients I got was eggs, it was a tough one that one, I steamed a poached egg, and served it with truffles” And it seems the more mundane ingredients needed that something extra from the Iron Chefs. In one episode, Tom Aikens gets minced beef as his secret ingredient and his heart sinks, he does however rise to the challenge.
We move on to talk about Sanjay’s cooking. “I came from a strict French background, and my palatte was very European” He tells me that he didn’t really have a lot of indian friends, and that his partner is French. It’s a happy union of two food lovers “Food is such a big thing for us, it’s a big part of out spending money. Before we had the kids, what ever money I earned I spent on food.”
Sanjay started in a consultancy role at Zaika when it opened in 1999, in 2005 he became head chef/patron. “I’d never cooked Indian food as a professional basis until I came here. So for example, I was the first the Indian restaurant to introduce a tasting menu, and I’ll do it with wine. But because I came from that classical background I said why fucking not. Now it’s the done thing, but think about it 12 years ago, it was a big risk” Today he has a nine course gourmet menu, and a seven course tasting menu, and now it accounts for nearly 50% of orders.
On the unique history of Indian food in the UK Sanjay says this. “Why did Indian food become popular? Simply because it was cheap, it was edible, you could abuse the waiters, and it was the only place that would serve you [booze] after 11 o’clock apart from Chinatown! Now why was it cheap? Because they used the cheapest cuts of meat – battery chicken – with some red colouring and lots of spices so you’re not tasting anything, you’re just eating.”
He acknowledges however and businessmen behind the endevour. “The thing is they’re the clever ones, who at the end of the day saw a niche in the market, all these owners, uneducated, who perhaps couldn’t speak much English, but with their hard work, drive a Mercedes everyday and buy another house.”
It’s an sterotypical flock wallpapered image we’re all familiar with, and a world away from a restaurant like Sanjay’s “you need to taste what you pay for, you pay for your scallops, your chicken, your lamb, You don’t pay for your fucking spices, because believe me, for £17.50 you’ll have a bag of spice that’ll last you a year!”
We move into the kitchen where the staff are getting ready for the evening’s service, It’s a fantastically mixed bunch of Nepalese, Chinese, and Indian. On a low hob there’s a massive cauldron of chicken stock reducing. The usual bird carcasses and veg are joined by cardamon pods and other spices. I pause to admire the tandoori ovens while one of the staff makes me a naan flavoured with goats cheese. I’m forever impressed at the skill of the tandoori oven, getting bread to stick on the sides without falling off or getting stuck takes real skill. Sanjay and I have just enough time for a whistle stop tour of his stores and fridges before the printer spurts out the first cheque of the evening and the staff step it up a notch. I jokingly ask for my naan to takeaway, and the staff kindly wrap it for me, brilliant.
If you’re a fan of ‘contest’ style cookery shows with a table spoon of Japanese oddity, then Iron Chef UK will hit you square between the eyes.
Iron Chef starts on the 26th April 2010 on Channel 4. If you missed it you can catch it on 4oD