Iron Chef Canada is all about spectacular Canadian food and host Gail Simmons and floor reporter Chris Nuttall-Smith bring the viewers that much closer to the incredible dishes created in Kitchen Stadium. As respective Top Chef and Top Chef Canada judges, the duo has plenty of experience tasting, critiquing and pontificating on plates from a wide array of culinary experts across the country.
They also happen to love their jobs, which is obvious when you sit down to chat with them about all things food. Here they break down what it’s really like entering Kitchen Stadium for the first time, how the Iron Chefs handled the intense pressure, and which Canadian restaurants they’re really digging right now.
How did it feel walking into the Kitchen Stadium for the first time?
Simmons: Awe-inspiring. I wasn’t mentally prepared for the grandeur of it. I’d never been in one otherwise, and it was beautiful. The lights are so dramatic.
Nuttall-Smith: There are huge spotlights coming down from everywhere!
Simmons: And it’s dark and moody…
Nuttall-Smith: The altars. The altars are where the secret ingredients are showcased in all their glory. They were amazing things to see and behold. These incredible ingredients everywhere. Spotlights. Smoke.
Simmons: Yeah it just feels so dramatic and magical.
Nuttall-Smith: It intimidates chefs, I think. Everyone that walks in is a little intimidated by it.
Simmons: If they’re not intimidated by us, they’re intimidated by Kitchen Stadium. [Laughs.] Your heart beats a little bit faster and that’s the beauty of it.
What was the energy like? Was there any trash-talking going on?
Simmons: There wasn’t trash-talking but there was definitely a lot of egging on, pun intended. This is the highest mountain of culinary accomplishments. You can’t help but get really pumped up and nervous—I mean we were nervous and we weren’t even competing. It’s great to see these incredible chefs just doing what they do best as they spur each other on. They actually sort of take the energy from the Stadium and it just lent itself to amazing work. You get really inspired by where you are.
Nuttall-Smith: It’s a high-wire act with knives and smoke and fire. That gets to the chefs and yeah there’s a little bit of trash-talking for sure but ultimately it doesn’t come down to you, it comes down to what you put on the plate. Every week the best food wins.
Simmons: The laser focus was unbelievable. We tried to rattle them—Chris is down there sticking his hands in things, The Chairman is giving them culinary curveballs. Some of them are so focused on their craft and are so completely in this tunnel of what they have to do, and it is kind of a revelatory thing that they get it done after an hour. What they accomplish is unbelievable.
Nuttall-Smith: It’s amazing what they’re able to do. They will do a five-course meal and a cocktail.
Simmons: They know we’re booze hounds!
Who had the best trash-talk?
Nuttall-Smith: Let’s just say there was trash-talk from some of the chefs you might not expect at first, which was the best part. One chef, in particular, was asked about her craft and she was quite pointed about the advantages of what she does. It was a lot of fun.
What can Canadians expect from Iron Chef Canada?
Simmons: It’s the highest level of cooking from chefs in this country. Not only are Iron Chefs obviously accomplished, but the chefs that come here to challenge them every week are the best chefs running restaurants. I was just so amazed at the quality of their cooking and their innovation and the breadth of what they’re doing. I live in New York so I can’t help but think that I’ve kind of seen it all, but you come to Canada and you forget that the products here are so interesting and that there is a distinctly Canadian feel to the food. It’s intangible sometimes but it is so beautiful to see. The connection to nature and the connection to the outdoors, to the game meat, to the beautiful produce. For me, that was really interesting to watch.
Nuttall-Smith: I’m with Gail. She is so right.
Simmons: We almost take it for granted in Canada; you don’t see the difference until you leave. I grew up in Canada and I have now lived in the States almost as long as I’ve lived in Canada and it just made me really excited to be home.
What made the show uniquely Canadian to you?
Simmons: There are some chefs here that do things you just can’t do anywhere else in the world. Obviously, there are the products they have access to, but it’s the cooking traditions.
Nuttall-Smith: The cooking traditions—you see chefs make food that no one else is going to make anywhere else on the planet.
Simmons: Using meat, and protein, and vegetables, and wild berries, and leaves, and things that I had never seen before so that was a really unique experience and an amazing experience. I love how much I learned in the process and it definitely made me realize that I just can’t afford to be jaded.
Nuttall-Smith: It’s a constant debate, ‘What is Canadian food?’ that drives me a little bit crazy, but the answer is it’s all the food. In Canada if you’re a chef you cannot afford to just keep your head down and do your thing. You’re always looking around to see what these great chefs [are doing]. Like Susur Lee—he’s not just cooking the Asian food I think people expect of him, he is bringing in so many influences. You see Lynn Crawford, Hugh Acheson, Rob Feenie, Amanda Cohen, their competitors… they have super wide frames of reference and that is what makes it so Canadian. They are dipping into so many different ideas, and traditions, and ingredients, and cultures.
Simmons: The diversity is incredible. The diversity of our challengers’ backgrounds was so interesting. They’re all Canadian, they’re all proud to be Canadian, but their ancestry is from all over the world. So there’s everything from every corner of Asia to the indigenous people of this country and everything in between. References from Latin America and from Europe… you really get a sense of the mosaic of this country.
How did you guys tackle bringing the experience of the food to the audience at home?
Simmons: The million dollar question of working in food on television is why should viewers care if they can’t taste the food? So our job is to be the tasters for the audience. My gauge of if I’ve done a good job is if I make people hungry. Interestingly on this particular show, Chris and I aren’t tasting the food ourselves. We leave a lot of that work to the judges to explain how things taste. But we certainly dive into how everything looks and are explaining the process and the techniques and making it accessible to the viewers at home. It’s our job to really break that down and make it appealing and there’s just so much visual sensationalism in the kitchen. There’s so much to watch, so we need to catch it, we need to explain it, and that’s the only way to do it.
Nuttall-Smith: There were so many instances where the two of us were just generally surprised by the techniques, the ideas, and what showed up on the plates. So much of this was spectacular to witness and it’s really hard not to convey that when you’re in the middle of it. Our job is to call what we see.
Simmons: The clock is ticking the whole time too, so you’re under so much pressure as a chef cooking in the Kitchen Stadium and our question is always, ‘Are they going to make it?’ Because every time it comes down to the last five seconds.
Nuttall-Smith: Exactly. Until the bitter end, they’re always trying to do something spectacular. You see some of them come in and in the first 20 minutes of the clock they’re strolling around a little thinking, ‘I’ve got this’ and then the clock keeps ticking and then you see the stress. Or you might see them screw up a challenge, and it becomes incredibly intense very quickly.
What’s one Canadian restaurant you can’t get enough of right now?
Simmons: When we were here shooting I got to eat at a lot of good restaurants I was excited about. And [recently] I went to a really great and really interesting Thai restaurant that was serving food I thought was different than a lot of restaurants, it’s called Kiin. It was really great, it was really beautiful and lovely and nuanced and so I was really happy to eat there. But there’s so much good food in Canada.
Nuttall-Smith: This is so hard, it could be a tiny place like One2 Snacks that serves the most amazing Malaysian noodles. It could be a Tamil place that makes amazing lump rice, so like rice with anchovies, and eggplant, and all sorts of curries. It could be a fancy place like Edulis, which is Spanish and French but they use the most amazing Canadian ingredients. It’s so hard to choose. I think that’s what makes it so incredible and exciting. And these are just Toronto restaurants that I’m naming. The Vin Papillon in Montreal makes me absolutely crazy, it’s so good. Raymonds on the East Coast. There’s so much great eating on the West Coast. I hate being asked this because there’s so many I could never just live with eating at one restaurant.
Who do you want to see next in the Kitchen Stadium?
Nuttall-Smith: I want to see Riad Nasr, from Montreal. He’s an incredible chef, he’s at the top of the New York restaurant food game.
Simmons: He’s a Canadian hockey boy. He was the chef at Balthazar for 20 years and now he opened his own place called Frenchette.
Nuttall-Smith: I would be fascinated to see him. There are so many great Canadian chefs around the world as well though that are doing amazing things. Nobody outside of the intimate centre of the industry knows who they are but they’re doing things at the highest level. There’s a guy, David Zilber who just did a book on fermentation, at Noma in Denmark. Amazing, amazing chef.
Simmons: Also you were talking about Raymonds. Jeremy Charles, I would love to see him in Kitchen Stadium. He’s amazing.
Nuttall-Smith: He would be an amazing competitor.
Watch Iron Chef Canada Wednesdays at 10 PM E/P