Cooking up the perfect blend of food and lunacy

ALIVE lobster called Robert being carried to Glasgow in a suitcase, a mysterious Japanese man and a potato and caviar pizza. It's not the most obvious recipe for a new cooking show.

But when Iron Chef launches on Channel 4 on Monday, viewers will be in equal parts perplexed and impressed by the high-octane blend of food, fun and – frankly – lunacy.

Among the show's challengers are Michelin-starred chef Tony Borthwick of The Plumed Horse in Henderson Street, and Pierre Levicky from Chez Pierre in Eyre Place, who admit to being somewhat stunned by the format.

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The show is based on a 1990s Japanese TV show and is set in the "kitchen stadium" – a huge TV studio with multiple kitchens, where four challengers take on each of the Iron Chefs in turn to produce dishes against the clock, containing named ingredients.

The Iron Chefs – Tom Aikens, Martin Blunos, Judy Joo and Sanjay Dwivedi – produce four dishes in the time taken by the challengers to produce just one and food critics then taste and score them all.

The oriental flavour is preserved in occasional, rather odd interjections from the chairman, described in the show's blurb as "an enigmatic Japanese ringmaster who embodies the 'ancient heritage' of the competition" (the nature of the ancient heritage is not quite clear, but let's not be picky).

There are words of wisdom from Nick Nairn, while co-presenter and wine guru Olly Smith ricochets about the place shouting at people maniacally, looking like Billy Bunter released from an insane asylum to report on the feeding of gladiators to the lions.

It's a full-on, in-yer-face explosion of bright lights, flashing knives, and whizzy camera shots. Imagine the absolute antithesis to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall pottering about in his kitchen garden, and you're there.

But is the madness real, or do they just ham it up for the cameras?

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According to Pierre, it was shot in real time, with real pressure: "It was like that on the show, it's very hard, they really push you to the extremes. You were tired the same as a busy Saturday, I came out exhausted. It's got to taste good and it's got to be done on time otherwise you don't get any points, and the game is to win. At first you go in as a joke, but it becomes very serious."

They might have been working on the same TV team, but over morning coffee at The Plumed Horse, Tony and Pierre are like chalk and French cheese. Michelin-starred Tony is friendly but fast and focused – and perhaps just a little bit miffed that he didn't fare as well as he'd hoped on the show, despite his immaculate pedigree.

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Pierre, by contrast, chuckles philosophically that the show made him look "a bit fat and bald", and admits to being crestfallen on seeing the beautiful potato and caviar pizza turned out by Iron Chef Judy Joo: "The way it looked, I thought 'I'm sorry, I'll just go home now, head low' – it was incredible."

But, while he might appear laid-back today, Pierre insists he was definitely in it to win it on Iron Chef – hence the live lobster.

"On the Friday, I got annoyed because I'm quite competitive, and I was not happy with the dishes that we did. The Iron Chefs had truffles and caviar, and the best things in the world, so then came the Sunday and I thought 'If we're going to win, we'd better play with the rules'.

"So I got my fishmonger to get me the biggest lobster he could get. I took it with me in my suitcase by train, I had a live lobster in my suitcase. We arrived at the Crowne Plaza in Glasgow and I said 'I have a strange request, I have a live lobster in my luggage, do you think you could keep it alive overnight?' and they did, they put it in their deep freeze. The next day I put it back in my suitcase, I took a taxi, and said to the production team 'Can we change a few things?' The lobster was alive, I gave it a name, and called him Robert. He had the trip of his life."

It was, they say, a very different experience from a Saturday night in the kitchen.

Tony says: "It's a strange thing to actually be doing something like that outside of your comfort zone. I was quite nervous, there are cameras poking in your face and they ask you to do something again so that you can take a photograph of it. But it was really quite fun.

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"It's good promotion for your business and if I'm honest about it, that's the only reason to do anything like that – I don't want to be some kind of TV personality chef."

It might be tough to produce one perfect dish under scrutiny and against the clock, but the Iron Chefs produce four in the same time. However, Tony says: "They've got a couple of people helping out. To be honest, it would appear on the face of it that they had a lot more to do but in reality they had the experience of it all and knowing what they're going to be doing, which is a huge advantage."

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And while Tony might be reluctant to enter the world of celebrity chef-ery, Pierre says he would readily accept if an invitation to become an Iron Chef ever landed on his doormat: "I certainly would, but I don't think they'd ask me. I've got the speed but I don't know if I'm what they're looking for. My food tastes good, but my presentation skills are a bit . . . er . . . rustic. I was wondering why I was there at the start of the first show," he turns to Tony, "I really don't cook like any of you."

"It depends how you look at it," Tony says, "Michelin star apart, it doesn't matter for things like this, we had a girl on the team who'd come all the way from Portugal, a good amateur chef and she'd applied for it. I think they were looking for a good cross-section of people."

Whatever the reason they were picked, and whoever the winner (they remain tight-lipped on that one), it's clear that they had a great time.

There was really only one loser, it seems – Robert the lobster.

Iron Chef begins on Channel 4 on Monday at 5pm. Tony and Pierre will appear on a future episode