Chefs stepping into the Iron Chef Canada Kitchen Stadium, as well as home viewers, will be familiar with Gail Simmons — as the all-knowing host, she’s the first voice you hear on each episode and the one who provides background information on chef and ingredient pedigrees.
Gail’s also made her bones in the kitchen, as a culinary-school trained expert, food writer for Food & Wine magazine and judge on Top Chef. Although she currently lives in Brooklyn, Gail is Canadian through and through — born and bred on Toronto’s food scene. “Part of the reason I was so excited to do this show was that it gave me an opportunity to work on not only a brand I love, with a network I’ve always wanted to work with, but to have a project that brought me home,” she says. “And the bonus is that the work I’m doing is with the best chefs in Canada and I also get to see how far the culinary world has come since I left twenty years ago.”
One thing that Gail is especially excited about this season is the focus on Indigenous cuisine, especially in Battle Trout between Iron Chef Lynn Crawford and of the Maskekosak from Enoch Cree Nation. “I have to say I cannot wait to watch this episode because, to me, it just epitomized true Canadian cooking,” she says. “Chef Shane is cooking food that opened my eyes to the bounty of Canada.”
As the show’s knowledgeable host, Gail doesn’t get to taste the finished dishes, but she does get to see what competitors do successfully, and what causes panic on the kitchen line. “The simple ingredients can be just as challenging as, let’s say, offal (watch the full episode of Battle Offal ) where you need to understand how to cook with the internal organs of different animals. That is incredibly difficult in a lot of ways, but it also focuses what you can make,” she says.
Keeping it simple can be a real challenge for chefs wanting to demonstrate technique and skills in a competitive environment, especially with more familiar ingredients. “An ingredient that we all cook with all the time is so open to possibilities and vagaries that the challenge becomes cooking on the fly and keeping your focus, and doing something that is interesting, but is still all about that ingredient,” she says.
Similar issues arise when chefs heed the siren song of the ice cream machine. “I’m all for ice cream, don’t get me wrong, but there are a couple [of] flavours where I’m just like ‘that should never be made into ice cream’,” Gail laughs. “For some reason, I guess because it’s there, and you can do it relatively quickly, almost every chef can’t resist the temptation.”
Given the time restrictions, Gail sees the pressure cooker and deep fryer used to get ingredients cooked quickly, especially proteins. When it comes to equipment that could be used more, however, Gail pines for use of the wood smoker. “It would take more time, so I understand why they don’t, but I love seeing them pull out a smoker. It adds a lot of nuanced flavour,” she says. “I also love the dehydrator, but you need a lot more time with that.”
Due to the prowess of the Iron Chefs, Gail is adamant that she doesn’t desire to set foot in Kitchen Stadium as a competitor, although she has written about chefs (she counts many of the Iron Chefs as friends and colleagues who she’s known for years) and cooking techniques for decades. “I have culinary training, but I don’t work in a restaurant every day,” she says. “I would love to cook against all of them, really, but I could never claim to do what they do.”
For those brave souls who are entering Kitchen Stadium for the first time, Gail has this piece of advice: remember the clock. “Chefs who fail to think in advance about time management and really pay attention to the ticking of the clock are the ones that aren’t able to follow through,” she says. Taking the time to scope out the space is also essential, she says. “You spend a lot of time racing around looking for things, racing around to get from the fridge to the fryer.”
Chefs do get some help from the culinary team, who stock the kitchen with ingredients and also prepare equipment so that competitors aren’t waiting to preheat an oven or bring water up to temperature. Lest viewers at home think there’s any creative stretching of time in production, Gail makes it clear that the competitors have to adhere to strict time limits. “The one question I get the most from viewers is ‘Is that hour really an hour?’ she says. “When we say go, that clock is in real-time. And most people can’t cook a two-course dinner in an hour for their family, let alone what these chefs do. It is extraordinary.”
Watch Iron Chef Canada on Wednesdays this fall, starting at 10 PM E/T.