“The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs” bows Sunday on Food Network

By Lori Acken

Food Network fans — nay, food lovers and food-TV fans all around — it’s finally here!

The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs — aka our version of the playoff season, leading to our version of the Super Bowl (played in a stadium, even) — debuts Sunday night at 9pm ET on Food Network.

Sharpening their knives — and their wits — to earn a spot defending Kitchen Stadium against a slew of world-class competitors are a veritable buffet of familiar faces from the network — including Secrets of a Restaurant Chef star Anne Burrell; Restaurant Impossible‘s Robert Irvine; Chopped judges Alex Guarnaschelli, Geoffrey Zakarian and Marcus Samuelsson — plus Cooking Channel stars Chuck Hughes and Michael Chiarello and a few side dishes from Bravo’s food contest megahit Top Chef,  Spike Mendelsohn and Elizabeth Falkner.

• MORE: Chuck Hughes is a hot commodity on Cooking Channel

And because the caliber of talent is uber-topnotch, the intensity of the competition has been amped up accordingly.

“We’ve gone with a different challenge structure this time,” explains Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef host Alton Brown. “The way that the challenges happen — and I really think this is the best development that could happen in terms of the caliber of things  — is that each episode has a Chairman’s Challenge, which is kind of a general thematic challenge that the chairman puts forth. Whoever is in the bottom two of that challenge have to face off in a shootout — a one-on-one sudden-death shootout, so to speak. One survives to cook another day and the other one goes home from that. And that kind of focused competition ups the stress level significantly, so I think that what you’ll see is that a lot of TV expertise very quickly will go down the drain. Because everybody realizes very, very quickly that it is just about the food. This was a cook-for-your-life scenario.”

Next Iron Chef was, like, the hardest thing I’ve done in my career,” Burrell agrees. “I was really nervous. I’ve been in Kitchen Stadium a million times before when I was on Mario Batali’s Iron Chef team and I was like, ‘I know how hard this is!’ And then I heard who was involved in it and I was like, ‘Oh, good God!”

Especially when it came to her former Worst Cooks in America and Chopped All Stars nemesis, Robert Irvine.  “Anne and I are very adversarial — we both want to be the best,” Irvine chuckles, then reveals a tantalizing teaser. “You’ll see, for the first time, Anne and I actually team up. It was a shock to her, too, I can assure you. But she was glad she did, let me put it that way!”

• MORE: Anne Burrell serves up a rockin’ new cookbook

“Yes, there was a partner situation and I was like, ‘Ah, gahd, this guy again!” Burrell counters jokingly. “He’s like a thorn in my side; he just keeps turning up. And I’m like, ‘When are you just going to give up?  Alright, I’ll just have to beat you again!’”

Because most of the contestants know each other — and in some cases know each other very well — Brown says there was plenty of that type of jesting and “gallows humor” that is typical between friends and colleagues in high-pressure kitchens. But while you may see some lip-smacking dishes emerge at the height of competition, you won’t see any smack talk  between the competitors.

“At this level of profession and professionalism you don’t see smack talk,” Brown says. “You don’t see that. These people respect each other. If you like catty competition shows, search elsewhere, because these people — even right down to the end — will help each other. Because you know what? That’s what you do in kitchens. That’s what professionals do. You will not see any bad behavior; you will not even see cruel words. You will see joking, but when it comes to actual crap talk? No. You will see good-hearted kitchen stuff. And anybody who has spent time in a professional kitchen will recognize it as such.

“I was very proud of them all for that — even when the poop got deep, every one of them kept to the high road.”

• MORE: Alton Brown on the end of Good Eats, the books about the show and what he’s got cooking next

“This is about real chefs being there, and there’s just this code of conduct where when you’re with everybody, you really respect them,” confirms Burrell.

“I’ve got to tell you, I don’t consider myself much in a competition-type scenario,” Irvine admits. “I’m more of a ‘tough love, go in and fix something’ kind of guy. So for me to be in a competition — which was also the very reason I agreed to do Chopped All Stars — is because it was for charity.  They said Anne was doing it, and I thought, ‘Do I have the time to do it?’ because I still work in my restaurants. But they said it was for charity and I said yeah, OK.”

So with no personal scores to settle, The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs is all about what its celeb competitors are all about, as well — making dazzling dishes out of whatever was thrown their way. And great TV in the process.

“What’s going to float to the surface is, one, the quality of the skills,” Brown says. “This is the difference between going to a college game and an NBA game. This is watching the Bulls circa 1988. This is not like cooking that we’ve seen anywhere before, even in Kitchen Stadium. This is controlled mayhem. And what you’re going to see from a food standpoint is going to amaze — and that’s even for hardcore foodies.

“A lot of shows like this have to make their drama,” Brown continues. “You can practically feel the sharp sticks of producers off-camera poking people to do things. None of that was necessary. These are all strong people with strong personalities, strong opinions, strong ambitions with a lot to lose.

“Unlike most competition shows where somebody can only fall up — I’m sorry, but when somebody loses on Top Chef, they were still on Top Chef, by and large — all of these people are the kind of people that you’d think would say no to this because they have more to lose than they have to win. And that changes everything. Because it’s not just about winning something that’s coveted; It’s about losing something that’s dear — your reputation.”

Still, the just deserts for everyone involved in the competition, says Burrell, was the bond that formed among the costars.

“I loved to getting to know everyone,” says the chef, who will next be seen battling Bobby Flay in Season 3 of Worst Cooks in America. “It was a great cast and we all got along well and had a lot of fun. I mean, after three days of being there, I was like ‘God, my stomach is hurting!’ And then I realized I had been laughing for three days straight. We really just had a great time together.”

Confirms Irvine, “It’s the funniest group of people who are serious about food.”

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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