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Season 3 of 'The Next Iron Chef' begins Sunday -- and there's a ringer

October 1, 2010 |  3:20 pm

Andrew Kirschner, the executive chef at Wilshire in Santa Monica, took his place among the other nine  competitors for Season 3 of “The Next Iron Chef” and thought: "There must be some kind of a mistake."

Standing in the midst of all the hopefuls was chef Ming Tsai. “I thought, is this for real? I thought he must be one of the judges,” Kirschner says.

Others were a little more pointed in their reaction. New York chef Marco Canora sizes up the field this way: “There’s nine of us and then there’s him.” Adds Houston chef Bryan Caswell: “Ming Tsai? C’mon. Is that fair?”

As the third season of the hit Food Network show gets underway Sunday at 9 p.m., it's nabbed its highest profile chef yet: Ming is the author of several cookbooks; he helped introduce the masses to Asian cooking with the Emmy-winning “East Meets West” on the Food Network; he currently has his own show on PBS, “Simply Ming”; he’s a James Beard award winner; and his Blue Ginger is one of the most popular restaurants in Boston.

So why is he putting himself on the line, risking an upset from an upstart that would be all the more embarrassing given his comfortable perch high atop the culinary landscape?  "I'm not trying to prove to the world that I can cook,” Ming says. “I'm doing this to prove to myself that I've still got game."

The winner of "The Next Iron Chef" goes on to join the pantheon of Iron Chefs, including Masaharu Morimoto, Bobby Flay and Cat Cora, enjoying a singular honor in today’s entertainment-meets-food world. In case you have been living under a rock, the kitsch- and drama-filled “Iron Chef America” is one of the network’s most popular shows. Challengers enter Kitchen Stadium and do battle with the Iron Chef of their choice. As the throwdown begins, the nimble chairman unveils a secret ingredient that the chefs must showcase in their final dishes. A panel of judges decides whose cuisine will reign supreme.

Last season, the jockeying for a spot among the Iron Chef greats got a little nasty, thanks in no small part to the sharp elbows of chef Nate Appleman. Alton Brown -- who does hosting duties on both shows -- says this season has a kinder, gentler tone to it, due to the camaraderie among the chef-testants and a shake-up at the judges' table. Gone is the irascible and cantankerous food critic Jeffrey Steingarten. (Love him or hate him, he was the Simon Cowell of the bunch, with his withering, wince-inducing commentary.)

This time around, there is an actual Simon: critic and food writer Simon Majumdar, who brings a dry wit and a posh accent to the proceedings. He is joined by Iron Chef Michael Symon, who won Season 1 of "The Next Iron Chef," and returning judge Donatella Arpaia.

While last year’s competition took viewers around the world, this year’s is focused on the culinary diversity of good, old-fashioned American food.

In fact, the very first challenge out of the gate is reinterpreting the humble sandwich. The competitors have 30 minutes to do so, and then must decide among themselves who has the best sandwich -– and who has the worst.

Through it all, Brown weaves his way among the contestants -– narrating, of course, but there’s a delicious edge to his voice. He’s teasing, cajoling and stopping just short of taunting. It’s no doubt irritating to the chef-testants, but oh-so-much fun for the audience.

If the roles were reversed, though, Brown says there’d be no competition. “If I had to do that, I’d quit. If I had been one of them, I would have quit.”

Kirschner says the challenge was grueling, in part because it goes against the grain of a chef’s artistry. Chefs mull over ingredients, play with flavors, tweak them, adjust them and then start all over again. It’s a maddening creative process –- and it’s rarely done with a clock ticking in the background. Or a superstar chef standing nearby.

“We probably all grew up watching Ming Tsai,” Kirschner said of his fellow competitors. One of the hardest parts of the challenge, he said, is the waiting around between shooting. Contestants are told very little about what’s happening next. “There’s a lot of waiting, pacing, and it just builds up a lot of tension.” The evidence, he says, is how many of these experienced chefs end up nicking their fingers with a knife.

So why do it?

“At the end of the day, most chefs probably all want to have full restaurants, and that’s the kind of exposure that leads to profitable businesses,” Kirschner says. And if he were to win the Iron Chef title? “Nothing is better for a successful business than exposure like that.”

Brown says he wasn’t initially convinced that a Season 3 was worth it. “I was real skeptical about going back; I was not happy about it. I’m always concerned about watering down the Iron Chef’s image. I was thinking, ‘We’re going to kill the goose if we do this.' ”

He says he changed his mind after he “realized it was an amazingly strong bunch of people willing to jump through hoops of culinary doom."

He adds: “We ended up getting to a really new place, with a really good competition.”

-- Rene Lynch
Twitter.com / renelynch

Photo: Food Network