New York - I'm in the Food Network's kitchen stadium. T.O. cooking luminary Susur Lee is in the heat of battle with Iron Chef America grillmeister Bobby Flay, and I'm doing an underarm check.
I mean, it's really tense. Colour commentator Alton Brown, from his perch on a dais in front of the two cooking stations, is asking Kevin Brauch - who's been running around the set doing his play-by-play - what's going on over on Lee's side. Brauch warns that Lee is cutting it close.
Ohmygawd, he might not finish. He and his young sous chefs have 45 minutes to prepare a five-star feast with the secret ingredient. With three minutes to go, Flay's got four dishes all prepared and Lee hasn't started plating yet. I can feel my jaw clenching in a mega-grind.
Why the hell do I give a shit?, I ask myself. Well, for one thing, Lee's at a big disadvantage. Where Flay knows his way around the kitchen, Lee's never cooked here before. And though I can't disclose the secret ingredient, I will say it's something you would not automatically associate with Lee's Asian fusion cuisine. Lee is our superstar, and apparently I have some stake in our star not looking bad.
It used to be that cooking shows were all about chefs like Julia Child intimidating us with her demonstrations of how to cook an omelette in four seconds or Graham Kerr as the Galloping Gourmet casually slurping vino while condescending to his blue-rinsed afternoon viewers.
But ever since the Japanese invented the Iron Chef series in 1993, time-based competition has trumped the Zen of cookery. The slow food movement may be making inroads in some parts of the world, but on television the culinary arts have become a major spectator sport.
Here in the stands, I'm starving. Though the network flacks set up a little sandwich and juice bar pre-taping, they closed it down just as the five-hour shoot began. Nothing like catching a whiff of brilliantly prepared treats while your stomach is gurgling its outrage. And, no, unlike the audience on Emeril's show, we don't get samples.
Not that I'm complaining. I have never had an assignment that got people as excited as my Iron Chef trip to New York. An interview with Pete Townshend? Joni Mitchell? Toni Morrison? Feh. The Iron Chef caps them all.
Ten seconds left. Lee has one plate to finish. Nine, eight, he's stirring the sauce in a bowl, seven, six, five, four....
This is more anxiety-provoking than the bottom of the ninth or even sudden-death overtime.
Later, when I ask the legendary Lee why he wanted to get involved in something as hokey as the Iron Chef, he's crystal clear.
"For the challenge," he says while decompressing in the green room after the taping, still dressed in his chef whites. "I like excitement, I like a stress moment and I love sport."
Then he looks at me steely-eyed. "I was going for the kill."
Hearing this from one of Toronto's most celebrated chefs and most recognizable personalities, I'm a little taken aback. Forget Asian stereotypes of meditational serenity. This is a guy with an edge who's very comfortable with competition.
"My style requires hours of prep and cooking time," he explains, delineating one way his opponent had the advantage. "I don't just throw something on the grill," he adds, a pointed barb aimed at Flay,
That evening he and his team are dining with members of the T.O. press at the chic and noisy bar Sapa, which serves Asian tapas. Chef Patricia Yeo goes apeshit when she discovers Lee is in the restaurant, inviting him back into the kitchen and sending a series of special plates out to the table.
The next day, as we're waiting at the airport for our delayed flight, Lee and the team are looking a little rocky after the previous evening's late night.
When I ask what he thought of the food at Sapa, Lee shrugs. "I don't really see what the fuss is about. You can get food like that in restaurants all over Toronto."
Truly a personality made to order for the Iron Chef series.
Find out who was victorious Wednesday (May 3) on the Food Network at 9 pm and midnight.