“Top Chef Canada”: Not Quite There Yet

It’s always an exciting moment for Canada when we get our own version of an American reality television show. Isn’t it supposed to connote that we’ve made it into the big leagues, and that we too, in the Great White North, have our share of marketable talent too?

Some shows, like Canada’s Next Top Model, haven’t done so well, for a variety of reasons – lack of equivalent star power, poor production quality, less of a potential audience base to start with. But others, like So You Think You Can Dance Canada, have exceeded expectations. When it was announced last May that a Top Chef Canada was in the works though, I really had high hopes. Top Chef is one of my favourite programs – between the challenges, judges and cheftestant drama, I find I am drawn in, every time.

The casting seemed to deliberately draw the 16 contestants from nearly every province in Canada, likely an effort to snag viewers from across the country. Although I was disappointed no Edmonton-based chefs were chosen to compete, the two Calgary-based chefs would at least be representing Alberta (and having eaten at Connie DeSousa’s restaurant, Charcut, it would have been difficult not to root for her). Besides my home-province favourites, Dale MacKay appeared to be another strong contender, just based on his past experience and mentors.

To me then, the biggest question mark for the show’s success would boil down to the host and the judges. Without a doubt, Top Chef’s duo of Padma Lakshmi and Tom Collichio are a force to be reckoned with, and are a big part of why the show works. They are charismatic, come off (to me) as genuine, and the majority of their criticism is constructive. I recognize that editing has definitely helped them hone their television personas, but I was hoping the same magic would touch upon the Canadian equivalents.

Not so. Head judge Mark McEwan appears languid, unenthusiastic, and has barely cracked a smile  since the opening episode. But at least I can understand why he was chosen – he already had a relationship with Food Network. The other resident judge, Shereen Arazm, might have seen success in the restaurant industry, but hasn’t brought anything to the table; her comments on the show are usually along the lines of “yummy” and “bad”. Perhaps she has been getting the short end of the stick from the show’s editors, but based on her blog entries, I don’t think so. Host Thea Andrews seemed at first out of place, as if she should be hosting an entertainment news show instead, but in the last few weeks, has been growing on me.

I suppose my frustration with the judges also stems from the fact that some of the guest judges they’ve had seem to be a better fit for this type of program – for example, Susur Lee, one of Canada’s other premiere chefs, has a personality that translates on screen, unlike McEwan. Or Laura Calder, James Beard Award Winning host of French Food at Home, was great to watch in the last episode – articulate and candid, I almost wish she had been the premier guest judge, as she was overshadowed by the superstar power of Daniel Boulud.

In terms of production quality, I have to say it was quite unfortunate for Top Chef Canada to air immediately after Top Chef: All Stars. Although the kitchen fixtures and space look nearly identical to the American filming space, the challenges have been mostly lacklustre so far (open ended cheese and pork challenges? cooking with vodka?) Last week’s French challenge was the most entertaining to watch, because of its difficulty and the element of team work that it promoted. Moreover, in several of the quickfire challenges, not all of the dishes are shown – how else is the audience supposed to get to know the style and skill of the chefs? I realize there is still more than half the season to go, so I really hope that these aspects improve as the show progresses.

So, while Top Chef Canada isn’t quite the appointment television that its American counterpart is for me (yet), I’m optimistic that with the room to develop, the show can inch closer to the standard set by Top Chef.

Sherene has been conducting exit interviews with all of the Top Chef Canada contestants; read them here.

14 thoughts on ““Top Chef Canada”: Not Quite There Yet

  1. I am so glad to read this today! I thought it was just me who felt so unenthusiastic about the whole thing. Like you, I’ll keep watching in hope of something better to come… And in the meantime, I’m watching Top Chef Masters, which, this year is hosted by Curtis Stone whom I’m really not sure I like so far… although he is undoubtedly a million times more exciting than MacEwan!

  2. I also agree that Top Chef Canada has been disappointing. It hasn’t helped that it came so soon after Top Chef Allstars. I’ve only watched off and on so far and that’s not likely to change. None of the chefs’ personalities seem to have stood out very much like is usually the case on the American version. I have liked Mark MacEwan’s program “The Heat” where he’s also rather grim but then there’s more at stake for him in that program. As you pointed out he has been lacklustre in Top Chef Canada. Perhaps things will get better towards the end.

  3. I feel the same way about the judges and the challenges!

    MacEwan is a snore to watch, which isn’t much of a change really from his regular tv appearances. Thea Andrews has started to grow on me, a little, and I’m still not overly enthused by Shereen Arazm either.

    Bring on more Laura Calder! Susur Lee! Chuck Hughes! I want engaging personalities, and people who have something insightful to say!

    I’m going to keep watching, I guess, and then start catching up on episodes of Top Chef Masters on Youtube.

  4. Dr. CaSo – nope, you’re definitely not the only one! I considered watching “Top Chef: Masters” concurrently too, but thought the better of it, since “Top Chef Canada” would then further pale in comparison! I’m interested to see how Curtis Stone does – he seems to be popping up all over television these days.

    Jim – I also had to wonder about the lack of a clear “villain”. I didn’t expect to get someone as polarizing as Marcel, but none of the cheftestants have been shown or edited to be even slightly devious. I wonder if this lack of drama will utlimately hurt the show too? Especially if they need to garner a certain viewership in order to make a second season.

    KatyBelle – sounds like we could use a wish list of judges :). I know we still have more than half the season to go, but I hope Bob Blumer makes an appearance! His energy would make a world of difference.

  5. They’re definitely not off to the great start I was hoping for, but I’ve found that the first seasons of other Canadian reality shows hasn’t been so great either. Project Runway Canada’s first season wasn’t so great either, but I thought they really hit their stride once season 2 rolled around.

    And no, Mark MacEwan isn’t even a little engaging as a judge.

  6. Agree, agree- no villian, boring head judge, silly challenges, everyone is nice… maybe it’s just too “Canadian”.

    I watch because I’m a Top Chef fan but it is certainly not as entertaining as the original.

    Maybe they’ll makes changes for season two (Top Chef changed the host after the first season.)

    Love your blog Sharon!

  7. I have to say I am addicted to the Food Network and have been a long time Top Chef fan.
    I think you’re right. The production values of Top Chef Canada are lower, and the head judges make it hard to watch.
    I’ve actually been watching Top Chef Masters at the same time, and sometimes it can be almost painful. Because our hosts are not as good it robs us of some of the drama somehow–I feel less tension/stress before someone gets kicked off. Perhaps it’s because it’s almost as if MacEwan doesn’t care to be there. I feel like on Top Chef the judges are actually open to liking things from the contestants and could admit to learning something from them, but MacEwan just seems like a snarky know it all who doesn’t really seem thrilled to be participating.
    I think of they switched him out, and if our production values were bumped up a bit, TCC could be just as good as the original (maybe better because we have poutine on our side!)

  8. Greg – you’re right – they probably have to tweak the show after this season. I’d still watch…it’d take another bomb of a season for me to give up.

    Liesel – thanks for the kind words! Agreed, I was thinking it was too “Canadian” too :).

    lmh – yeah, MacEwan is surprisingly dry. He didn’t come off like that in his programs, so I’m not sure what it is about this format that is just so disagreeable with his personality. Hopefully they’re already thinking about replacements if TCC is renewed.

  9. I admit that I see all the things in the show that you do, but I don’t mind it so much. I kind of appreciate the fact that the Canadian version of this show refrains from editing people to look bad or “villainous” and instead attempts to allow the contestants to represent their restaurants and provinces in a quiet, dignified way.
    The same goes for the judges: I think on the American shows the egos of those chefs come out more than their food expertise – on Chopped, for example, the judges are just brutal. These judges say what they think and that’s it, they don’t have to add any kind of insult or demeaning comment. On the original Top Chef, half of the show is basically the contestants trash talking one another.
    So yeah, while this version is certainly less flashy and dramatic, I think it’s also more realistic, positive and, well, Canadian.

  10. Erin – I agree with you – I think the egos of the judges definitely come off quite negatively to the viewers sometimes, but in some ways, the “drama” it creates, whether or not it is realistic or not, makes it entertaining. I’m not saying I’d like all trash talk and no substance, but I think there has to be a balance. Otherwise, the viewers will tune out, and choose the “Top Chef” series that is satisfying to watch. I think our country has too many talented chefs for this show not to continue in the future!

  11. I think it’s slowly been getting better, and they’ve all been getting less stiff. The production crew was new too (I saw comments about them saying that they changed things as they filmed, like the plate sharing). I’ve been wondering about the editing though. I’ve seen some of the “behind the scenes” tastings on the Food Network website and it seems like everyone talks (and more loose) than they are on the footage that is broadcast.

    I guess I still have high hopes for the improvement of the show, mainly because it seems like the cooking looks like it is of a high standard. And I keep reminding myself that the US show has changed in a lot of ways from their first season as well.

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