The biggest turnaround for me was Head Judge Mark McEwan. It’s almost as if halfway through filming, producers reviewing the tapes realized that he was coming off as stoic and tense, and started prompting him with “Smile!” cue cards behind the camera. Though he’s still no Tom Collichio, McEwan definitely showed signs of loosening up towards the end, which bodes well for the future of the show. Host Thea Andrews was also okay, though her delivery and smirk continued to be reminiscent more of tabloid entertainment than reality programming.
Resident Judge Shereen Arazm, on the other hand, I still could have done without – she didn’t add anything for me, and I’m not convinced that the canon of Canadian talent could not have provided someone more articulate and less shrill. I’m not sure if she has been secured for next season, but I’m hoping for a replacement.
In terms of guest judges, I know Canada doesn’t have the same obsession with “celebrity chefs” as our neighbours to the south, but Top Chef Canada is a great platform to start celebrating our homegrown talent. Most of the judges were Food Network alumni (some of whom, like Rob Feenie and Gail Simmons, I did enjoy), but I’d like to see future episodes utilize more non-screen chefs.
The challenges were also more entertaining as the show went on. I really liked the street food challenge (the “fusion” aspect not so much), and was pleased that “restaurant wars” did not disappoint. I am also glad the final challenge was open-ended – I don’t think the cheftestants were given enough opportunities towards the end to really showcase their true cooking styles. Mack and I both agreed that we hope future challenges embrace regional cooking more – I acknowledge that this inaugural season chose to highlight ethnic cuisines as its representation of Canadiana, but so much more can and should be done with the breadth of produce and proteins offered by our vast country.
Though I realize that the costs associated with building the studio in Toronto must be recouped, I’m hoping that future seasons will film across the country in a manner similar to Top Chef (season 9 will likely be based in San Antonio). In addition to celebrating talent, the show is a wonderful chance to expose viewers to venues and restaurants across the country, and can go a long way to encourage inter-provincial culinary tourism.
Lastly – congrats to Dale! But I have to be honest; I was rooting for Connie not only because of her Alberta connection, but also because it is rare to see a female chef take the title. There’s always next year (they accepted applications back in June)! Looking forward to season two – go Canada!