“Top Chef Canada”: Season 1 Wrap

Spoilers ahead.

Since I wrote my less-than-flattering mid-point review of Top Chef Canada over a month ago, I am happy to say the series did improve with time.

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!

“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.