“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.