Top Chef Canada recap, episode 12: family-styled

Top Chef Canada recap, episode 12: family-styled

The chefs steel themselves before judges David Lee, Gail Simmons and Jacob Richler. (Image: Food Network Canada/Insight Productions) 

Season 1 | Episode 12

Season one of Top Chef Canada has been all about head judge Mark McEwans approach to cooking: luxurious ingredients, simply prepared with exceptional technique. Last night’s episode felt like a master class in that philosophy, so it was only appropriate that the chefs started out chatting with McEwan over brunch at his Yorkville mainstay One. Sure, the conversation might have veered toward the painfully awkward, and sure, McEwan dropped some obviously scripted hints about this love of family-style presentation. But there was still something charming about seeing the four remaining contestants—Dustin Gallagher, Dale MacKay, Connie DeSousa and Rob Rossi— yammer on about their love of food and cooking. Of course, it was all went downhill from there. After the jump, our recap of an episode that featured some high-calibre guests, a tortured quickfire concept and some strangely disappointing cooking (not to mention a Toronto Life shout-out).


Host Thea Andrews introduced the guest judge we’ve been waiting for all season: Gail Simmons, a former Toronto Life intern, current Food and Wine staffer and judge on the U.S. version of Top Chef. Unfortunately, her first duty (after striding in with great purpose) was to setup an epically lame quickfire, in which the chefs were asked to prepare a dish inspired by, ahem, “well-known Canadian films.” At least two of the four contestants hadn’t seen their assigned movie, so it’s a good thing they were all provided with synopses.

Dale MacKay’s riff on Ginger Snaps (Image: Food Network Canada/Insight Productions) 

Inspired by Naked Lunch, DeSousa prepared a delightful-looking spread of what she called “really addicting foods” like popcorn, chips and peanut brittle. Gallagher, who hadn’t seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, made grilled calamari with a hidden tomato side, symbolizing the main character’s hidden, non-Greek love (despite the mediocre food, Simmons clearly couldn’t resist the Gallagher Grin: “You have a cute smile on your face—I’m impressed!”). Rossi, who also hadn’t seen his flick, Bon Cop Bad Cop, made shrimp two ways, one bon and the other spicy. But it was MacKay who took the win for his take on the cult werewolf movie Ginger Snaps: blood-red salmon and goth-black squid-ink risotto. Said Simmons: “I liked the kind of violence you showed on the plate.” (Note to Top Chef Canada producers: more Gail Simmons next year, please.)


Gail Simmons dissects Dustin Gallagher’s gummy pasta as David Lee looks on in horror. (Image: Food Network Canada/Insight Productions) 

For their elimination challenge, the chefs—surprise, surprise—were asked to cook a three-course meal, served family style for a “dinner party” McEwan was throwing—for his sake, we sincerely hope his dinner parties don’t normally consist of picking apart a spread of dishes at the Top Chef Canada judging table. Joining him, the most Toronto Life–tastic group of judges ever: Simmons, the former intern; foodie-about-town Jacob Richler, who contributed to the July issue; trend-spotting writer Amy Verner; and David Lee, whose Nota Bene, Andrews pointed out, was named 2009’s best new restaurant by us (check out our look inside Lee’s hyper-organized fridge).

Throughout the challenge, the chefs disastrously took the “family style” brief as an invitation to play it safe (instead of an invitation to present their food on serving platters). For his starter, MacKay served up two kind of oysters with two simple mignonettes. McEwan was unimpressed: “Everything about it is clumsy, right from the plating to the final choice of ingredients.” Gallagher offered two big sloppy bowls of overcooked and under-flavoured homemade pasta. DeSousa impressed on the first course with an elegant beet salad with homemade fresh cheese that stunned both Lee and Simmons.

The second course was a battle of roast fish between Rossi—whose seared perch with gnocchi and peas drew adulation from the judges—and Gallagher, who served a whole, messy grilled lake trout. Quoth McEwan: “The juvenile nature of the trout really stands out.” DeSousa, meanwhile, removed her dead-simple roast chicken from the oven to find that the breast was totally uncooked. And while we applaud her emergency save—she plonked her halved chickens right into the deep fryer—we can’t believe such a highly trained chef could mess up a roast chicken. MacKay, for his part, sailed by with an inoffensive dish of diver scallops with asparagus purée and white asparagus.

Rob Rossi’s three winning dishes (Image: Food Network Canada/Insight Productions) 

The third course was an even safer mixed bag, with two chefs going savoury and two making dessert. Richler, a big steak fan, was disappointed with MacKay’s seared rib-eye, which he served at various cuissons, all of them bland. Rossi’s third course, braised lamb neck with roasted mushrooms and baby beets, went over much better (a dish Simmons called “inventive,” the first and last time that adjective was applied in this episode). DeSousa made up for her disastrous chicken with a chocolate ganache tart that looked as delicious as it was simple (“I could have another piece of that in a second,” gushed Verner). Bizarrely, Gallagher wasted his last dish on a roasted fruit salad with some cardamom and pistachios. Simmons, once again, said it best: “I’m totally confounded by the fruit plate. This is your last chance to wow us….I actually think it’s absurd.”

As the only chef without a major screw-up, Rossi took the quarterfinal win (in a reversal of the usual reality show hubris/downfall logic, he’d earlier exclaimed, “I’m not nervous in the slightest—this is my best meal”). The win sets him up nicely for the “new and exciting ventures” he promised us last week. It was pretty obvious by the end of the episode that Gallagher, grin and all, was headed for the chopping block. When Andrews handed the verdict down, he took it with grace, smiling and high-fiving to the end. He even declared to McEwan, “Chef, you’re like the father I never had!”

Next week on Top Chef Canada

The final showdown between the three remaining chefs: MacKay, DeSousa and Rossi. In keeping with Top Chef tradition, the finale episode involves a field trip, this time to a winery (which looked to us like either Peller or Vineland Estates, although all wineries sort of look the same). The last episode is where the gimmicks fall away and the chefs cook on their own terms. Which makes it curious that both DeSousa and Rossi accuse MacKay of cheating in the previews. With one week to go, it’s still too close to call, but with Rossi winning the last two episodes and announcing his departure from Mercatto, we’d say the last Toronto chef standing is the odds-on favourite.

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