Top Chef Canada recap, episode 1: playing with knives

Top Chef Canada recap, episode 1: playing with knives

Season 1 | Episode 1

Like most fans of the original, American Top Chef, we came to last night’s premiere of Top Chef Canada with some pretty serious expectations. Would the level of competition be as fierce? Would Thea Andrews be credible as the host? Could we blindly trust head judge Mark McEwan the way we do Tom Colicchio? Would the producers be able to cram in as many egregious product placements?

We needn’t have worried. Top Chef Canada is eerily similar to the original—same structure, same music, same sound effects, same stock phrases—but with an extra dash of Canadian hokeyness added in. Here, our recap of the best dishes, quips and insidious sponsorship.

After the obligatory shot of a Porter airplane soaring above Toronto’s skyline, the show opened with the usual introductions of the contestants and their respective story lines. Todd Perrin, the lone East Coaster, got to play the Old Guy (“It’s gonna be interesting for me to get next to the young bucks and see if I still got the chops”) while Origin’s Steve Gonzalez is this season’s resident Badass (“I’m gonna win this competition, and if you get in my way, I just might stab you”) and François Gagnon fulfills the French Guy quotient (first words: “Bon soir”). Our favourite moment came when Mercatto’s Rob Rossi delivered the obligatory “Oh my God!” after walking into what looked like a generic, barely-decorated Toronto condo.


Mad scramble for artichokes (Image: Food Network Canada/Insight Productions) 

The inaugural quickfire challenge consisted of four heats (but not before Rebekah Pearse took one for the team by marvelling over the Le Creuset cookware in the GE Monogram kitchen). First, the chefs were given a whole red snapper, and the first eight to fillet it without beating it up too badly (like Grace‘s Dustin Gallagher did) advanced to the next round. The remaining eight chefs were given a boatload of artichokes and told to peel as many as they could in five minutes (Gonzalez, whose reaction was “What the fuck, I don’t remember the last time I peeled an artichoke,” failed to move on). Round three challenged the final four make a perfect hollandaise, with Rossi and Gagnon both disqualified for inexplicably adding tarragon to the mix (didn’t your moms ever teach you the difference between a béarnaise and a hollandaise?). The final two, Connie DeSousa and Dale MacKay, were given 20 minutes to prepare a dish using the ingredients from the previous round. MacKay’s pan-roasted snapper with black garlic potatoes beat out DeSousa’s poached fish with parsley salad, netting him mad props all around and the coveted immunity from elimination. He also got to indulge in some Top Chef–standard hubris—“I’m gonna try to win every challenge. I’m not looking to sit back. There’s no way!”—proving that all reality television is actually based on Sophocles.


Top Chef Canada’s first elimination challenge asked the chefs to cook a dish that would show the judges just who they were. After 30 minutes at Loblaws (the Jarvis and Queen’s Quay location, we think), the 16 chefs got down to business. The most daring dish: Perrin’s braised seal flipper. The most perplexing: Clayton Beadle’s roasted lamb loin with a blueberry rub. In an ingenious bit of sponsorship, right before time ran out, Gonzalez cut himself and we were treated to a cutaway shot of a first-aid kit full of Band-Aids and Polysporin. Andrea Nicholson of Great Cooks on Eight wrapped up the challenge with a glorious F-bomb after she cut into her roast to discover undercooked, ruby-red lamb.

At the judging, we got the first real look at the hosts. Like Padma Lakshmi on the original show, Andrews joined in with the tasting and judging. Mercifully, she managed to tamp down her Entertainment Tonight bubbliness, although she didn’t quite manage Lakshmi’s breathy languor. Shereen Arazm was feisty like her Top Chef counterpart Gail Simmons (she even managed the immensely Simmons-like quip “I’m a chicken-and-waffles girl” in response to Derek Bocking’s homey maple-glazed salmon and buckwheat pancakes). Thank goodness head judge McEwan was in full-out crabby mode, serving as something of an antidote to all the cheerleading. This week’s guest judge was Vikram Vij of Vancouver’s celebrated Indian restaurant Vij’s, who won the “Did he just say that?” award when he likened Chris Kanka’s dish to “going on a date with a beautiful woman but not going anywhere further.”

At the top of this week’s heap: Gagnon, Bocking, Nicholson and Rossi, who ended up with the win for his seared B.C. halibut and butter-poached lobster with crème fraîche and tarragon foam (a sly nod to the tarragon-spiked hollandaise that got him booted from the quickfire round). In addition to earning the first win on Top Chef Canada, Rob took home $2,500 worth of Le Creuset loot. The four chefs with the worst dishes this time around were Michael Stauffer, Beadle, Jamie Hertz and an ashen-faced Kanka. Stauffer, who inexplicably served his roasted lamb on top of a congealed chèvre-infused consommé, suffered the indignity of being the first Canadian chef to be told, “Please pack your knives and go,” but not before McEwan described his dish as “well-intentioned, very confusing and really unappetizing.” Arazm noted that it “could be vomit.” Ouch.

At the beginning and end of the episode, we got some tantalizing hints about the what to expect for the rest of the season. Shouting! Running around! Guest spots by Simmons, Susur Lee and Daniel Boulud (whose two Vancouver restos both shuttered shortly after taping)! Oh, and it looks like next week’s challenge centres on Canadian cheeses and takes place at a cocktail party in some kind of art gallery. You better believe we’ll be watching.

Check out our recap of episode 2 »