Top Chef Canada recap, episode 1: and we’re baaaaaack
Let’s face it: season one of Top Chef Canada wasn’t perfect. Some people complained that the cooking lacked ambition. Others, including many of our esteemed commenters, found the slate of contestants a tad too lily white and male. And, let’s face it, not everyone was the biggest fan of host Thea Andrews. But here we are, eight months later, with a set of chefs that head judge Mark McEwan has said are higher calibre, a more diverse cast and, lo!, a new host, actress and one-time model Lisa Ray. So who knows? We’re already pretty excited to see how this season will stack up against the first (which, to be fair, we thought was pretty entertaining). Find out how the first episode went down—and how much product placement the producers were able to cram in—after the jump.
The show started off with the customary shots of various chefs arriving (at McEwan’s restaurant Bymark) and various plot lines being set up. We saw Ottawa’s Jonathan Korecki at the island airport meeting fellow Bytowner Curtis Luk, who pretty quickly established himself as the comic relief. We saw Marben’s Carl Heinrich stroll off the 501 and into the role of the Steely Determined Competitor. We saw Crush Wine Bar’s Trista Sheen getting dropped off by hubby Nick Liu before finding out she’s a little sick of being known only as “Chef Nick Liu’s wife.” And we saw Caledon’s William Thompson looking a little out of his element at Union station before bragging that after winning Top Chef Canada, he’ll “have a better restaurant than Mark McEwan’s ever seen!” Pride goeth, William.
As the chefs mingled on Bymark’s patio, McEwan came out to introduce them to their new host, Lisa Ray—cue the usual cringe-inducing confessional-cam shots of chefs gushing about how beautiful she is (William took one for the team here). Ray was all business as she surprised the chefs with their first quickfire challenge right then and there: using the various snacks they were munching on, they had 15 minutes to create an interesting new hors d’oeuvre (which prompted Montreal’s Sergio Mattoscio, presumably the show’s pretty boy, to exclaim: “I’m not dressed to cook!”). Some chefs embarrassed themselves—Curtis, for example, crafted a cucumber-based play on a club sandwich that was impossible to eat (“I broke the cardinal rule of Top Chef, which is: don’t make Lisa deep-throat her food”). And Quatrefoil sous-chef Gabriell Cruz cut himself only 30 seconds in (amazingly, there was no gratuitous Polysporin application shot this time—presumably they’re no longer sponsoring the show). The winner: the diminutive (cue underdog storyline) Sarah Tsai, chef at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club in Rosedale (no, really), who put together a play on oysters and pearls using grapes as pearls and oysters as oysters (no, really). For her win, Sarah was rewarded with immunity from elimination.
After all that excitement, the chefs finally got to scope our their digs for the duration of the season, which turn out to be the Rosemont Residences, just like last year (and just like last year, we’re treated to not-quite-credible expressions of disbelief about how nice the apartment is—they are sleeping in bunk beds after all).
The next morning, the chefs gathered in the Top Chef Canada kitchen (yes, it’s by GE Monogram again) for first challenge: create a dish that tells the judges about their hometowns—in 90 minutes. Cue a mad scramble for ingredients, as the chefs fought over the last ears of corn and Curtis called out “Behind!” every three seconds (did we mention he’s the class clown?). During one particularly desperate dash, Sarah tipped a mixing bowl full of soy sauce and rice wine onto Elizabeth, who took the soaking like a champ. Amid the frenzy, 37-year-old David Chrystian (of Victor restaurant) was the picture of grown-up calm—heck, he even labelled his pots with a Sharpie and masking tape, a (brilliant) strategy we can’t recall ever having seen in all our years of Top Chef viewing.
At the tasting, the judges—including a very pregnant and returning Shereen Arazm and, ahem “Canada’s No. 1 hometown judge,” Michael Smith—wasted no time getting down to the skewering. (In fact, they seem to have upped their insult game, and we have to say we vastly prefer Smith’s snarky side to the Kindergarten teacher vibe he sometimes gives off.) David’s chicken rubbed in his signature Toronto spice blend? “Bland, bland, bland!” said McEwan. Jimmy Stewart’s bread foam (no, really)? “I think we have quite possibly found the world’s worst foam,” said Smith (actually, we’d be hard pressed to disagree). William’s chicken and potatoes? “It tastes like I’m eating the raw end of a bonfire,” muttered McEwan.
The top dishes this week came from Trista, Elizabeth, Curtis the Clown and Victoria’s Kunal Ghose, who shrewdly riffed on the half-Indian heritage he shares with Ray in an Indian take on fish and chips (“I was definitely aiming to please you,” Kunal said. “It worked,” Ray replied). McEwan bestowed upon Curtis the unusually high praise that he had created, with his Peking duck breast crêpes, something you might expect to see at Nobu (or, we’d add, at Lee Lounge, where Susur Lee serves something very similar). But the win, and the $2,000 cash prize, went to Trista, who cooked a delicious-looking veal tenderloin with rösti, greens, bacon jam and a corn cream (she followed up her win with an adorable song and dance to the confession cam: “I did it Nicky, I did it!”).
At the bottom this time: Sarah, David, William and Jimmy. Perhaps the oddest moment in the episode came as David, probably the show’s most experienced chef, tried to defend his “Toronto spice rub” after the judges had lambasted it. “Given the opportunity, I will use it in other applications throughout the series,” he started, before Arazm cut him dead: “So it didn’t work, and you’re gonna use it again—you think?” But the first chef to go home this season was William, whose mess of a quail and potato plate McEwan described as “a big, big failure.” Note to future Top Chef Canada contestants: in reality TV, as in life, the harder your smack-talk at the top, the harder your fall.
Next time on Top Chef Canada
TV handyman extraordinaire Mike Holmes, inexplicably, is the guest judge, and the chefs are tasked with cooking for a hundred construction workers on a job site. Oh, and it looks like Carl and David passive-aggressively rag on Elizabeth for—and this really has to be the most Canadian of offences—being too ambitious. Looks like we’ve got quite the season ahead of us. Hope you’ll join us for the fun.