Top Chef Canada recap, episode 1: fresh meat

Top Chef Canada recap, episode 1: fresh meat

Chuck Hughes was the guest judge for the season opener (Image: Top Chef Canada)
 

TOP CHEF CANADA Season 3, Episode 1

Once again, Top Chef Canada got an upgrade in the off-season. This year’s grand prize now includes a custom Caesarstone countertop in addition to the usual $100,000 and GE Monogram Kitchen. The 16 contestants now stay in a two-storey suite the three-storey penthouse at the Soho Metropolitan, making their usual cries of disbelief over their palatial digs—“oh my God, this is like completely fancy!”—more plausible than in years past. And the chefs seem to have a certain steely determination, with their introductory camaraderie more perfunctory and their fangs bared from the get-go. Heck, it took less than ten minutes for one them—Calgary’s Nicole Gomes—to declare that she’s not there to make friends. But does this new competitive edge augur a season of kick-ass dishes? Find out, in our recap below.

The first part of last night’s episode was devoted to setting up plot lines. Here’s an abridged cheat sheet: Montreal’s Danny Francis (who works for Chuck Hughes at Le Bremner) is the smiling hipster chef. Nicole Gomes is the caterer out to prove that she can cook with Real Chefs (ditto for Vancouver food trucker Clement Chan). Dennis Tay (of Keriwa during taping, but now at Richmond Station) is the tough-as-nails underdog, having broke his wrist right before the season started. The Royal Canadian Yacht Club’Jonathan Goodyear is the pretentious one who’s just asking to be taken down a peg (“I enjoy the finer things in life,” he said, as he entered the suite trailed by a bellhop). And Chris Shafton is the Calgary hoser who likes to show off about how much tail he gets. On national TV.

Quickfire

The culinary festivities kicked off with an old-fashioned Top Chef skills challenge relay: oyster shucking followed by mirepoix chopping followed by lemon segmenting followed by tenderloin cleaning. Danny wilted under the pressure, forgetting to detach half his oysters from their shell, while Dennis, down one wrist, still finished his allotment of bivalves before anyone else. Clement showed some impressive knife skills with his mirepoix. And Nicole had the honour of being the first to imitate her teammate Jonathan’s plummy accent (he’d earlier bragged about trussing hundreds of tenderloins in hotels). In the end, this challenge really didn’t matter much, since the winning team—Nicole, Jonathan, Montreal’s Frederick Boucher and Calgary’s Geoff Rogers—didn’t actually gain immunity from elimination in the next round. They did, however, each win a shiny new knife set from Wusthof—it seems some things, like ubiquitous product placement, haven’t changed this year.

Elimination

The first elimination challenge of the season doubled as another bit of exposition: host Lisa Ray asked the chefs to create a version of the first dish that inspired them to become a chef (turns out, for Mark McEwan, that was his grandmother’s mac-and-cheese, which seems telling in a way we can’t quite put our finger on). The guest judge for this challenge was the Montreal restaurateur, chef and food TV hunk Chuck Hughes—the announcement of which sent his employee Danny into fits of nervous laughter.

After a scrambled 20 minutes of shopping at McEwan Foods, the chefs crammed into the kitchen at, yes, McEwan’s North 44° to prepare their dishes, with much showboating, joking and general flailing about. The worst flailing probably came from Victoria’s Kayla Dhaliwall, who spent an hour and a half making fried chicken and waffles but didn’t manage to get the waffles onto the plate. The second worst was from gentle Newfoundland giant Geoff Rogers, who manically heaped component after component (pesto! fried beets! parmesan tuile!) onto his gnocchi and cod fritter plate (McEwan’s mordant assessment: “I couldn’t come up with this combination if I drank an entire bottle of vodka”).

Matthew’s winning sous vide chicken (Image: Top Chef Canada)
 

We have to admit, the the top dishes this week were pretty impressive. Toronto’s Becky Ross created a deconstructed lemon meringue pie that McEwan actually liked (in previous seasons, he’s turned up his nose at most deconstructed dishes). Daniel Hudson, a British ex-pat who’s probably going to be this year’s jokester, made a beautiful pan-seared duck breast based on his first fine dining meal. But the win went to this season’s tall drink of water, Matthew Stowe, who’s the chief of product development with the Cactus Club Café (yes, we were as surprised as you were). He made a refined take on his mom’s roast chicken by cooking thigh and breast sous vide in milk with old-school pommes fondant and carrot purée. For his trouble, Matthew took home a $5,000 cash prize.

Frederick’s Honey and Mustard Chicken (Image: Top Chef Canada)
 

The bottom three chefs this week presented a study in contrast on how to beg for your life before the judges. Kayla, she of the forgotten waffles, went for the heartstrings: “I cook food from my soul, from my heart. I cook food that not only did I grow up with, my mother grew up with, my grandmother grew up with, and I’m gonna one day feed my children.” Geoff, ever earnest, pledged to work harder the next time: “I promise you I can do better food than that, and I will, if you give me the opportunity to stay.” And Frederick? Well he committed the cardinal Top Chef sin of not seeing things the judges’ way: “I tried everything together. It worked for me.” Fred and his honey-mustard sous vide chicken were sent home, while Kayla, who only presented half her dish, lived to cook another day.

Next time on Top Chef Canada

A gimmick episode—a scavenger hunt at Riverdale Farm—with Dinner: Impossible host Robert Irvine sitting in as guest judge. Also: sparks fly between (we think) Calgary’s Caity Hall and Toronto’s Ruth Eddolls, the executive sous chef at Pusateri’s.