Canada’s edition of MasterChef starts next week. I thought this would be a good time to share my experience of auditioning for the show. The process wasn’t quite what I expected, and I think it might be of interest to people hoping to do something similar in the future. Or to just satisfy curiosity.
MasterChef Canada was announced a while ago, and auditions were done over the summer. I’m a huge fan of cooking competition shows – Top Chef, MasterChef, Chopped, Iron Chef. I’ll pretty much watch and enjoy any of them, even Cupcake Wars. The only one I really can’t stomach is Hell’s Kitchen, which makes me want to set everyone on fire. Anyway, I was excited about the competition coming to Canada and I decided to audition as soon as I heard about it.
The application process was straightforward. I needed to sign some release forms and fill out a lengthy app. It included all kinds of questions – what I do for a living, how I’d describe my cooking style, my signature dish, why I want to be on the show, my culinary goals. I also needed to include a current picture of myself and had the option of including a video. I went ahead and made a video, since I wanted to stand out as much as possible.
The process of making the video was bizarre. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable in front of cameras, but I find talking to one a bit weird. I did the whole thing myself, with my little Canon PowerShot. I had to stack my bar stools on top of my ottoman to get the camera at the right height. I don’t really have any video editing skills (or software) so I needed to do the 2.5 minute video in one continuous take. It took a number of tries. Cats start meowing, start again. Forget what I wanted to say and stare blankly at the camera, start again. Stumble over my words and start swearing profusely, start again. I finally got a take that was usable after 15 tries or so.
I asked some friends to review it for me before I sent it off. They noticed that I repeated myself at one point, so I recorded it yet again. Finally it was ready to go and I submitted my application.
Two weeks went by, then I got a casting call invitation via email to go to the Toronto auditions on August 10th, along with instructions on what to bring.
This was exciting! I wasn’t particularly excited about the 7am call time (waking up early on weekends, nooo…), but the real stumper was that I had to bring a prepared dish. A room temperature prepared dish. There would be no kitchen facilities at the audition venue. That’s not what it’s like on TV! On TV they get to bring all their ingredients and prepare dishes in front of judges. I needed to think of something I could make that I could prepare beforehand and that would keep in terms of both flavour and texture for however many hours I had to wait before I could present it to the tasters. This would require some thought.
In my application I put Sea Bass as my signature dish, but there was no way I was going to cook that at 5am and then stick it in a cooler bag for 6 hours. Baked goods would work well as far as being pre-prepared but I find that they, along with desserts, are a bit of a cop-out in cooking competitions like this. I tried to think of other recipes I felt represented me and would also travel well. First thing that came to mind? Potato salad. I love potato salad. I make and eat it a lot. Of course, potato salad on its own isn’t very difficult or impressive. I decided I’d prepare three separate “bites” that could stand on their own, but were also tied together with common ingredients.
Not too long before this I had learned how to make gravlax (cured salmon), which I thought would be a a great match for the potato salad, in a Swedish kind of way. Since it’s cured, it would also keep well in a cooler. The week of the audition I had received a lovely fennel from Fresh City, which I decided would be one of the things that would tie all three bites together.
The night before the audition I prepared everything (other than the gravlax, which had started curing the day before) and made up a test plate. Here’s what I made.
- Gravlax cured with fennel, parsley, and gin. Served with a yogurt, citrus, and grainy mustard sauce.
- Baby red potato salad with gravlax bacon, green onions, fennel fronds and a red wine/grainy mustard vinaigrette
- Fennel and orange salad with a gin and citrus dressing
Everything passed my taste test. I thought maybe I was being too finicky with my three little bites, but I wanted to show that I could tie flavours together and keep balance through a number of different elements. It also meant I had more interesting plating options.
I tried to get a good night’s sleep but I spent most of it awake, paranoid I would sleep through my alarm in the morning.
I got up bright and early the morning of the audition. I packed everything in my cooler bag, and triple checked to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I had all the food components, utensils, my audition invitation. The one thing I would have brought with me if I did it again is paper towels. When they say they you need to bring everything you’ll need, they really mean everything. Nothing is food-related is provided for you. I left my place, picked up my mom who was accompanying me for moral support and we headed down to the InterContinental hotel.
We got to the hotel a little before 7am. The line-up was already wrapped across Front street and around the corner. Production assistants were bustling around with clipboards. I had to sign in, and sign more release forms allowing them to use any footage of me that got captured on camera. All the contestant hopefuls were given wristbands. Mine was green, while the guy next to me in line got a yellow one. No one told us what that meant, though after a while I figured that green were for the people who received an invitation. Then, the waiting started.
We waited outside for about an hour. I’m glad the auditions were in August and not January. Around 8am, we started getting grouped together near the entrance of the hotel and the cameras started coming out. We were finally given some instructions. Everyone walk west in front of the hotel. Wave at the cameras! Cheer! After walking about 50 yards guess what we did? Walk east down the street. Wave! Cheer! We went back and forth along the street a few times. At one point we were all grouped up and yelled “MasterChef Canada!” at the cameras. Finally, after they got the footage they wanted, they started calling people inside the hotel. Green wristbands were first! There was much rejoicing.
I got funneled into the hotel and got to stand in another line. At this point family and friends were separated from the people auditioning. The line didn’t take too long. They checked my ID and handed me my scoring sheet. I stood in front of the MasterChef logo and had my picture taken, before being ushered into a waiting room full of other hopefuls. Here we were told some good news. We’d be in the very first group of people to get judged. Hooray for waiting the least amount of time possible (which was still a considerable amount).
We were told how the process would go. The group of us (I think there were about 50 people) would go into the audition room, choose a station and get everything we needed out of our coolers. We weren’t to do anything with our food until we were explicitly told to. There would be many cameras, and producers and media might come around and ask us questions.
At 9am, we went into the audition room. The stations were tiny. They were basically just long tables marked off into small sections. There were no chairs, so we’d all end up standing for a while. The show’s producers were introduced, along with the two people who would be doing the tasting. The actual judges who would be on the show are not involved at this stage of the auditions. I don’t even think they had been chosen yet. Then it was time to plate. We were given 3 minutes to do this. For me, 3 minutes was plenty of time. I had each component set up in its own little container and knew where everything needed to go. My hands got a little shaky and made it difficult to layer fennel slivers on the orange salad, but it got done.
Giant cameras came around, getting close-ups of the food, then panning up to the chef. I don’t know if I’d ever get used to having cameras 8 inches from my face like that. Producers came around asking about people’s food and I had to talk at the camera some more. I talked about my food, then had to make up an answer about why I thought I could beat the people around me. As this was going on, the tasters were making their way around the room. One started from the front and one from the back. I was smack dab in the middle of the room so my plate was one of the last ones tasted.
Another producer came around, this time without a camera. She asked me more questions about my cooking style, my culinary ambitions, why I thought I’d be a good competitor on the show. This was the part of the audition I had the most trouble with. I’m quiet. I’m not the type who is comfortable sharing every thought and feeling that comes into my head. I love food. I love to cook it, look at it, smell it, eat it. But I had a lot of difficulty answering these questions and talking about myself. I don’t really have exciting culinary ambitions. I just want to continue learning and getting better – not a particularly exciting answer. I also don’t think I can name my culinary style. I don’t stick to one thing – Healthy, farm-to-table, French, Italian, Asian – I just cook things I think will taste good. I pulled some answers out of the air. I told them my dream in life was basically to be Anthony Bourdain. That one was true. Traveling around the world to explore other cultures and eat all their food would be amazing. Though not particularly realistic.
At 10:30, after being in the room for an hour and a half, one of the tasters finally got to me. It’s amazing how little they taste. I know they will have hundreds of plates to try over the course of the day, so they obviously can’t eat much, but it was still surprising. The taster tried my potato salad, had an orange segment, and tasted the yogurt sauce. I’m almost positive she didn’t have any of the gravlax. She asked me some questions about the ingredients I used and what kinds of things I like to cook. She told me my dish was complex and well-balanced, then scribbled something down on my score sheet which I never got to see.
Once every plate was tasted, the producers and tasters went to deliberate. We were left to clean up our stations. It was a bit sad to see these dishes people had worked so hard on go in the garbage after only being nibbled on by the tasters. After 20 minutes or so they came back and told us they would be reading out the numbers of the people who would be invited to continue the audition process and have a 1-on-1 interview. If your number wasn’t read, you didn’t make the cut. They started reading out the numbers… and breezed right past mine. I didn’t make it.
Considering how many people auditioned, I knew that making it would be a long shot. And honestly, even if I had somehow made it to the top 50 I don’t know that I would have participated in the show. I’d need to take a month off work for filming, get someone to take care of my cats for the whole time, and filming was during my planned trip to California. It was still disappointing though.
No one got to see their scorecards so I’ll never know for sure, but I hope I didn’t make it because of my skills (or lack of skills) talking to cameras and not because my of my food. I just don’t think I have a reality TV type of personality – which I’m totally okay with. Trash talking competitors or telling impassioned stories about how much I’d appreciate the opportunity just isn’t me.
Unsurprisingly, the first step in the audition process is not nearly as exciting as what’s shown on TV. Mostly it just involves a lot of time. I was lucky enough to be in the first group of auditions and the process took me 4 hours in total, most of which was just waiting. There were a few hundred people there, so I imagine that the people in the last groups ended up waiting in that hotel for close to 10 hours. I felt bad for them, and their food.
Despite the disappointing end, I’m still glad I tried. It was an interesting experience that I probably won’t have again, and the restrictions on the food I had to make was a fun challenge. Friends and family were also super supportive and had a lot of encouragement for me throughout the process.
I’m looking forward to watching the show on TV next week, questioning the contestants picked, and smugly proclaiming “I would have done so much better!”