Though my personal MasterChef Canada journey didn’t take me too far, I’m still very interested in watching the show and seeing how things turn out. When I heard about the Canadian version of the show, I had two hopes. First, that it wouldn’t look low-budget. Based on the first few episodes, I’m happy to say that it doesn’t. The kitchen facilities look almost identical to the American version of the show. Second, that it would be less melodramatic. This, unfortunately, was a bit of a pipe-dream. Of course it’s melodramatic! There were tears within the first 5 minutes of the premiere. And of course, the drama is played up by the constant recaps and previews of what is happening before and after each commercial break. I’m pretty sure 40% of the show was just repeated content, at least in the audition episodes.
Let’s talk about the judges. First, filling the role of “the mean judge” is Alvin Leung. I wasn’t at all familiar with him before this, as though he was born in Canada, his restaurants are in Hong Kong and London. Leung has a good poker face and is there to make the contestants feel bad about themselves and their food. He spouts off a lot of one-liners, some of which are funny in an awkward sort of way. The next judge is Claudio Aprile, whose food I’ve eaten, as he is the chef and owner of Colborne Lane in Toronto. Aprile looks like he’s having a good time seems really happy to be on the show. As he was judging people’s audition dishes he usually had a smile on his face and didn’t seem out to get anyone, though wasn’t afraid of giving criticism. The final judge is Michael Bonacini who has more than half a dozen restaurants in Toronto. I’ve been to two of them, the laid back O&B Canteen, and the Toronto staple, Canoe (which I’ve written a review of). Bonacini is professional, and a little fatherly, in everything he does and says – the accent helps. Overall, it seems like the dickishness level of the judges on MCC is a bit lower than the American version, but I’m sure there will still be some yelling and spitting out food to keep things exciting.
I don’t really have a whole lot to say about the first two audition episodes. They delivered pretty much what you’d expect – crying, cheers, a lot of pointless time sinks, people getting their dreams crushed. The usual. There are so many contestants shown that I don’t remember a whole lot of them. The ones that stuck out to me were Carly, who was a bit of a mess in the kitchen (I think there was fire involved) but ended up pulling it off. Dora the plumber, who made a great looking dessert. Eric, who has to be an engineer or a doctor because he’s Asian, but really just wants to cook. And Dale, the “gay Martha Stewart” who gets called arrogant because he doesn’t cry in front of the judges and has some amazing plating skills.
Once people made it through the first round of judging, the next challenge was to cook some part of a chicken with a very limited amount of kitchen space and tools. A number of people had some real trouble. Even a few of the dishes that make it through to the top 16 didn’t look like anything to write home about. The selection of the final people who would make it onto the show was done with as much simulated drama as possible. “If we could take both of you, we would… And we can!” I’m not sure how this could have been a surprise for anyone who could count that they had only filled 14/16 spots at this point. The top 16 were announced, and all of my early favourites made it in.
Finally we get to episode 3, the real meat of the show. First up was a mystery box challenge which included pork, chocolate, peanut butter, bananas, honey. My first thought upon seeing these ingredients was a chocolate peanut butter tart with fruit and honey, which is pretty much what Eric ended up making. The top three dishes picked were Eric with his tart; Carly with a spicy peanut soup; and Marida with a spicy pork and noodle dish. They all looked very good. Going from looks and the judges comments I thought that Carly would take first place, but Marida ended up winning.
The prize? Immunity from elimination this week and selection of the main ingredient for the elimination challenge. The ingredient choices were venison, smelt and duck. Mmm, I could go for some duck. Marida made the right choice and picked Smelt in order to make her competitors squirm. She also got to choose another contestant to be safe from elimination (which seems totally unnecessary, but I guess it’s a possible source of more drama). She chose Brooke, who had some not very nice things to say (I don’t think Marida has stripper hair, and I’m not sure what it has to do with her cooking ability). The two of them gleefully look down at their competitors during the cooking challenge and laugh at all the mistakes they’re making.
It looks like a lot of people had never cooked with smelt before and they had no idea what to do. I’ve never cooked them myself, but it seems like a simple deep fry is one of the best ways to go. Some of the less appetizing preparations include throwing them in the food processor. Blech. Some people had a deft hand with the smelt, while others spent time trying to debone the tiny little fish.
Then it was judgement time. Out of the 14 competitors, I think we only saw 7 or 8 dishes get tasted. There were a few people who we barely saw any of this episode (Danielle and Julie weren’t given much camera time at all). Eric’s braised and fried smelt with noodles is a hit with the judges. Tammara makes sake-marinated smelt rolls and gets criticized for cooking all Asian food so far. I think there’s a pretty big gap between Indian and Vietnamese cuisine and it’s impressive to be able to tackle both styles, but I’m not a judge. Danny is next. He made (pureed) smelt croquettes with a chili lime sauce. The judges were not pleased. Alvin went so far as to yell and throw his mouthful of food in the garbage. Here’s the part of competition shows I don’t understand. How an adult can stand there and let a judge throw a tantrum in their direction without reacting is beyond me. If someone yelled at me and threw my food in the garbage I couldn’t just stand there any mutter “sorry, I’ll do better next time.” I know this seems to be the way it’s done but come on, grow some backbone reality contestants.
Dale made smelt-stuffed gougeres, which looked perfect. I think Dale will go far. Meghan made a smelt quiche, which just seems misguided. Chef Aprile spit his bite out (but not in a showy way). She’s in trouble. We also saw some anemic looking smelt fish cakes from Ben, a too spicy curry from Kaila and fried smelt with homemade noodles from Pino. It seems pretty clear to me that the best dishes belong to Pino, Eric and Dale. Eric is announced as having the second best dish and he will be one of the leaders for the next team challenge. I thought his preparation of smelt in 3 different ways (braised, fried, broth) deserved first place. First place went to Pino. His smelt seemed a bit simple, but I think the judges were impressed that he made his own noodles. Dale was left out.
Finally, it was time for eliminations. There were four possibilities for the bottom 3 dishes, which ended up being Ben, Danny and Meghan. Kaila’s overuse of scotch bonnets escaped the judges for tonight. Of the three, I thought Danny’s dish looked the best. The idea of pureed smelt kind of turns my stomach, but his croquettes looked nice – they were golden brown and well made. The sauce he made also looked delicious, though the judges seemed to ignore it. Meghan’s quiche was just odd. She clearly didn’t know what to do with the smelt, and didn’t even think to add some more interesting ingredients as a distraction. She didn’t even have time to serve it properly; the judges got the whole thing, pie pan and all, on a plate. Ben’s smelt cakes didn’t look offensive, but they looked rather mundane. The accompaniments were odd, the plating was plain, and he was told he didn’t respect the delicacy of the fish. After some dramatic delays, Ben was announced as the first person eliminated. We hardly knew him.
But wait! There’s more! Apparently the 12 times the announcer said “at least one contestant” will be sent home tonight wasn’t just throwing us off. They were sending more than one person home. Insert some misdirection and more dramatic pauses. The second person eliminated is Meghan. Danny gets to live another day. I think the judges made the right choices.
Overall, I thought the first real episode of MasterChef Canada was pretty good. There was too much drama (yeah, not going to escape that), but there were also a lot of nice looking dishes and good commentary from the judges. I’m looking forward to next week.