5 Ways Top Chef Canada Season Two Is An Improvement

You may remember that we here at Choosy Beggars weren’t altogether sure about the first season of Top Chef Canada.  Somehow we’d never been introduced to the entire Top Chef concept prior to its debut, despite the (holy crap) nine seasons that have aired in the US, and it wasn’t clear to us whether the adorable, minor-league spinoff was the best way to get a start.

Happily, it turned out that our anxiety was misplaced, and we stuck out the entire first season — despite some of its more hilarious flaws, and yes we are looking at you, Thea Andrews’ Serious Face — to the  drinking-game-inspired end.  After we swallowed the bitter disappointment of Connie DeSousa’s loss and the triumph of Rob Rossi’s defeat (Dale won, right?  Whatever), it wasn’t altogether clear to us whether there’d be another season, but we kind of hoped there would be in a neutral way.

Tina put it best, I think, when she said:  “Well, so that was a cooking show.  I’d better make sure the PVR doesn’t record any of the repeats.”  Would it ever be possible to build on that kind of powerful catharsis?

Well, this week we found out, as Top Chef Canada made its return to television.  And there were some interesting, encouraging signs that the producers wanted to punch things up, and make the show a little more engaging than the first time around.  Could this season line up more with the excitement and drama of its US counterpart?  Will the contestants inspire more boosterism and engagement than the last group, the only details about whom we could easily recall were that some of them were French and one was gay?

Sort of!  While the first episode felt familiar in a lot of ways, we spotted at least 5 visible improvements over the previous season.

1.  They got a new host

Sure, Thea Andrews was the host of Cooking for Love and had partially invested in a restaurant, but was she the Canadian version of Padma Lakshmi?  Not while Lisa Ray is around, not by a long shot. And while you may say that it’s sort of transparent — and a bit weird — that Top Chef Canada would want to ape its US cousin so closely, we (Mike) genuinely have a hard time arguing against it.  If having a beautiful Southeast Asian woman tasting food, dressing fabulously and crushing the hopes of young chefs is part of the Top Chef formula, then Ray more than fits the part.

Plus, lest you think us (Mike) shallow, at no point did Ray pull one of Andrews’ most obvious moves, that of nodding thoughtfully and then repeating exactly what every other judge had already said.  That alone sets her well above and beyond, in our books.

2. The guest judges are better

Yes, the return of Michael Smith in the debut episode could (to the untrained eye) seem like a bit of a flashback to anyone who saw the first series.  But here’s the thing:  First, Michael Smith is kind of amazing.  A living man-mountain (seen above absolutely dwarfing Bobby Flay, and they probably still had him standing in a hole), Smith has the sort of affable, genial air about him that makes his criticism completely devastating.  His friendly, matter-of-fact observations on the utter failures presented to him makes the destruction he wrought on the first wave of chefs that much more delightful — but it also indicates a better awareness by the producers of his talent.

Smith’s re-appearance in the first episode, followed by the teasers for (sigh) Mike Holmes’ contribution in the second, are encouraging.  They mean that the show is aware it can’t just re-tread the same twelve Canadian celebrity chefs we see everywhere else, and that it’s getting its favorite one — the guy who’ll smile at you pleasantly from two feet above while he’s telling you you’re a disgrace — in before moving on.  There is hope!  Bring on the cable personalities and nearly-retired comedians promoting their reality shows!

3. There are more female contestants

By which we mean, there are more than two who survived the first week.  That’s a 33% improvement from last year, not to mention 3 times more multicultural!  We have no idea whether this will represent an improvement over the previous year’s themes of sisterhood, feminine strength, betrayal and hypocrisy, but it is a marginally better acknowledgement of gender balance.  It doesn’t even matter if we particularly like these women — Trista especially is flirting with our loathing already — because it’s just nice to see this many of them are still on the show.

Plus Elizabeth is a former martial arts champion!  If that doesn’t factor into an episode later on, we will feel bitterly disappointed.

 4.  They sacrificed a nerd for our pleasure

Bless his heart, it was pretty obvious from the get-go that William was going to have a hard time.  His insistence that his old-school cred could be clearly discerned by his hat and neck-kerchief set him apart from the others, but more in a “the casting director saw great camera fodder” way than a “he’s championship material” way.  His naked terror, accompanied by a clearly visible flop sweat, upon presenting his first meal to the judges was a little bit heartbreaking, even while his food was obviously… not… great.  Honestly, the piped potatoes were supposed to be a bridge?  Huh?

And man, they dropped the axe on him.  He stood out as the worst in a less than impressive field, and the judges blew him away without hesitation.  McEwan’s bemused comment that William was “a very nice young man, but not Top Chef material” said it all, and the whole scenario seemed set up as a promise for the rest of the series:  people aren’t going to be kept around, just because they’re nice kids.  There were more than a couple of those last year (oh Patrick, oh Todd), and it’s encouraging to see sharper judging teeth come out already.

5.  They left everything else alone

Season two of Top Chef Canada feels sort of like a modest upgrade to the original — a bunch of slight improvements to obvious flaws, but without messing with a winning formula.  The show is still set in Toronto, the prizes haven’t changed in the slightest, the endorsements are as un-subtle as ever, and there’s no attempt made to layer a creative theme above the basics.  God, even Shereen Arazm is still on the show, despite being so massively pregnant that the contestants could notice it when they walked through the door.

So, while there may be a day when Top Chef: Saskatoon is on our screens, it seems that for now they’re content to get this one right first.  And we’re glad for it!  Top Chef Canada is much closer to the feel that we originally thought it should have, one that does a better job of tapping into dorky, multicultural Canadianness, even while adopting the sharper edges of the American show.  We’re looking forward to the season ahead, and hope these early signs pay off.

Top Chef Canada can be seen on (go figure) Food Network Canada, Mondays at 10PM Eastern.  4 out of 5 food bloggers recommend it as a palate cleanser after the execrable Top Chef Texas.

  • ron

    “If having a beautiful Southeast Asian woman tasting food” India is not in Southeast Asia

  • ron

    “If having a beautiful Southeast Asian woman tasting food” India is not in Southeast Asia