MasterChef Canada S2E1: A New Season Begins!

It came a week early, but a new season of MasterChef Canada has arrived.

I don’t think I’ve ever wished for a Super Bowl game to end this much before, but when the final whistle went CTV brought us a frenetic-paced episode, packed with auditions from a new group of home cooks eager to make their mark and ready to fight for their place in Canadian culinary stardom, plus $100,000 and a shiny trophy to demarcate their victory.

Because of the breakneck pace of the episode, many of the auditions were very much like last season; lots of people were shown in blink-and-you-missed-it moments. For those who were able to secure one of the coveted white MasterChef aprons, we will see them again. For those who did not, I always say this: never stop cooking with love and passion, and never give up on your dreams!

From my count, 11 aprons were given out — I wasn’t able to pinpoint one of the home cooks who got one, but I’m sure we will see her again in the near future. Below, I’ve evaluated most of the auditions…I try to be nice, but there are some who just need a good wake up call.

So…who is looking suave in white, and who is drowning their sorrows at the Heartbreak Hotel bar?

 

THE APRON WINNERS

Sabrina: She missed her only sister’s wedding to cook a traditional Italian medaglioni (stuffed pasta) dish for the judges, which earned the ire of her family in the process. I know the feeling; and just by the look of the simple yet elegantly put together plate, I knew she made the right gamble, securing Claudio Aprile and Michael Bonacini’s vote to win a white apron.

Jon: Normally as a Stampeders fan I would be playing the world’s smallest violin for some BC Lions player, but this guy has some moxie, tearing a page from mine and Bubba’s book with a steak-and-perogy dish. He ran into trouble with what looked to be very rare steak, which Alvin Leung found to be tough. The plate looked fine, and Jon moved on in a 2-1 decision.

Andrew and Debra: They were just briefly shown, Andrew with his deconstructed Halifax donair and Debra and her beautifully seared scallops. Both won aprons, so we’ll be seeing them cook again.

Christopher: Christopher is one of the 8 home cooks I had originally pegged as one to watch, and he has repaid my faith in spades. The tart looked a little shaky on the plate but the bright golden colours looked amazing enough for me to try to eat the screen (I didn’t, of course…screens do not taste great and I don’t have Taste-O-Vision. My original statement on him stands — my Canto homie is still one to watch!

Tammy: This single mother of SIX (yes, SIX) arguably delivered the plate of the night; a simply plated, straightforward plate of elk carpaccio. A few greens on the rare meat, a few drizzles of sauce, and there you have it: the season’s FIRST unanimous decision, and probably the biggest tear jerker of the night. She was not on my radar before, but she definitely made her presence known!

Michael: Very reminicent of Dale from last season, his plate stood as a counterpoint to Debra’s scallops (centred and looks full); it was far too artsy (my chef instructor would have had a field day with him about it being overworked), way too much empty space on the plate (at least Dale used the whole plate) and as Aprile said on the flavour, it had “no boom.” — but somehow he got through on Bonacini and Leung’s vote.

Nathan: Was the only one out of three “comfort food” makers to make it out with an apron, his April Bloomfield-inspired fish and chips won over the judges and made me want a whole plate of that stuff. Could be a sleeper pick.

Jennifer: A self-professed “chatter box”, her blueberry pie looked a bit rough but the flavours won over the judges. However, she committed a cardinal MasterChef sin: she talked over BOTH Leung and Aprile. If she is truly serious about going professional and possibly working in a restaurant kitchen, she will need to learn how to shut up. The first and last words out of your mouth should be a hearty “YES, CHEF!” — and you NEVER talk over him/her!

David: The final home cook to win an apron, he was forced to drop out of school at Grade 10 to work in the concrete business. He kind of reminds me of Danny, a battler who is now finally getting his chance to shine. It certainly helped he put together an amazing looking dish of miso sablefish that wowed the judges, but his kids ARE SO ADORABLE!

Kristen: She’s the one whom we just got a glimpse of — a shame, as she is Newfoundland’s FIRST White Apron Club entrant. What Shane, Billie-Jo and Kristal could not do, she’s done it! NL is on the board!

 

THE EMPTY HANDERS

Kristal: This Gander, NL home cook certainly does not lack confidence; she proudly proclaims to the judges that her daughter calls her “the best cooker in the world”. News flash — if you did not remember Leung bellowing to us that “AMATEUR HOUR IS OVER!” at the beginning of season 1, you are just asking for trouble. Plus, when adding sugar or any seasoning, ADD IT GRADUALLY. Once it’s in, you can’t pull it back out. Her plate did look okay, but ultimately, the amateurish performance was too much for Bonacini and Leung who sent her home, putting Newfoundland & Labrador at 1/4 over two seasons with one more Newf next week.

Clarissa and Shane: Guys, it’s cool you want to show off. But a) raw shrimp paste in a dish is a TERRIBLE IDEA, and b) if a judge asks you something about your technique, you better have an answer!

Carmen: You get one shot with the judges, and their rule is cook first, talk (and hug) later! Plus, as much as I try, I can’t see lobster and blue cheese being a good match. Sorry, mamacita.

Mishie: Oh my goodness, no matter how bad your dish turns out, saying you want to learn from someone by opening their heads and eating their brains is not a good idea But hey, take solace you made Leung laugh, which is incredibly rare.

Lisa: Both Mylene and Andrew had a whale of a time last year with soup, and looks like the MasterChef Canada soup curse has struck again, with Lisa serving a soup that was too salty. I do like the confidence though — if you were afraid of somene in the Top 49, why even stay?

Kenya: The only member of Team Alberta seen tonight. The Edmontonian bragged a lot about her travels, and then got her bubble burst by Leung who derided her for serving chicken and waffles when she had been all around the world. The chicken was far too dark, and the waffle looked mediocre at best, failing to entice the judges. I’d say something about that plate being the epitome of Edmonton cuisine, but…I’ll hold back.

 

So those are the home cooks we saw this week. But as an added bonus, each week I will name up to three Stars and three Goats. Who made it this week?

My Third Star this week is Christopher; he made an excellent plate, and made all of his Canto bretheren across this country proud.

Second Star goes to Nathan, who while getting very limited screen time showed off an amazing plate of fish and chips that looked great, and probably tastes amazing.

And my First Star of the week has to go to Tammy, for obvious reasons.

Now, to our Goats…

The Third Goat of the week goes to Jennifer; if she wants to last, she must learn to tone down the chatter, as it will end up putting a target on her back.

Second Goat goes to Kenya; way to represent our great province with a disappointing dish.

Lastly, my TOP GOAT of this week goes to a surprise candidate: Kristal. Using your child to judge of food is NOT a good idea, especially when the other judge is a seven Michelin star chef. S/he may think you’re a great cook…but when you get on MasterChef Canada, amateur hour is over.

 

That’s it for this week — next week, we will see the remaining hopefuls visit the judges, followed by the dreaded stress test to create the Top 16. Myself, Marida, Narida, Jason, Dora and Billie-Jo will all be live tweeting and chatting with home cooks (and of course, all of you out there) during the show next Sunday (personnel and times vary from time zone).

I will also be tweeting from Nikita’s viewing party. So look out for that. And now, time for me to catch a few winks before school tomorrow!

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MasterChef Canada Season 2: The Contenders Revealed!

The torch has been passed.

Just a year after me and 49 of my fellow home cooks were named Canada’s first ever MasterChef Top 50, CTV yesterday revealed a new group. These individuals will now take up the battle amongst themselves to become Canada’s next MasterChef. On first glance, it looks like a very diverse group (not unlike ourselves), with varied backgrounds and different flavours for the judges to sample.

Looking at the list, it looks like a record nine provinces of our great country will be represented, including two Saskatchewaners and two New Brunswickeians. Sadly, PEI looks to be once again the lone left-out province (Step your game up, Islanders! We want to see a Malpeque master!) while the Territories go unrepresented again (No seal hearts or whale blubber this season, I reckon…) One Calgarian will carry the YYC flag amongst six Albertans, but I will talk more about her a little later.

As always, the best of this group will gain a coveted white apron, while the crème de la crème will rise to the Top 16 and enter the kitchen of their dreams (or nightmares, depending on how you do on your first challenge!

So, based on first impressions, who am I looking out for?

Bear in mind these are first impressions, so I will update this list as premiere date (February 8th) gets closer. Please don’t be insulted, rest of the Top 49. There’ll be more love to share! 

Suzie Cui (Casino Cashier Manager from Windsor, Ontario): With her traditional Chinese dress (I wonder who she got that idea from? Hmmm…), she produced an amazing looking Chinese dish for the Toronto auditions in the video Road to MasterChef. I see a bit of both myself and Tammara in her; an Asian master coupled with a zesty “take-no-shit” attitude. Being a casino cashier boss, you gotta be mean with the unruly drunken asses. She looks like a Northern Chinese mama you don’t want to cross — in life or in the kitchen.

Christopher Siu (Pharmacy Student from Markham, Ontario): I have a strong feeling about this aspiring pastry chef. I have had a chance to check out his Instagram account (which of course is @baker_siu), and it is filled with pastries as far as the eye can see. How will the lone Cantonese candidate in the field fare when the clock is ticking? He should have no problems when baking is the name of the game — but how will he handle other dishes? Will he go European like Eric, or Asian like me?

Nikita Scringer (Healthcare Sales Consultant from Calgary, Alberta): She is the lone hope the season for a city of 1.1 million people, with a booming food scene and chefs coming out of the woodwork in every corner…

…oh wait, I forgot. I’m talking about Nikita. Anyway, she was someone who had applied for season 1, and came back again and qualified for this season. Her Caribbean (Jamaican?) flavours look amazing, and her fierce competitiveness will serve her well when the knives are out and the flames are licking throughout the kitchen. What Fabian, Sparkle, Narida and Marida failed to do — can Nikita do? I think she’s got a great chance…and besides, you don’t bet against a girl with awesome blue carbon Masakage knives.

Anh Nguyen (Business Student from Ottawa, Ontario): One cuisine that made the radar last season but didn’t resonate (mostly because of Sarah’s elimination) was Vietnamese, a cuisine that has exploded in North America, and helped along by the victory of Christine Ha in MasterChef USA season 3. I’ve looked at some of his work on his Twitter feed, and it is definitely not constrained to Vietnamese, with many cuisines fused in. Can he replicate in season 2 what Christine did in the USA, in popularizing modern, simple Asian cuisine? I think so!

Ted Pechey (Radio Sales from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan): My friend and fellow blogger Bernice (who hails from That Flat Province) must be over the moon; two of her fellow Saskies have made it — one of which is Ted, the other being Deanna. While I didn’t get to see what Deanna made, Ted’s dish at the auditions screams “SASKATCHEWAN” at 100 decibles. How will that translate to the sophisticated, urbane palate of the judges? Crack a Pil, and see!

Sebastien Champagne (Graphic Designer from Montréal, Quebec): Okay, this one is obvious. Bleached blonde, pink apron. He’s going to be a sassy one, that Sebastien — but based in Montreal, it’d be easy to put him in the pigeonhole of Quebecois French cuisine, but I think we could be in for a surprise. Could he pull out some Asian flair, or some North African, or modern American a la Dale? He will be a wild card, this one. Regardez, Canada! 

Meg Tucker (Radio Host from Red Deer, Alberta): She is an exciteable one, Meg. Just by her reaction to me congratulating her, I can tell she will be an exciting one to watch. Plus, given how well radio folks have done (think Mike Green and yours truly) last season, and judging from her blog (which has a lot of great comfort food recipes), she looks like she’ll know what to do when the challenge is thrown down!

Giorgio Theofilpoulos (Florist from Toronto, Ontario): Greek cooking was one major cuisine that very few of us had in our arsenals (sorry Pino, Mediterranean doesn’t count buddy!), and I have a feeling that Giorgio (who looks a bit like of a cross between the Italian papi and my Latin amigo José) will be filling this southern Mediterranean/Aegean niche. I definitely can’t wait to see some spanakopita or Avgolemono…anyone know of a place that serves late night gyros? I got a hankerin’ for Greek food all of a sudden.

Those are the eight I’ll be keeping my eyes on. Who are you most excited for? Who will you be rooting for starting Sunday, February 8th at 7pm ET/PT (8pm local here in Calgary)? Let me know in the comments below!

Where Are They Now? Pino di Cerbo

It’s closing on one year to the day when 50 of us made our national TV debuts, and as we begin the process of passing the torch to season 2’s crew, I’m sharing with you some of the amazing stories of some of the home cooks that have made strides in the food business since the camera lights went off.

Today, I’m bringing you the story of one of the biggest class acts of the show…no, not Danielle, Julie or Meghan (I didn’t mean class act sarcastically),  I meant everyone’s favourite Italian Papi and a gentleman of the highest order, Pino di Cerbo.

I have to admit, I never got much time to talk to Pino one-on-one while on the show. We were from two different worlds; me a fresh-eyed Chinese kid from Calgary cooking in-your-face Asian cuisine, and he a stay at home dad to two boys from Mississauga cooking traditional Italian fare. And of course, his kids are freakin’ adorable, as you can see in this darling little audition video:

Despite not talking face-to-face with him, he definitely he spoke pretty loudly when it came time to cook. Spurred on by a large cheering section led by his wife Anna, he pounded out a plate of crepes filled with beef and ricotta that blew the judges away. And as he progressed on the show, he became a sleeper pick to win. With his strong Italian stylings in his pocket, Pino proved to be a rock in the rough, turbid sea that is MasterChef Canada.

Sure, his plates might not have been as flashy or diverse, nor was he the centre of every drama storm, But time and time again, he got it done. Who knows what would have happened if hadn’t been undone by a box of donuts? Nevertheless, the pastries ended his hopes to win the prize money for a charity working to end eye disorders.

But no matter how he exited, Pino showed true class throughout, playing an honourable game; I seriously  can’t recall Pino losing his temper at all even when facing the pressure tests, whereas in those same situations I probably would have lost my shit repeatedly (and probably on him, too…I shudder at the very thought.)

In a game where tripping over your own feet to stab someone else in the back to gain an iota of advantage is routine, Pino was steadfast in his gentlemanly ways despite being under constant pressure, staying above the head games and the drama while letting his cooking do all the talking for him. Now that, kids, takes some mad skills.

After leaving the show, Pino wanted to do more with cooking. He still had his kids to take care of, which practically rules out working in restaurants and most professional kitchens. Yet he longed he to share his passion for authentic Italian cuisine with others. And that is where the Presidents’ Choice Cooking School came in.

A few times a month, at Loblaws stores across the GTA, you will find him wowing home cooks with his Italian flair, showing them how to create some of Mama Di Cerbo’s time-honoured recipes that’s been given a twist that is indelibly Pino. Times and locations vary by month, but from the listings he has three classes, one of which shines a spotlight on the crepes that made him a superstar. With these classes, Pino has the best of both worlds: he gets time to spend with his family, while showing the world the gospel of Di Cerbo style Italian cuisine, which in my opinion is a well-deserved reward for a gentleman and class act.

Pino is proof that in the pressure cooker that is MasterChef, that there is still a place for honourable play; one can do extremely well without resorting to dirty tactics and back-stabbing, and he got it done. The unsung hero during team challenges and rock solid when the chips were down, this is a man who will continue to forge his own path, and someone to be looking out for in the future.

Where Are They Now? Dora Cote

As we count down to another season of MasterChef Canada, I’m catching up with some of your favourite home cooks that were with me on season one, now that the glare of the spotlight is no longer on us. Today, I look at the person whom I consider my MasterChef “mama”; the Badass Motherplumber of Rocky Mountain House, Dora Cote. Dora

At first glance, she is a tough cookie, hardened by years in the male-dominated plumbing trade. But like a good home baked cookie, she has a tender chewy side too. You won’t see it if she doesn’t like you, but it’s there if you earn the right to see it; and luckily for me I’ve stayed in her good books (Believe me when I say you don’t want to be in her bad books…certain members of the Top 50 know what I mean!) long enough to see it.

The first time I met Dora, it was at the Calgary auditions. On first glance, her tattoos and tough demeanour scared me a little, but then again so did JP and Bubba (and their amazing dishes, but that’s a story for another day…) But on the other hand, I think my somewhat over-the-top persona might have scared her a little too. But the moment I tasted her amazing strawberry-rhubarb pie that she had baked before making the long drive from her home to Calgary, it was clear to me that she was a lock to go to Toronto.

I however, wasn’t sure I had done enough with my dish, an Indonesian beef curry on garlic flatbread. But as I fretted and panicked, what she told me would become a catalyst for what I have become today.

She told me that was my dish was one of the best dishes in the room, and that I was certain to make it.

For a kid that has barely cooked for anyone else besides family, for a complete stranger to say that knocked me for a massive loop. For a brief shining moment, I felt I could cook! But was she was just being kind to a poor kid that was turning into a nervous wreck in front of her eyes, or was she playing the game trying to pump me up hoping to see me fall? But after getting to know her over many a night (and many a pint), I realized she wouldn’t have said that if it wasn’t true.

Yes, she us a very good hugger, as Michael Bonacini and I both know.

Yes, she us a very good hugger, as Michael Bonacini and I both know.

Despite my deep-seated misgivings about myself, Fate proved her right. Fate proved me right as well, and together we became two of Canada’s inaugural Top 50. Joining this elite club meant that she had to leave her 11 year old son Devyn Jay behind; and seeing I was in need of a cheering section, I became her “little egg”.

She mentored me in all she knew about cooking (and vice versa), celebrated with me when I won my apron (and I celebrated her apron win), kept me motivated and loose when the nervous wreck threatened to return, and (along with Tammara) one of the first to comfort me when I was given my marching orders from Claudio Aprile.

It was after I was eliminated, however, is when she gave me a second and arguably the most valuable piece of advice: that what happens on MasterChef cannot define who you are, unless you choose for it to be. (From which I read: Quit feeling sorry for yourself, you did all you could…now stop worrying and get living!)

So, I did. With hers (and the rest of Team YYC’s) encouragement, I have embarked on my chef apprentice journey, while she made her dream come true.

She had told us that her dream was to open a restaurant in her hometown, serving amazing food for a population crying out for some “Canadian soul food”. And when I got to visit Rocky during the last May long weekend (and seeing what an amazing ambassador Rocky has gained in her time on national TV), I got to see first hand the place that she was going to make that dream into reality.

Dora doing good work in the community. (Photo Courtesy B94)

Dora doing good work in the community. (Photo Courtesy B94)

The Black Stump was an old restaurant just off Highway 11 in Rocky that had a reputation of being a dive bar. When we went into the now closed restaurant for the first time, she was beaming like a proud parent. As we went through the restaurant, she was detailing what her dream would look like in reality. She was so sure, so steady, so calm…yet so excited and self sure. It was this kind of self-assured, hard-nosed positivity that made her a darling amongst MasterChef Canada viewers, but for me it was just classic Dora: tough but tender, salty but with a large dose of sweet.

When I departed for home after that long weekend (which included spending some time cooking for and drinking(!) with her amazing friends) — she was still in the midst of finalizing her finances for her new restaurant, and helping Tammara out with some of her catering gigs (one of which I was called into help at). But as this is being published, the old Black Stump is slowly being transformed into the new Dora’s Rocky Mountain Road House, which will put her into an elite club of MasterChef finalists worldwide who can say they have achieved their stated dream. While there is currently no set grand opening date, word is that many of her friends (myself included) may be making guest appearances in her kitchen!

In my life, I have had many great female culinary role models, with my grandma at the very top. While she won’t displace my Poh-Poh from the very top, Dora ranks pretty high on that list. And if you ever happen to be in Rocky, and you’re smelling something amazing coming out of the kitchen at Dora’s…better run fast, ’cause the good eats are just about on!

The dream team, bitches!

The dream team, bitches!

Where Are They Now? Tammara Behl

It’s almost been a year since the 50 of us made our national TV debuts on CTV, and a lot has happened to some of us since then. I’m sure some you have wondered where some of your favourite contestants have gone to after the cameras went off, and the set lights extinguished. And believe you me, there are some amazing stories! Today, I will begin my “Where Are They Now?” series with Tammara, someone whom I consider a friend, a mentor, culinary kindred spirit and a sister from another mother.

My MasterChef sister. (Photo Courtesy CTV)

My MasterChef sister. (Photo Courtesy CTV)

When I first laid eyes on Tammara, she was just another person chilling out at the airport waiting for our flight to Toronto. But when I actually got to talk to her, I knew in my gut she was going to go far in the competition. Like most of us, she was putting her entire life on hold to make her culinary dream come true. She was not only leaving a special needs teaching job with the Calgary Board of Education, but her husband Rick, and her darling young daughters, 3 year old Abby and 5 year old Breanna. It was a risk she was taking, but for her to be leaving two kids and a hubby behind for up to two months? My folks weren’t happy with me gone for that long, but a spouse and kids? That had to be a challenge.

If she did have any pangs of homesickness though, very few people could read it from her steely poker face (I sure as hell couldn’t.) — in a stressful situation, she proved to be the most genuine, free-spirited and generous person I’ve met in my life so far (beside the rest of my Team YYC colleagues, of course.) And when I first got a chance to talk to her, it was abundantly clear she was something special. She is caring, kind and generous. Wanna know why?

This is the real Tammara. 100% genuine article.

This is the real Tammara. 100% genuine article.

For those of you who have been on a MasterChef set, you would know that we are warned that days on-set will be long. And if you think the producers are joking, you are DEAD WRONG. Armed with that fact and knowing she had only 60 minutes to make perfect authentic Indian samosas from scratch, she still took the time to make extra samosas for us, on top of making the ones she would blow the judges away with AND the two chutneys. Chalk that up to parenting, maybe, but that’s chef-level time management if I ever saw it. And the fact that she barely broke a sweat, keeping totally cool as ice in her adorable ice cream heels…if that isn’t grace under fire, then I have no idea what is.

Since her elimination (which was a shock, since I was pegging her to win the whole thing), she has launched head-long into her food dream. She has launched a catering company (aptly called Chef Tammara’s Catering) along with Rick. I had the chance to work alongside her and Dora (who helps out on occasion) at one of her gigs earlier this year, a 50th wedding anniversary, It was a thrill to say the least; for me it was almost like a MasterChef Canada “what if”, as in “If only the judges had kept the three of us together!”

Tam hard at work with Chef JP!

Tam hard at work with Chef JP!

On top of that, she has made a number of guest appearances on CTV Morning Live in Calgary, as well as doing a popup dinner at Muse Restaurant (before its closure) with their head chef, J.P. Pedhirney.

As well, she has also soared through the ranks of The Pampered Chef, a cookware sales program that she had been part of before going to Toronto. Since the show, she has been promoted to the program’s Alberta regional director; and at a recent Pampered Chef associates conference in Toronto, she was one of the opening speakers, and was greeted with a raptuous welcome by all in attendance. Just looking at the Facebook pictures of smiling attendees with Tammara, and you can tell.

But most of all, Tammara is still a mother at heart. She takes great care of her two daughters and husband, as well as her friends. Steadfastly loyal, she was one of the first people to embrace me when I was eliminated, and has stood by me ever since, encouraging me on my journey. She is so much to so many people, but all at the same time keeping a cool facade. Slowly but surely, she is making her dreams come true, and staying fabulous despite the crushing pressure.

A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.

A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.

Tammara is living proof that if you’re willing to take the risk, and know how to play your cards right, you can make the impossible, possible. The fact that she exudes love and confidence is just icing on top of the proverbial cake. I certainly can’t wait to work with her again…and who knows? Maybe the next time Chef Tammara caters your event, you may see a familiar face!