After winning MasterChef Canada, quitting his job and setting off on an international adventure, Eric Chong had just one problem. He couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing.
“The hardest part, for me, was keeping a secret from friends,” recalls the co-owner of R&D restaurant on Spadina.
Chong couldn’t get six weeks off work to compete, so he quit his engineering job. While shooting, he was only allowed one phone call a week. He chose family instead of his girlfriend. They broke up.
After winning, one of the show’s judges, Alvin Leung, invited Chong to work in a Hong Kong restaurant, a prospect for the partnership that would become R&D.
But for the seven months between the final episode and its broadcast, while travelling through Asia, embarking on a new career, cooking in restaurants for the first time, he was contractually obligated to not reveal what had happened on the season finale.
“The show didn’t want me to say that I was in Asia with Alvin because that would spoil that I’d already won,” says Chong. “It was a huge part of my life that I couldn’t share. Kind of like living in limbo.”
Despite the post-victory purgatory, it has been nothing but great for him.
“There would be no career to talk about if not for the show,” he laughs. “I would probably still be an engineer.”
What you see on TV vs. a pro kitchen is extremely different
Competition cooking shows like Top Chef, Chopped, MasterChef and Iron Chef (spawned from Japan, where the original ran during the 90s), have been a mainstay of American television since the mid-2000s. They are all franchised internationally. From Vietnam to El Salvador, there are 24 regional Top Chef programmes. The Canadian version, launched in 2011, has so far produced seven seasons, with chefs from across the country competing for a top prize of $100,000.
What impact have these shows had on their contestants, and the generation of young cooks for whom competing on television has always been a part of the culinary ecosystem?
Like Chong, Mary Berg does not miss her old career as an insurance broker. She was ready for a change, but it took a lot of convincing to get her to apply to MasterChef.
“I want to do my best in everything. But I’m not particularly competitive,” says Berg. “I was always a participation-ribbon-getter. I was the kid who, during gym class, if we were playing sports, would sit down on the grass and pick clovers.”
Despite having to be pushed into the spotlight, the winner of MasterChef’s third season is a natural on camera. Berg now hosts her own show, Mary’s Kitchen Crush, where she shares home cooking recipes while chatting with guests. It’s a throwback to an earlier age of food on television before competition shows successfully wedded the creativity of cooking with the rules, points and ticking clock of sports.
“For me, food has always been about sharing,” says Berg. “It’s very kindergarten in my mind. Sharing is caring. So food is the best way to do that.”
Not all former contestants feel that way.
“Every chef has an ego,” says Andrea Nicholson. “I don’t care what they say. We all have egos. We all have something to prove.”
Like a lot of chefs, Nicholson got an early start as a kitchen professional. When she was 13, her parents caught a rare tropical bird, an Amazon parrot, in their Toronto backyard. Out for dinner at Rocco’s Plum Tomato, the chef came by to say hello to the local celebrities (the story of the bird had been featured in the Toronto Star), and asked their daughter what she wanted to do when she grew up. That Sunday, Nicholson was pounding veal cutlets for take-out sandwiches and has been cooking professionally ever since.
From there she worked at high-end establishments Via Allegro and the 5th. Later, at Luce, she took the owners to the labour board over wrongful dismissal (disclosure: I also cooked at Luce, though not at the same time, and once heard the owner boast that the number of people suing you is a measure of your success). After 13 years in the industry, Nicholson was tired of the boy’s club that she saw holding her back. No one needed to push her to apply as a contestant. If anything, as an uber-fan of Top Chef, she was just waiting for the Canadian version.
Though she didn’t win, visibility on television enabled her to open her own restaurant, Butchie’s Damn Tasty Food in Whitby. And it’s led to an ongoing TV presence, as a judge on Fire Masters.
“It’s been amazing. It’s only propelled my career. It’s afforded me opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten in any other circumstances.”
Also, Nicholson sees the influence of these shows as a net gain for the restaurant industry. “It’s brought light to cooks and what we do, how hard we work to put food on the plate for people. It’s validated our craft. I think it’s glorified it at the same time.”
Carl Heinrich tips his hat to those, like Nicholson, who can transition from the kitchen to television. After winning season two of Top Chef Canada, he tried his hand at a career on camera.
“Hosting a TV show, that is tough work. I did a show just after Top Chef, called Four Senses. I wasn’t a great host. I learned that that’s just not one of my strengths. It’s hard to be on camera, know how to throw to the camera, get your lines right, be a host, engage with people. That is a career. There are people who do that for a living and are good at it.”
Heinrich says that even if he didn’t win, he and partner Ryan Donovan were determined to open their restaurant, Richmond Station. But it would have been a harder struggle and they’d have had to give up a bigger percentage to investors. The prize money and publicity radically changed that dynamic.
“We were going to open this restaurant no matter what. But because I won the show, it filled seats right away. And the money that I won gave me capital in my own business. Because of those earnings, I could own my share of it.”
Chong, an avid food TV viewer, couldn’t keep watching these cooking shows after he saw how the sausage was made.
“What you see on TV, and literally working in a professional kitchen for one day, is extremely different,” says Chong, who went from no experience to running a restaurant. “I think these shows do kind of mislead young generations, people who want to cook for a living. Some of the people I interview, new cooks from George Brown, they ask, how long is our break? It’s weird when they ask that, because, you don’t get a break. You work the whole day standing. I think a lot of the new cooks come in with that mentality.”
Heinrich sees it differently.
“There’s a common complaint from friends of mine in this industry that you can’t find quality cooks anymore because they want to come out of school and run a kitchen. But the onus is on those chefs to mentor. To curate that young cook and to push them in a way that they can become the chef they want to become. And it’s up to us to make sure they know that they’re not ready for that yet. Because they’re not.”
Like Nicholson, Heinrich believes that these shows have helped the dining industry by raising standards across the board.
“Cooking shows are only a positive for this industry. The food that was cooked on the most recent season of Top Chef Canada was world-class food. And that’s the standard now. It’s continually pushing the bar up. Cooks are watching the show and saying, ‘I want to cook food like that too. How do I learn how to do that?’”
The pressure of cooking and being judged on television was, to Heinrich, an amplification of the pressure a chef feels cooking every day; albeit with more stressful elements of unfamiliar ingredients and shorter time limits. As long as he didn’t go home first, he wasn’t worried. The real anxiety came from how he would be perceived on television.
We don’t cast for evil, but if you’re a jerk, you’re a jerk
“My goal, when I went on that show, was to make sure that I didn’t give them shit – anything to work with so they could portray me as an asshole. And I slipped up. A couple of times. And every time I slipped up it was on TV,” says Heinrich, who now laughs about it.
“To Carl’s point, yeah, people are nervous about what’s going to happen,” says Top Chef Canada producer Cliff Dempster. “We don’t cast in terms of the evil character, the funny character. We look for cooking skill. But if you’re a jerk, you’re a jerk.”
After narrowing down applicants from the 200 to 500 that apply every year, Dempster will do phone interviews, then visit chefs in their cities, putting them on camera while they cook and talk. He’s looking for chefs with the full package; top-level culinary abilities plus enough extrovert qualities to keep the audience entertained as they narrate what’s happening during the show.
If anything, says Dempster, the challenge of casting is an embarrassment of riches. Some years there are so many great chefs he wishes he could film two seasons at once. For those who don’t make the cut, he encourages them to apply again, with tips about being more camera-ready.
“Part of the job of a casting producer is to help them share their stories,” he says. Preparing for season eight, Dempster has been calling alumni to ask about how the show has impacted their careers.
“Everyone comes on the show believing they can win, which is really important for a great competition,” says Dempster. “What I’m hearing is more about what they learned about themselves, within the process of the competition.”
Nicholson sums up the lesson succinctly. “Surrounded by crazy-talented people,” she remembers, “I learned that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.”