We spend a lot of time in our kitchens, they’re known as the busiest room in the house. But we also spend lots of time in the kitchens of reality shows, judging by the number of them on TV these days. How do these chef battles end up effecting the way we eat? I examined that question today on Food Matters.
My favourite TV chef competition over the past few months has been Top Chef Canada. While the show is edited to create drama and sometimes build simulated tension between the competitors, most of the cooking challenges are real, we get to see real chefs use real Canadian products and the judging is tough but fair.
Season Two just came to an end a couple of weeks ago and BC was very well-represented, Canada’s new Top Chef Carl Heinrich hails from Sooke, and runner-up Trevor Bird, who was working at Vancouver’s Shangri-la Hotel, has just opened a new restaurant in Kitsilano. I’m also a fan of Chopped, which features real chefs showing their stuff in very tight time trials.
My least favourite competition show has to be Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay. I actually stopped watching it a couple of years ago because I didn’t believe any of the contestants had any culinary talent and were strictly chosen by personality types and I can’t stand a chef that just stands there and yells at people and abuses them. That just doesn’t happen as much in commercial kitchens any more…and I think Ramsay is just putting on an act for the cameras.
Then there is Iron Chef. I had a chance in 1999 to join then-Vancouver chef Michael Noble in Tokyo as he competed against Chef Morimoto in the original Japanese version of Iron Chef….the cooking was real but everything else, including the judging, in my belief, was done to further story lines and like the American version of Iron Chef, has more the air of professional wrestling than professional cooking. The directors want outrageous and they’re not afraid to coach the competitors to give them what they want.
But we still watch these shows…because we want to be entertained and we like to watch people fail and succeed. Where the really serious cooking takes place is in some of the competitions that never make it to North American television. I’m talking about contests for which chefs train for years to try to make it to the top. The money or trophies or medals they may win would never make up for the time and money spent on practicing, but we are eventually the beneficiaries of all the skill and experience gained by these chefs at competitions.
We develop some of our finest chefs in competitions like the Bocuse d’Or in France, the World Pastry Cup and the World Culinary Olympics. Then when you start looking around at some of the top restaurants and even restaurant chains and you’ll find that many of the executive chefs and their sous chefs have taken part in these competitions. If you go to any Joey’s Restaurant in Canada you can rest assured that the menu was devised by Vancouver chef Chris Mills, a competitor in the Bocuse d’Or and the assistant in Iron Chef Japan to chef Michael Noble. For years Noble was involved with the Canadian Bocuse d’Or teams, Culinary Team Canada, and he also helped to change all the Earl’s restaurant menus to a better experience. One of his mentors was Bruno Marti of La Belle Auberge Restaurant in Ladner, who really helped put Canada on the map with several gold medals earned at the World Culinary Olympics and a World Championship in Frankfurt back in 1982. His partner at La Belle Auberge, Tobias MacDonald, is a competitor himself, but also the coach of the Canada’s Junior National Culinary Team, which brings me to Cowichan Bay this coming Sunday, June 24th.
On Sunday night the Junior National Culinary Team will do a full practice for their run at the World Culinary Olympics in Germany in October. About 75 lucky diners will get to eat the results of the practice at the Oceanfront Suites in Cowichan Bay, a four course meal made up of the dishes they will serve at the Olympics. I’ve been watching some video of them practicing and some of them are so young it’s hard to believe how good they are…and they stand a very, very good chance against the world powers in culinary talent.
This team has recently been competing against senior teams in contests in Ireland and Korea. In Korea they won a gold medal and finished in second place overall by less than half a point! In Ireland the team earned a silver in the cold program and a gold in the hot program. For people at the dinner in Cowichan Bay there will be video clips of the team to watch as part of the show as well as some live music. It’s only 65 dollars a ticket for the four course meal including tax and tip, and as of yesterday there were just ten tickets left. Call 250-746-4510 to purchase tickets or check with the Oceanfront Suites.
You can watch video of the team in action on their website, where you will also find some recipes you can try as well. So that’s one way they influence what we cook and eat, and when you look at something like the new restaurant Top Chef runner-up Trevor Bird has opened in Vancouver called ‘Fable’, short for Farm to Table, an idea spawned during his time taping the TV show, that’s another influence on how we eat…yet another chef being inspired by a more sustainable way of cooking for the masses.