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Top Chef Canada recap, episode 3: Aykroyd’s verboten vodka

Guest judge Dan Aykroyd flanked by his blues sisters, Thea Andrews and Shereen Arazm (Image: Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

TOP CHEF CANADA
Season 1 | Episode 3

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Was it just us, or was the level of cooking on last night’s episode of Top Chef Canada miles ahead of the safe, bland fare from the first two weeks? Maybe the chefs have gotten over their first time jitters. Or maybe it was the presence of actor, restaurateur, winemaker, illicit vodka purveyor and guest judge Dan Aykroyd that (ghost-)busted them into shape. Whatever it was, the contestants stepped up their game—without sacrificing the all-important smack talk and clowning around in their under things (this time Origin’s Steve Gonzalez did the honours). Here, our recap of the best dishes, trash talk and product placements.

Quickfire

The blind taste test platter (Image: Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

This week’s quickfire challenge was a Top Chef food nerd classic: the blind taste test, familiar to anyone who took the Pepsi Challenge way back when. Each blindfolded contestant had five minutes to identify the 20 sweet, salty, sour and bitter ingredients head judge Mark McEwan selected. François Gagnon totally choked, and was only able to pick out one item. As punishment, the show’s producers accompanied his comments with the requisite I’m-a-Frenchie accordion music, marking the first of many queasy ethnic stereotype moments. Gonzalez also faltered, but wins our award for the funniest misidentification for calling a piece of eggplant a “dry-ass cucumber.”

Chris Kanka and Dale MacKay both powered through the challenge, picking out sea asparagus, fermented black bean, cacao nib and miso paste with ease. In the end, Kanka won immunity by correctly identifying 13 ingredients. MacKay shrugged off the loss, pointing out that Kanka’s Asian cooking experience gave him an edge—“plus he’s an older guy.” Way to keep it classy, Dale.

Elimination

We totally called this on our last recap: this week’s elimination challenge was structured around Aykroyd’s notorious Crystal Head Vodka, which is sold in bottles shaped like skulls. The chefs were split into two teams, each charged with creating a traditional Russian zakuski meal—a sort of refined tapas featuring staples like pickled onion and kielbasa—which McEwan assured the chefs is traditionally “enjoyed while sipping copious amounts of vodka.” Naturally, the teams were decided by having contestants open up matryoshka dolls to reveal a blue or green coating inside. No, we’re not making this up.

Connie DeSousa’s winning dish (Image: Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

On the blue team, sparks flew from the get go. The immune-from-elimination Kanka refused to take one for the team by making dessert (countless Top Chef contestants have been sent home for lousy desserts), despite pleading from the increasingly bossy MacKay. The unassuming Todd Perrin, whose sweet Newfie accent seems to get more pronounced with each episode, stepped forward in the end.

Over on the green team, Andrea Nicholson (of Great Cooks on Eight) made the best of what she admitted was the weaker team, by constantly correcting her teammates’ funny ideas about Russian food (“no offence, they don’t eat yogurt”; “Stop thinking about the Czech Republic, they’re two totally different countries”). We also learned at this point that Connie DeSousa was a ballerina for 18 years, which explains her intense focus and petite figure. (In reality TV land, of course, learning the back story means that she is either going to win or go home.)

After 90 minutes of frenzied cooking and kvetching, the chefs repaired to their too-cozy condo (complete with bunk beds) for some R’n’R, and a chance to get better acquainted with the sponsored vodka (one chef called it “the coolest bottle of vodka I’ve ever seen,” totally unprompted by the producers, we’re sure). Adorably, Gagnon was heard practicing some of the English slang Gonzalez and Grace’s Dustin Gallagher had taken it upon themselves to teach him (“‘Sick’, ‘gangster,’ I am working on the next one”).

Despite their shaky starts, by the time the two zakuski spreads made it to the judges (joined by a disappointingly sedate Aykroyd and Frank chef Anne Yarymowich), both teams managed to turn out some surprisingly complex and elegant plates. The green team’s DeSousa won with a cold dish of smoked garlic sausages on hand-made kasha and barley lavash, which the judges praised for its maturity. Also impressive was runner-up Nicholson’s plate of sauerkraut, smoked speck, pork loin and ribs, with a veal-and-rye bread meatball.

On the losing end, the judges had to decide between Gonzalez, whose mini-potato salad was insipid despite its bacon foam; Patrick Wiese, whose steelhead with vodka citrus crème fraîche was tasty but ugly (although Aykroyd did praise the “gourmet tater tot” that came with it); and MacKay, who put out a too-fishy cured salmon with white sturgeon caviar, and generally did a lousy job leading his team. Perrin, meanwhile, created a delightful parsnip blini for his dessert and got away scot-free.

Conclusion

In the end, Gonzalez got the axe, ridding the show of by far its most entertaining contestant. Although we’re despairing for watchability of future episodes, we fully expect Gagnon to step in and fill the role of the most ethnic funny one.

Next Week on Top Chef Canada

The contestants cook a meal inspired by a randomly assigned country and are judged by none other than Gallagher’s former boss, Susur Lee. Will the Asian-fusion pioneer play favourites? Is the Top Chef Canada set big enough to hold Lee and McEwan’segos at the same time? We’ll be watching.

Our weekly Top Chef Canada leader board:

 

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