Top Chef Canada, Season 4

27 Feb

I love the blindfolded-taste-test challenge on Top Chef Canada. Contenders have to name ingredients they sample just once, with their eyes covered. So humiliating for a chef to get basic flavours wrong in front of the whole country and so impressive to get the obscure ones right! I’ve always wanted to try it, and I got my chance at a Top Chef Canada, Season 4, media contest in Toronto today.

We were four female and four male journalists–that’s the same 50-50 gender split as Top Chef Canada promises in its new Battle of the Sexes edition, which premieres Monday March 10 on Food Network Canada. (I can’t wait to see more women get their knives out. The producers have promised a “heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping” spectacle. I’m hoping for romance too.) Before we got to blindfolded taste-testing, we underwent a preliminary challenge on the wall at Joe Rockhead’s Indoor Rock Climbing centre in Toronto.


Cards were pinned all the way up the wall–cards that would help us gain advantages over our opponents in Round 2. We drew knives to see what order we’d climb in to grab one each.



There were TV cameras from ET Canada filming our ascent. I’m hoping in equal parts that my rear view will get some national air time and that J-Lo, Kim Kardashian and Beyonce don’t make the headlines that same night.


In spite of the terror I displayed on my CN Tower Edge Walk from Hell last year, I actually enjoyed this. I felt like Spiderjournalist, grappling my way up the pebbled wall in grippy-toed shoes and Top Chef whites. And the Hint Card I brought back down gave me the right to ask Head Judge Mark McEwan for clues about one ingredient during the taste-testing challenge. He would only share the clues with me once the other contenders had committed to their answers.

Back on firm ground, albeit a little wobbly in the legs, I moved to a long table where we each had bottles of water to cleanse our palates and black blindfolds to cover our eyes. Our hosts proceeded to bring out little plastic cups containing mystery superfoods and drinks. We tasted one at a time, writing down what we thought each ingredient was on a clipboard. Next we’d reveal our answers and get a point if we were correct.


The first three ingredients tasted like wallpaper paste, swamp sludge and mystery juice to me. I scribbled down some guesses. They were all wrong. Sometimes wrong-food-group wrong. I started to panic, especially when I saw Mark McEwan flinch a little when I called out sesame paste on the black-bean paste round. I think I hurt his soul.

Mark McEwan
But then they brought out cacao nibs, and I was one of just two contenders to guess them right. I had the jungle advantage, having just returned from Central America, where I took chocolate-making workshops last week. That trip got me chai seeds and acai juice too. Totally worth the mosquito bites.

We all got quinoa right, although I admit that blindfolded, I eat like a 9-month-old baby, so there were a few frog-spawny grains left on my board after the eye covers came off, which confirmed my initial guess. I felt like Top Cheat.

The clues from my Hint Card snagged me tomato water. You’d think that would be an easy one, but I swear that without salt, sugar or context, most stuff tastes either:

a) gross


b) of nothing

After 12 ingredients, the judges announced our winner–Marie. She had the palate of a tenth-generation winemaker and got nearly every ingredient right. I think she should audition for Season 5.

They announced joint second place for me and another gal, Anya. So we did a tie-breaker round.

Back on with the blindfolds and out with the plastic cups. I inhaled deeply from the cup, then took a spoonful of the smooth, bland, nutty contents and rolled them around my tongue. The way this stuff clung to the roof of my mouth seemed so familiar.

“Almond butter,” I wrote with a flourish.

Chef McEwan asked for our answers.

“Cashew butter!” my nemesis called out.

Duh. Of course!

So I came in third in the end, but collectively we women left the dudes in the dust. A sign of things to come in Season 4?


Top Chef Canada Season 4

I also came out of the competition with huge respect for the real Top Chef contestants. They have to prove themselves in this kind of challenge on national TV and in front of their peers and the regular and guest judges–industry leaders from across the country.

I’m looking forward to seeing what else is in store for Season 4. I wondered aloud on Instagram this afternoon if the climbing wall represented an actual Top Chef challenge too. New Brunswick Season 4 contender Jesse Vergen chimed in: “There will be some cliff hangers ;)”

I’m predicting the chefs were helicoptered off to scale a wind-and-rain-battered cliff, to harvest some rare and delicious weed or berry that only grows on vertical-faced rocks.

What do you think?

I guess we’ll need to watch to find out.

5 Responses to “Top Chef Canada, Season 4”

  1. Marie (aka @karmacakedotca) February 27th, 2014 at 9:55 AM #

    “she had the palate of a tenth-generation winemaker and got nearly every ingredient right. I think she should audition for Season 5.”

    I may not audition for Season 5, but, I do have the satisfaction of knowing I won a challenge against some of Toronto’s most charming media talent – that’s AOK with me!

    It was great meeting you! I’m kind of pumped for the new season to start and get the #TopChefCanada Tweet chat going!

    • Valerie Howes February 27th, 2014 at 10:46 AM #

      You were awesome. Great to meet you too!

  2. Bev February 27th, 2014 at 12:33 PM #

    I love this, Val, and I’m looking forward to the new season. Also, congratulaions Marie!

    • Valerie Howes February 27th, 2014 at 1:07 PM #

      Thanks, Bev!

    • Marie (aka @karmacakedotca) March 4th, 2014 at 10:00 AM #

      Bev, thanks! It was fun and I loved meeting Val! Can’t wait to get into the new season as well! Will be on the @TopChefCanada account so come keep me company on a Monday night!

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