Master Chef Judges Speak Their Minds

mc1 In anticipation of the inaugural season finale of Master Chef Canada, and in the wake of the news that there will be a season two, Adam and Sara Waxman sit down with the three judges, Claudio, Alvin and Michael, now household names, for the latest scoop!

Adam Waxman: Claudio, you once advised me to, “Never trust a chef who doesn’t have a lot of stamps in his passport”. Do you feel that these top contestants have been able to convey a range of world cuisines and not be pegged to one? And what advice would you give to the next season of contestants?
Claudio Aprile: Luckily, we live in such a multicultural city, that we’re forced to try all different cuisines, and learn about different cultures and cuisines. I would tell the contestants who plan to be on season two to read as much as you can, cook all the time, go to as many multicultural restaurants as you can, watch season one and learn what we are looking for: someone who can handle pressure and has a passion for cooking.

MCAlvin AW: Alvin, You once told me “You can’t get any higher by lowering the bar”; and that in Chinese culture you emphasize strict discipline over complements. In your critiques of the home cooks, you are not just speaking to them; you are also speaking to the 1.7 million viewers. How do you feel Canadians, and in particular, the Master Chef contestants have responded to criticism?
Alvin Leung: In Asian cultures we don’t praise, we criticize. Even when we criticize we praise—if we are harsh it means that we care. I’m not saying things have gotten soft, I’m saying people have gotten soft. You should be able to take criticism on a positive note. If I criticize, it means I want you to do better. Sometimes they misread and think I’m bullying. I just want to help them.

AW: Time management is obviously integral to cooking, and no more so than in the pressure tests. Michael, what observations have you made about these home cooks’ ability to manage their time and work under pressure; and how has it affected their dishes and the standings in this competition?
Michael Bonacini: We all work in kitchens, and kitchens are incredibly time sensitive. From the second that first order comes in, a kitchen environment is about timing.  When you put the steak on, when you take it off, when you put in your vegetables, when you start the sauce.  The home cooks are fully aware of the time they have, and if they are not done in the allotted time, that will either lead to incredible failure or incredible success.  Time management in our business is fundamental. And that is translated to the show. We go around and chat with them, and that adds to the pressure. We call out ten minutes, five minutes, one minute, and that adds to the pressure. A dish can be made to win or lose in the last five seconds. In the dining room, five minutes can be a very long time, but in the kitchen, five minutes flies by.

MC Claudio AW: Claudio, one of your aims at Senses was to appeal to all five senses. It seems your unique style there, as well as at Colborne Lane, and now at Origin, has always been, in part, about innovation, to provide an experience seldom seen or tasted. Would you say that these cooks have impressed you with their unique potential in this regard?
Claudio: I would not be able to be a judge on this show if I didn’t respect them and see that they have drive and passion. There are a few who, if they apply themselves, can be the next top chefs in this country. You can see the way they move, a certain dance, and a rhythm. There are a few that have it, and a few that think they have it. You can’t teach it. It’s something successful chefs have. When they come out on the show, it’s beautiful to watch.

AW: How about you Alvin? You seem excited by taking risks outside the box. Can you give me examples of any of the home cooks’ dishes that have conveyed flashes of that kind of confidence and creativity that have really impressed you?

Alvin: Quite a few. Eric tried to make eight different kinds of doughnuts instead of three! That was outside the box. The beef episode with the sweetbreads, brains and other parts of the cow, the baked Alaska episode—there were quite a few areas where they went out of the box. However: You have to learn what’s inside the box before you go outside of it. You have to be able to cook in the box before you can cook outside the box. There is a Chinese saying: do not try to run before you can walk. You have to really know the rules before you can break them. You have to know “where” to take the risks. A good chef is always a smart chef.

MCMichael AW: Michael, you immigrated to Canada from Wales almost thirty years ago and began to make your mark here. Looking back, do you think there could have been a MasterChef Canada in ‘85?
Michael: Coming to Canada was a cultural shift. I think you can judge the caliber of a city by its restaurants. We’ve got some amazing restaurants here, and in there somewhere, there could have been a Master Chef, but the timing now has been absolutely perfect.
Alvin: I was in London thirty years ago. There could not have been a Master Chef. Interest in cooking at home has increased. On television there was only Yan Can Cook and The Galloping Gourmet. Now there are entire channels about cooking.  Canada has become so multicultural, and we’re exposed to all kinds of cooking, Thirty years ago there was very little.
Claudio: It’s a fertile ground, exploding with restaurants, and it’s fascinating to watch. It’s the perfect timing for Master Chef.

Sara Waxman: When two contestants stand before you, and both have had failures, what are the criteria for eliminating one over the other?
635151163077170000 Michael: There is no set of criteria. I put forth my thoughts on the taste, presentation; quality; and the technique. If all of those elements come together, does this person stand a chance? Sometimes, when we are in disagreement, we go into the back room, look at the pictures and debate each single element of the dish before we come up with a decision.
Claudio: We taste a lot of food and the stakes are high. Is it delicious? Some dishes are more delicious than others. It’s very difficult. It also boils down to a lost cause, or what is salvageable. Growth, potential and attitude are big parts of it. Can they be trained to take your advice?
Alvin: In school, on an exam, we often don’t complete a whole answer; we may have made a mistake somewhere. Which error is human error, and which person did not know what the hell they were doing?  Human error, or ignorance?  I would give the opportunity to the one who made human error.

SW: Have you learned anything over the course of this series that has surprised you?
Claudio: I have learned how to be led. This is a very large team of people, and it’s the first time in 20 years of my cooking in restaurants that I’ve been led; and I’ve found that very liberating. It is humbling.
mc Alvin: I have spent two months analyzing and criticizing, and I will take this home. We, too, are open to being judged, and we have to be aware of it and accept it with grace. I take it very seriously—how to analyze a dish.
Michael: Human determination, tenacity, drive, these cooks have put their heart and soul into this culinary adventure. You can never predict who is going to win at the end of each show.

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