What can Top Chef Canada teach us about “Canadian Cuisine”?
I have no more intention of making this blog about TV than I do of making it about restaurant reviews: frankly, I try to limit my TV consumption, and when I do watch, it’s rarely food programming anymore. But I’ve been a longstanding fan of the Top Chef series, so I was intrigued to see how well it was going to be transplanted to Canadian soil.
After watching the first episode, I think the results are impressive. What really stood out for me, beyond the obvious talent in the room – here’s hoping for a cross-border Top Chef faceoff at some point! – was the ineffable “Canadianness” of the dishes that were prepared. The elimination challenge was for each contestant to cook a dish that represented them, and most of the dishes resonated with me on a deep level, expressing something about this country that I love. It’s not necessarily something that can be put into words, but I thought I’d try and tease out some of the themes.
First, there was the necessary token appearance of maple syrup in Derek’s “maple syrup and pancakes” dish. It may be a cliché, but on a Canadian show, it would be disappointing if it weren’t included.
Although Atlantic Canadians seem to be underrepresented among the contestants, they were represented with pride through Todd’s seal flipper dish. When pressed, I have always said that Quebec and Newfoundland have the most distinctive culinary identities in Canada, and Todd’s dish very much proved my point. Beyond that, there was also the fact that lobster, which is strongly associated with the East Coast, was featured in three different dishes.
Among the other dishes, there were a few recurring ingredients that definitely said “home” to me: pork tenderloin, wild mushrooms, blueberries, halibut and salmon. While they may not be as strongly tied to individual regions as seal flipper or maple syrup are, they’re all ingredients that Canadian cooks instinctively understand and relate to.
Of course, it probably helps that we can lay equal claim to our “native” dishes and dishes that have clear roots in other cultures, thanks to Canada’s approach to multiculturalism. In that respect, Connie’s Portuguese linguiça, Steve’s “Latino street party”, Chris’s Shanghai bok choy and spicy Thai scallops and Andrea’s pierogi all say “Canada” just as much as Darryl’s “meat and potatoes,” but in a different way.
It may be hard to point to specific features of some of the dishes that signal “Canada,” as opposed to rooting them in any other place. This may be a sign that a distinctive, Canadian fine-dining style is still in its nascence. Nonetheless, there was one thought I kept having over and over while watching the episode that suggests, to me at least, that there’s a common thread linking all of these various dishes: This is the food I eat.