Contestants on 'Top Chef Canada' in pressure cooker, says head judge Mark McEwan

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TORONTO - "Top Chef Canada" is heating up as a battle of the sexes.

Season 4, which launches Monday on Food Network Canada, features an even number of female and male chefs battling it out for the first time in the show's history.

The silent treatment is the order of the day in the first episode in which the chefs, who have never met, are paired up to create a dish together — without speaking. The winners gain immunity in the next challenge, in which a men's and women's team go head to head over a five-course meal.

In signing on to do the show and vie for $100,000 and other prizes the 14 chefs, who hail from across the country, are sequestered in what head judge Chef Mark McEwan calls "chef prison." He said it was startling to see what being in that pressure cooker will do to people.

"I think we saw things this year that we never saw before — behaviours and emotion and people really hitting the wall in a hard way. It was a tough season," McEwan said in a phone interview.

"We sort of looked at each other a number of times and said, 'Did that actually just happen? That actually happened.' We were very surprised by a number of things this season.

"It's all pressure based, right?" he added. "They get tired, a bit of a long day, the variables, they never know what's coming up, good days and bad days. A person can have an amazing day and then have a complete washout the next day and not handle it well. They get tired, they get stressed, they're away from their families, they can't talk on the phone, they can't Facebook, they don't have a computer. It takes them out of their element. Some are strong about it and many of them have a huge problem with that.

"They're in chef prison for seven weeks. If they want to go to a store they get walked to the store with a chaperone so that they can't get on the phone or on a computer or look up information. They don't actually understand it until they're living it and then they realize 'I'm really in battle here.'"

In the previous season, McEwan, owner of four restaurants, was challenged to create a gnocchi dish with scallops and pancetta, which he did in 11 minutes 58 seconds. He reprises his cooking participation this season with a different task.

"I feel more comfortable when I'm engaged. I've never been the chef who sits back and just points and critiques and criticizes and judges," he said.

"Getting used to being a judge took me a season, but to be fair about it I've a lot of respect for the pressure that these young chefs are under and I think being a judge has made me a better chef. I look at myself and judge myself even tougher and try to do better all the time, so when you're in a situation where you're critiquing others it sort of humbles you."

McEwan is joined in "Top Chef Canada" by Shereen Arazm, co-owner of Italian eatery Terroni and sushi restaurant Geisha House in L.A., who returns as resident judge. Actor and foodie Lisa Ray, who starred in the Oscar-nominated film "Water," is host again.

The new season features guest judges and tasters including Toronto Raptors forward Amir Johnson; "Chopped Canada" host Dean McDermott and wife Tori Spelling; "Chopped Canada" judges Chuck Hughes, Lynn Crawford, Roger Mooking and Susur Lee; Chef David Chang of Momofuku fame; Zane Caplansky ("Donut Showdown"); Food Network host Bob Blumer ("World's Weirdest Restaurants"); Duff Goldman ("Ace of Cakes") and "Top Chef Canada" season 3 winner and runner-up Matthew Stowe and Danny Smiles.

Lee's new restaurant Luckee at the Soho Metropolitan Hotel is the scene for the meal the chefs compete on in the first episode.

"The funny thing about Susur is as he's gotten older he's actually developed a sense of humour," McEwan said. "I've known Susur forever and I've always said, 'Susur, smile. Have a little fun in your life.' And he actually gets it now. He's a blast.

"I did a little imitation of Susur in the dressing room where I put a big long hair extension on and I took three fans and I stood there with that very stoic pose with your hands crossed across your chest with the ponytail flying in the wind — remember when he did that on his cookbook ('Susur: A Culinary Life')? — and I sent it to him. He thought it was very funny. I think years ago he probably would have punched me in the nose," he said with a laugh.

McEwan, also a cookbook author and owner of a gourmet food store, thinks the fact that "Top Chef Canada" has been on for three seasons gives participating chefs some insight into what to expect.

"It has been helpful to some and I think it's hurt others. They come in a little bit too confident or think they're a little too clever and they're going to have an angle on it. They don't realize how much pressure it is and how much the show actually knocks them off balance, and spins them around and really puts them in a situation where they have to gather their thoughts and do their best effort because it's not easy."

"Top Chef Canada" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/10 p.m. PT on Food Network Canada.


Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

Organizations: Geisha House, Toronto Raptors, Soho Metropolitan Hotel

Geographic location: TORONTO

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