MasterChef Canada’s Cathie James makes life difficult for the home cooks

Being a home cook on MasterChef Canada is tough. Not only have they left the comfort of a regular life behind to enter the competition, but they’re prepared dishes for three bona fide chefs in Michael Bonacini, Alvin Leung and Claudio Aprile. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, the contestants experience victories and defeats via Mystery Box and Pressure Test challenges in the studio and complex, intricate tests in numerous on-location tests.

Those challenges, designed to apply pressure to the contestants on the road to crowning a winner, are the responsibility of MasterChef Canada executive producer Cathie James, who reveals the details behind the tests and the challenges they have to make them work.

Certain home cooks get more airtime on the show than others. Is that because they are quote-worthy? How do you decide who to focus on week-to-week?
Cathie James: In other shows that I’ve worked on, you make those decisions based on who is the most charismatic. With MasterChef, what’s happening on the show with regard to the food and the cooking really pushes your decision in the edit because, in some respects, we edit the show backwards. Whoever wins the Mystery Box, for example, you want to see how it came together … the person who is eliminated at the end, you want to make the audience care about them so they may get a little more attention in the lead-up to their elimination. And if there is a jeopardy moment with a contestant—something goes badly wrong—we often cliffhang the action and focus our energies on it.

The storytelling really comes together in the editing suite.
This year, there were 14 people who make it into the competition and there are 10 cameras, so the amount of tape for day of filming was absolutely overwhelming. The decisions that are made in the editing really do shape the episode. That’s the case for any non-scripted television. And just because you construct the situation—flying 40 people in for auditions and putting them through a series of challenges—doesn’t mean what happens to those people and their reactions to them, isn’t authentic.

For the show to resonate with you, me and the viewers, what you see has to be genuine.

A huge part of MasterChef Canada are the challenges you put the home cooks through. I’m fascinated by the work that goes into the on-location tests. Can you walk me through the process?
They’re really hard to come up with and have worked with some really strong brands in Kraft and Unilever, so often they want to be a part of things. Not only are you looking for a location that’s beautiful and exciting and plays to a particular type of food or a theme … you’re looking to give the audience something that is really different and captures a type of cooking. We usually come up with six off-site challenges every season, so we start the summer collecting ideas and will come up with 10-15 ideas.

I have a challenge team that are logistical wizards. Once an idea has been approved by the network, the team takes it and makes it happen. The big creative process is, how are we going to reveal the winner? So we have the model on the runway with ether the red or blue dress or the pyrotechnic thing. Some work better than others. The pyrotechnic reveal, where the judges lit a fuse and it was supposed to go around the MasterChef symbol … that fuse was supposed to go around the symbol 100 times faster than it did. [Laughs.] We cut it, so it didn’t look so bad. You’re always flying by the seat of your pants with this and you can’t go back and re-shoot. We get what we get.

With 10 cameras, it’s impossible to see what’s really going on until we go through the footage. And then you have the confessional interviews with the contestants, where you get their perspective on what was happening at the time.

You’re three seasons into MasterChef Canada. Are you still surprised by the skill level of the home cooks?
I’m absolutely amazed and they keep getting better. This season, the food is better than it ever has been.

MasterChef Canada airs Sundays at 7 p.m. ET on CTV.