“I have to push myself to do terrifying things,” says local chef Tania Ganassini.
In this particular instance, that terrifying thing was filling out the very long application to become a competitor on the Food Network’s Top Chef Canada.
“It is always important and necessary — if you want to level up as a person — to really focus on growth as an individual. To reach the next echelon of interesting evolution, you have to do things that make you feel wildly uncomfortable,” says the 31-year-old.
Overcoming her fear paid off: The first episode of season seven of Top Chef Canada, with Ganassini as a contestant, aired Monday.
“I’m really happy with how the episode turned out. I feel like I was represented well, and it reminded me of how talented all of the chefs are. Also, I love and respect Takeshi [Horinoue] as a chef and person, and was really sad when he went home. I wish that nobody had to go home ever, but obviously that would make awful television,” she laughs.
“Another note is that I’m really happy Benet [Hunt] was chosen because we became friends, and his sense of humour got me through some tough days.”
The competition is known to be tough, and is also — of course — very public. “I’m putting myself out there to a larger audience,” she says, with some trepidation, because “social media allows people to comment from behind screens. I have to not let external validation or criticism matter to me. I have to achieve my own self-worth.”
Ganassini got her acceptance call while prepping products for her plant-based food service, Staff Meal Niagara. The show’s producer said, “I need you to be in Toronto tomorrow morning with your audition dish. I’m just letting you know, the competition starts now.” Ganassini says she recognized how things would go, what the demands would be like, when she got that call.
“I felt very relaxed about it, didn’t put any pressure on myself. I decided to just enjoy the moment. I truly believe that people who are the most successful are those who lose themselves in the moment.”
The audition process is an on-camera interview. Candidates from across Canada have 30 minutes to prepare an original dish while being interviewed, and while “cooking for the camera,” says the seasoned chef. Ganassini is no stranger to this.
“I love public speaking, and anything to do with being on camera. I love being challenged to step out of my comfort zone,” she says. She placed second on the television series Chopped in 2015 — “I lost to the nicest man in the world,” she says, with no remorse.
“I always forget what the city was like,” says the former Torontonian. “I had to park three blocks away from the interview, and drag a cooler while carrying a Vitamix with a bag around my shoulder,” she mimes the awkwardness. “Three blocks. Not one person offered to help,” she laughs.
For her audition she made a vegan smoked carrot tartare with whipped cashew sauerkraut cream, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs. She made an “everything” bagel lavash to go with it.
The episodes were filmed at the end of 2018. Ganassini’s husband John Vetere — also a chef — was behind his partner 100%. “John was infinitely supportive. He is the most supportive partner I could ever ask for,” she says gratefully.
As for the show, “Top Chef is such a mystery,” says Ganassini, explaining that contestants never know what the next challenge will be. “There are two challenges per episode. One is a ‘QuickFire’ done in the studio. There is a cash prize or immunity for this one. The main challenge can send you home. It’s done off-site and can involve cooking for 400 people by 2 p.m. tomorrow,” she says. “You just don’t know what to expect. Sometimes you work as a team, sometimes you work alone.”
Overall Ganassini describes the feel of the show as “the most cordial Canadian show. Seriously, I love the judges so much. I would want to hang with them. I truly felt they were rooting us on — not that they weren’t tough on us.” She continues, “They are really good at what they do; I really trusted their input. I really got the feeling they were in our court, not out to lambaste us — they really wanted to be positive.”
Head judge and restaurateur Mark McEwan is “really empathetic,” she says. Of the show’s host (and restaurant co-owner) Eden Grinshpan, she says, “If she lived here in Niagara-on-the-Lake I would want to be her best friend. She made me feel so comfortable. The host sets the tone for the whole show — she is exactly the same off camera as on.”
“Canada’s Top Chef is very light on melodrama; it’s much more about the quality of the food produced. I genuinely feel like the quality of the food is the utmost, but the drama gets in there.”
While the season is being aired, Ganassini can’t even hint at her future standing or on-camera experiences. But she can, and does, describe the overall experience.
“It was a mixed bag of characters. It was hard to fit into a social dynamic, especially for me not being in a restaurant,” she says. While Ganassini has had plenty of experience in professional kitchens, she has been outside the restaurant realm for the last five years. And there’s another factor in her unease.
“Social anxiety is something I’ve struggled with since I was 10 years old,” she says. “This situation was an actual nightmare for that. I wish I didn’t feel that way but it’s in my DNA and it’s just something that I had to get over.”
She goes on to say, “The challenges are hard but your motor skills take over. Your mental state dictates your performance. Confidence is a massive component, and it’s really easy to doubt yourself, especially when being judged.”
Another element weighed heavily on Ganassini. As one of only three women out of the 12 contestants, “I felt obligated to do a service to all the females watching. I wanted to show an unorthodox female role model,” she says. She goes on to describe a male-dominated field. “I didn’t have a ton of women to look up to in the industry. On TV you have home chefs [who are often female], and a lot of professional male chefs.”
“Only one woman has won Canada’s Top Chef in six seasons, and she won in an all-stars competition,” she says. “I am hyper-conscious of that. That was one of my motivators filming the season.”
“I am just wanting to prove a different archetype can participate. I’m just different, and I wasn’t afraid to be transparent and honest about how I felt.”
The professional chef goes on to describe her challenging but mainly positive work experience. “Gender shouldn’t matter, but it does. I am lucky to have worked with chefs with no gender bias, and with great women,” she says. She credits one of her teachers, chef Deborah Reid, with starting her career. “If it wasn’t for Deborah, who believed in me, I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere. She saw something in me.” Ganassini goes on to praise articles and blog posts Reid has written about the “sous-chef trap” in which women chefs often find themselves working below men. “I owe her so much,” she says of her mentor.
The big reveal will come on — or before — May 20th, when the final episode of the season airs.