TORONTO - A 40-day gastronomic race with 12 globe-trotting chefs competing against one another is the theme of the new TV series "Around the World in 80 Plates."
The culinary reality show, which begins airing at 10 p.m. Monday on Food Network Canada, provides plenty of challenges for the chefs, said co-host Cat Cora, the first and only female Iron Chef.
"It's a pretty incredible race to the finish with lots of tasks involved," she said in a telephone interview from Santa Barbara, Calif. "In a lot of ways it's like 'Amazing Race' in that sense and 'Top Chef' in terms of some of the 'quickfire' challenges."
In the 10 countries visited — Argentina, China, England, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Thailand, Uruguay and the United States — the chefs must learn the local customs, cultures and cuisines as they battle it out in cooking challenges that test their skills and determination.
"Literally in 24 hours they had to learn where they were, they had to learn about the cuisine, they had to learn about what their challenges were, meet the challenges and then take over a restaurant, so it was a very, very intense competition," Cora said.
Each episode has two challenges. "The Course" is a high-pressure scavenger hunt that has the chefs racing around each city seeking the "exceptional ingredient" chosen by the show's producers, which Cora said may give them a leg up on their competitors in "The Takeover," the next part of the contest.
The Course "can be anything from planting rice in rice paddies in Thailand to rolling a wheel of Parmesan through Bologna to get to the next place to do their task, making tortellinis with ladies in a small little trattoria," Cora said.
Then they take over a local restaurant and reinvent its menu. "They have to prepare a menu of local foods for local diners who have pretty much been living there their whole lives," Cora said.
The team that loses this part of the match has to eliminate one of its members, who then is sent home.
Co-hosting with Cora is Australian celebrity chef and cookbook author Curtis Stone, who most recently hosted "Top Chef Masters."
Helping the contestants in each episode as local ambassadors are food personalities Wolfgang Puck, José Andrés, Nigella Lawson, Narda Lepes and Toronto-raised Alvin Leung who now makes Hong Kong his home and has proclaimed himself the "Demon Chef." The ambassadors give the chefs insight into the local food culture at each destination and help local diners judge which restaurant best upheld the integrity of regional flavours.
The chefs knew they were going around the world, but they didn't know the destinations ahead of time. A lack of language skills was a problem in some locales, Cora noted. "They had to manoeuvre through the cities and manoeuvre through the challenges, trying to speak the universal language of food, and get what they need to get to the next destination."
The 12 chefs, who are divided into two teams, are all U.S.-based. "They're chefs from all walks of life. Some have formal culinary education and some have worked their way through. Some have been cooking for two years, some for 20," Cora said.
By the finale, set in Los Angeles, two chefs remain.
"They have a task and then have to cook for us. The ambassador in L.A. was Wolfgang Puck, so they had to cook for Curtis, myself and Wolfgang."
The winner gets $150,000, a new luxury car, plus "bragging rights and lots of opportunities that will come out of it," she said.
Cora, who heads up Chefs for Humanity which was founded following the devastating 2004 tsunami in Asia, highlighted Thailand and Bologna as favourites during her travels for the show. She'd never been to Argentina and found she loved the food there.
"It was a really great experience across the board going to all the different countries, especially the ones I hadn't been to or wasn't as familiar with and really getting a taste of those countries and really talking to the locals and working with the locals and seeing it from their point of view," she said during a quick break from shopping at Whole Foods, "multitasking as usual."
Cora has a busy lifestyle with four sons, promoting her line of cookware and her work with Chefs for Humanity. Modelled after Doctors Without Borders, the not-for-profit gathers the culinary community to raise funds and provide resources for important emergency, educational and hunger-related causes.
She has worked with Michelle Obama, wife of the U.S. president whose Chefs Move to Schools program helps educate about the need for better nutrition in public schools. Cora also was in Ethiopia and Haiti earlier this year in an effort to raise awareness for school feeding programs and other issues surrounding nutrition.