Their amateur status is what sets "Recipe to Riches" apart from "Top Chef," said Gail Simmons, who's been a judge on the Emmy award-winning show since its inception in 2006.
"The people who are cooking on 'Recipe to Riches' are ... not professionals in any way. They're home cooks and these recipes are usually their family recipes or recipes they've kind of devised for friends over the years as opposed to the chefs on 'Top Chef' who are all professionals who are cooking at a really professional level who work in restaurants every day," said Simmons, who returned to her native Toronto from New York to be a judge on the series.
"And so you would think while the food from the chefs is always going to be better, I have to say I was blown away by the quality of the cooking by the Canadian home cooks whose recipes we got to taste on the show. It's different when you make it in your home kitchen using a specific recipe you've developed over the years, sometimes over generations. It was a pleasure to meet and kind of get to know these enthusiastic home cooks that were really from Vancouver to Halifax," she said by phone from New York, where she has added mother to her lengthy resume with the birth about two months ago of baby girl Dahlia Rae.
"Certainly they had competitive spirit, were proud of what they did and had amazing stories about the dishes they brought, even carrying them on the plane" to Toronto, she added.
Simmons shares judging duties with marketing guru Arlene Dickinson of "Dragons' Den" and restaurateur and cookbook author Vikram Vij. Former "Little Mosque on the Prairie" star Carlo Rota, who has also appeared on "24" and "Nikita," hosts the show, which begins airing on CBC-TV Wednesday at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT).
In the first five episodes three contestants compete in each category, which includes desserts, entrees, savoury pies, appetizers and savoury snacks. The winner nets $25,000 and the recipe becomes available across the country as a President's Choice product.
After all five category episodes have aired, viewers can vote online for their favourite competitor.
The five winners go on to compete for $250,000 in the live series finale on April 2.
In Wednesday's desserts episode, Calgary bobsledder Brad Reinsch goes head to head with aspiring actor Jesse Meredith of Coquitlam, B.C., and 19-year-old Erica Pauze of Penetanguishene, Ont., who hopes winning will help her achieve her dream of owning a bakery.
The contestants must not only tempt judges' palates with their home recipe, but also create and market a product to sell at a major retailer.
Part of the judging process included ensuring the product would be acceptable across the country to a wide range of people, said Simmons, who moved to New York to attend the Institute of Culinary Education in 1999 and is also a food writer.
Simmons said chef Vij has developed a line of packaged curries so he could speak to the process the contestants were going through.
Dickinson, meanwhile, "has an incredible business mind and marketing mind and she loves to eat and she loves good food and she's not shy to speak her mind and I just learned so much from her about the business of food," Simmons said, adding she came at it from the point of view of the critic and journalist "who pokes holes in things and wants to know whether it will last in the press and will it taste good."
Simmons loved how true contestants were to "Canadian cuisine."
"I kind of say that in quotes because when I first moved to the States people would say to me all the time, 'What is Canadian cuisine? Is there even a Canada cuisine?' And coming back to Canada after all these years I see that there very much is. There really is. There's so many ingredients and dishes and techniques to cooking that are so specifically Canadian and I love coming home and seeing that they are very much alive."
These included butter tarts, Nanaimo bars, savoury pie dishes and tourtiere, "things that are really truly Canadian that no one else in any other country would understand how special they are and how unique."
Simmons thinks food competition shows are popular because "it's human struggle, human victory and human loss and it's very real.
"Everyone needs to eat to survive. I think part of the allure of food reality shows is that shared experience that everyone can partake in. And then just competition.
"It's like watching a sport. It's like watching hockey. There's nothing better than seeing a good scrap in a hockey game. We all know that. We're all Canadian."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version referred to Simmons's daughter as Vahlia.