TORONTO - A line of Canadian cooks in their professional whites aggressively peel back artichoke leaves, while celebrity chef Mark McEwan and broadcaster Thea Andrews look on. Tension hangs heavy in the air, cut only by the sound of chopping knives.
It's doubtful the paring down of an artichoke has ever produced such stress in the young chefs, but here they are in an old converted warehouse in Toronto, as contestants on the first season of Top Chef Canada -- and one clumsy cut could mean they head home for good.
The winner, to be determined through 13 one-hour episodes of cooking challenges, will take home $100,000 in cash, a luxury kitchen valued at over $30,000, and the Top Chef Canada title.
This was an emotional roller-coaster for all of them, says McEwan, the show's head judge.
Although he could easily be speaking about the artichoke competition, he's talking about the run of the show as a whole.
McEwan, a master chef and restaurateur who recently penned his first cookbook, admits even he would feel overwhelmed by some of the challenges the contestants face, especially having to cook under the clock.
"I have empathy for young chefs with time constraints," he says. "They have to make snap decisions and fly with it."
Set to debut on Food Network Canada on April 11, the show will be hosted by Andrews -- known for stints on Entertainment Tonight and ESPN -- and will feature guest celebrity judges on each episode.
All 16 chefs selected to compete have impressive resumes and, according to McEwan, were the pick of the bunch from thousands of applicants across the country.
The feel on the set of Top Chef Canada is bright and modern, with prep tables, gas burners, refrigerators and convection ovens lined up for intense close-quarter cook-offs.
It's also spacious enough to allow for mad dashes to a stocked pantry.
At least one contestant is asked to leave on each episode, and survival isn't only determined by one's cooking ability.
Their stamina, their frame of mind in the moment, and their mood, have everything to do with success, McEwan says.
Although it's a cooking competition first and foremost, Top Chef Canada also involves human drama everyone can relate to. McEwan says you can't help but identify with the young chefs suffering from the weight of pressure.
And the chefs that blossom as the stakes get higher aren't necessarily the ones McEwan thought would stick around.
"People I thought would thrive came up lacking basics," says McEwan.
He also hints it's not the bigger personalities who come out on top: "Some (chefs) who were letting their egos drive them were very humbled indeed."
But, in the world of the modern chef, McEwan says many are driven to try and achieve a signature style before they're ready. He's hoping contestants leave the show feeling inspired to be thorough, thoughtful chefs.
"I encourage being a good technical chef, to know classic cuisine and feel confident with it -- and then find your own personal way of coming forward," McEwan says.
While Top Chef Canada has yet to debut and find a following, its U.S. counterpart is already in its eighth season and has been greenlit for a ninth season.
Top Chef Canada's supervising producer, Mark Lysakowski, says they used the success of the U.S. version to their advantage.
"We looked at the American show and looked to Canadianize the challenges," Lysakowski says.
He and other producers on the show explored Canadian food trends and introduced ingredients that were different than what might be seen on the American Top Chef.
"We looked at challenges that would express Canadas multicultural society and challenges that would simply test an experienced chef," he says.
But as much as Lysakowski hopes viewers experience Canadian stories through watching the show, what he really wants is for people to realize how much work goes into a chef's creations.
"A lot of skill goes into making food enjoyable," Lysakowski says. "It doesn't just arrive on the plate. It's not all glamour and signing cookbooks."
And as a reality show, Lysakowski says the subject matter is perfect for viewers to become passionate about and weigh in.
"Food is one of those things that brings people together. It's the great equalizer, a topic that people can talk about, no matter what," he says.
Although not a foodie himself, Lysakowski says it has been a learning experience for him to see the judges' critiques after each challenge, and then watch the contestants use the feedback to create a better dish in the next round.
But in the end, there can be only one winner of Top Chef Canada, and McEwan has the final say.
So what is he looking for?
"Don't try to overachieve. Try to get results," he says. "The food has to taste great and feel good in your mouth, or it's not going to win."
Read more: Cooking up drama on Top Chef Canada