TORONTO - "Top Chef Canada" season 2 boasts "bigger, more intense challenges" than those in season 1, but don't expect head judge and superstar cook Mark McEwan to be harder on this batch of contestants.
In fact, of the season 1 hopefuls, McEwan says: "I actually felt we pushed them too hard."
"I had moments where I thought maybe we were unfair, in terms of a balanced playing field," the renowned Toronto chef said in an interview to discuss Monday's season 2 debut on Food Network Canada.
"As it turned out, that wasn't the case because it all found a nice level. But I don't think you could be harder on them. I really don't," added McEwan, who runs the upscale restaurants North 44, Bymark, ONE and Fabbrica. He also has a cookware line, his own upscale grocery store and has published two cookbooks.
"We had people crying, screaming, yelling. It was more emotion. It was more dramatic."
"I think the personalities and the group dynamic between the chefs was sparky," said season 2 host Lisa Ray, star of films including "Bollywood Hollywood," "Cooking with Stella" and Oscar-nominated "Water."
"There were a lot of sparks going on, in a great way, because I think one of the best things about 'Top Chef' is it's very respectful towards the culinary arts. It's about celebrating it and celebrating Canadian excellence, but at the same time you get behind the scenes."
Ray replaces last season's host, Thea Andrews, who couldn't return because she was pregnant at the time of taping last August, said a publicist for the show.
McEwan said Ray "came in seamlessly and felt so natural and comfortable" — and wasn't shy at the dinner table.
"You eat like a trucker. She never stops eating," he said with a laugh as he sat next to the svelte Ray after a recent media event, in which six of the contestants took part in a mock "quickfire competition."
Ray said although she didn't know the terminology of a food critic when she first signed on to the show, she did have a varied palate developed through her global travels and her upbringing in Toronto.
"Going back to Etobicoke, growing up as half-Polish, half-Indian, we had some very interesting culinary feasts," said the former model.
L.A. restaurateur Shereen Arazm returns as resident judge alongside several celebrity guest judges, including home renovation expert Mike Holmes and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Colby Armstrong.
Other stars who drop in to dine include actor Alan Thicke, comedian Spencer (Spenny) Rice, country music star Johnny Reid and Dale MacKay, who won season 1 of "Top Chef Canada."
About 300 chefs applied for a spot on this season of the series in which the winner gets a grand prize of $100,000 and a GE Monogram kitchen worth $30,000. McEwan said that's double the amount of cooks who applied for season 1, which was the highest rated show in Food Network Canada's history.
During the taping, competitors have to live together and have no access to computers or cellphones, said McEwan.
McEwan's advice to the chefs was, "'Don't overthink things. Do something humble, nail it," and that's what won 95 per cent of the time, he said.
Of the 16 contestants this season, three of them are female, as was the case in season 1. Some fans have written posts on the show's Facebook page questioning why there are so few female competitors.
But this season's female trio say it's just a reflection of the industry.
"It's definitely a smaller ratio of women to men, but we're used to it, so it wasn't a big deal for us," said Trista Sheen, 29, of Toronto.
"I was expecting that proportion," added fellow competitor Elizabeth Rivasplata, 32, who lives in Toronto but was born in Lima, Peru.
"We've got to be so fearless and we've got to kick the guys' ass," concluded Toronto-based Sarah Tsai, 30, who rounds out this season's trio of female cooks.
McEwan said he also thinks it "a fair number."
"We looked at male versus female and we decided not to choose a person just because they were a woman," he said.
"So we had 300 applicants and we had to vet that down, and we took the best chefs and it just happened that it was three (females).
"I'm hoping the next season, season 3 — and I know there's going to be a season 3, I feel that in my bones — that maybe we'll have five, maybe we'll have seven. I don't know. But we take them as they come to us."