TORONTO - "Top Chef Canada" launches a third season on Monday with its largest pool of female contenders to date.
This time there are five women chefs vying for the title on Food Network Canada, compared to three in seasons 1 and 2.
And according to renowned chef/head judge Mark McEwan: "The women were the toughest men in the kitchen."
"Stay tuned, it's going to be an amazing season," he added in a recent interview. "People will be shocked and surprised."
And hopefully inspired, said resident judge Shereen Arazm.
"We know we have a lot of young viewers and I'm hoping that young girls who are fans of the show are going to be inspired to follow their dreams if they want to be a chef."
In fact, it was a female chef from the show who made the winning dish (and clinched a $1,000 cash prize) at a recent Season 3 media event at McEwan's high-end Toronto restaurant North 44.
Rebecca (Becky) Ross, who was raised in Medicine Hat, Alta., made a dessert of cornbread with preserved peaches, whiskey cream and spiced pecans to beat out four other Toronto-based chefs from the show at a five-course tasting lunch.
Ross, 24, downplays the gender issue, though.
"Honestly, it's irrelevant. It's not about your gender, it's about how well you cook," said the former sous chef of Malena restaurant.
"It shouldn't be about your gender, it should be about your skill-set. So numbers of one or the other, it's just the statistics. Like, there's more men cooks out there."
"I'm representing cooks," she added. "Anybody should be able to get inspiration from anybody. It doesn't matter what gender you are or what race. If you cook well, then you deserve the recognition."
This season a total of 16 chefs from across Canada will compete for the grand prize of $100,000 as well as a GE Monogram kitchen worth $30,000 and a custom installation by Caesarstone Quartz Surfaces worth $25,000.
Contestants can also win weekly challenge prizes, resulting in the highest amount of rewards ever offered on the show that's based on the U.S. version.
"I don't know if that actually made it even more kind of aggressive and crazy, but the emotional stakes were really high this season," said series host Lisa Ray, star of films including "Cooking with Stella" and the Oscar-nominated "Water."
"We see a couple of serious breakdowns."
"Things happen on this season that have never happened on the American show or the Canadian show," teased Arazm, co-owner of Los Angeles restaurants including Terroni and Geisha House.
During filming for Season 3 last summer, hopefuls lived together in a condo with no phone, no computer and no contact with their families. They also had to travel "a lot" for various challenges, said McEwan.
Guest judges included acclaimed chefs Daniel Boulud, Robert Irvine and Elizabeth Falkner, Jody Claman of "Real Housewives of Vancouver" fame, singer Jann Arden and comedian Russell Peters.
McEwan — who is known for blunt, tough criticisms and stone-faced expressions on the series — surmised with a laugh that he "could be a good Clint Eastwood stand-in."
He also said he and his fellow judges have learned how to draw out the contestants and challenge them more.
"The chefs have never been under more pressure," said McEwan, whose other restaurants include Bymark, Fabbrica, and ONE.
"We kept them off-balance like never before this season. They didn't know where they were going to be and ... they didn't have one easy day."
"They're comparing it to waterboarding, in terms of torture, and we are the purveyors of that," added McEwan, who also has a cookware line, his own upscale grocery store and two published cookbooks.
"When you're under pressure and you're taking negative comments at you constantly, it wears on them."
That was particularly true for Toronto chef Dennis Tay, who fell off his bike and broke his wrist a few weeks before filming.
"I never thought, 'I shouldn't do (the show),' because I know how hard it is to get on the show," said Tay, 34, a former breakdancer who has worked alongside "Top Chef Canada" season 2 winner Carl Heinrich as the saucier at Richmond Station.
"Who knows if I'd ever get a chance like this again, so I had to do it with a broken arm or not."