Jamie Hertz jogs up to the door of Fusion Bistro with a fresh batch of menus under one arm and a hectic couple of weeks ahead of him.
This month he’ll head to Vancouver to make the rounds on morning TV shows, fly to Toronto for another TV project he can’t disclose the details of, and launch a spring menu at his Baker Street bistro. And in the midst of all that, he’ll have to sit down in front of a TV set and watch himself battle 15 other chefs for Canadian culinary supremacy.
Top Chef Canada, which kicks off its inaugural season Monday at 10 p.m. on the Food Network, is a foodie take on the usual reality TV template. Based on the popular U.S. show of the same name, it features chefs from across the country competing in a series of cooking challenges meant to highlight both technical skill and personal flair. One or more contestants are knocked off per week, and the last chef standing picks up $100,000, a new kitchen from the show’s sponsors and some pretty decent bragging rights.
While Hertz isn’t allowed to tell anyone how far he made it in the competition, simply being cast seems to have generated all the community interest he can handle.
“I think the first day, between all contacts — email, Facebook and phone calls — I got about 300 or so calls,” he says. “I was like, ‘what did I get myself into?’”
The flood of interest hasn’t stopped since. As Hertz chats with the Star, another well-wisher wanders in with a few more questions about his reality TV debut.
HAPPY TO SUCCUMB
When a group of friends came into Fusion last summer bearing the Top Chef Canada casting call, Hertz’s first response was less than enthusiastic.
He was too busy, not interested, and didn’t have the technical know-how to make the required audition video anyway.
His friends weren’t buying it.
“Every excuse I came up with, they had a counter. They pre-planned it, I guess,” he says.
They offered him a camera and another friend agreed to do the required video editing.
“Then I was like, what about my dogs? They say you have to go away for a month and a half, and another girl was like, ‘I’ll take your dogs.’”
Two weeks after submitting the video, he got his first audition call back.
“Being in a small town and not exactly knowing where I stand or what people think outside of Nelson, it was pretty shocking,” he admits. “I was super excited, actually.”
After two more rounds of auditions and weeks of waiting by the phone, he was on the final cast list, and headed to Toronto for up to a month and a half of filming.
“It was in many ways the most amazing experience of my life, and in many ways it was very frustrating and very stressful,” he says. “I was honoured to actually have the opportunity to do it, but it was very stressful.”
THE RESTAURANT RAT RACE
While Hertz is one of the only chefs representing a small town, going up against heavy-hitters from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal didn’t faze him. Raised in Toronto and schooled in Vancouver, Hertz maintains a been there, done that attitude.
“I worked in all these nice restaurants, fancy restaurants that a lot of these guys work for,” he says.
“And I’d decided I didn’t like a lot of the pretentious attitudes that came along with the fine dining restaurants. I didn’t like the top-down type of brigade where it’s ‘yes chef, no chef.’ It’s not what I’m into cooking for.”
Moving to Nelson, where he opened Fusion six years ago, was about getting out of the restaurant rat race. Like so many big city expats, he says Nelson helped him find a work-life balance and gave him the time to enjoy the outdoors and see his friends.
“In Vancouver it was working six days a week from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. You’d get home, barely have enough energy to shower and then pass out. Get up, go back to the restaurant, get your ass kicked by all the other chefs,” he remembers.
“It just becomes this repetitive cycle where you end up losing focus on your main goal. It just becomes this big whirlwind of stuff.”
The rest of the Top Chef cast, however, didn’t necessarily share his disdain for the big city grind.
“It kind of made me sick to see a lot of them, the way they would talk about their staff or viewed food,” he says. “For me it’s about lifestyle and food. It’s not about bossing people around.”
Hertz remembers the Top Chef taping as equal parts frustrating and fun. While bunking in a hotel with more than a dozen competitors made for a lack of privacy, “they did a really creative job of getting personalities that actually matched,” he says.
“There was 16 chefs who had never met each other and they put you in a room and everyone’s in tears laughing and joking around.”
Being stuck on set with few breaks and even fewer distractions the entire time he was filming was, however, less enjoyable.
“They took all of our electronics, phones, iPhones, iPads, laptops, music, anything to do with any electronics. They confiscated ID, money, bank cards, credit cards, gift certificates… and then they put you in a hotel room with a bunch of other chefs,” he says. “They completely cage you up.”
While his main goals were to stay in the competition past its first episode, and not fall into any of the usual reality TV personas (“like the instigator, or the funny guy”), Hertz says he’s not sure what he’ll look like once the footage is edited and on the air.
“I kind of want to hide out. You know when you listen to yourself on an answering machine and you’re like, oh my god, is that what I sound like?’ It’s the same thing, but now you’re watching yourself and listening.”
But, when the show airs, Hertz admits with a laugh that the same friends who got him on the air likely won’t let him look away from the finished product.
“I don’t think I have a choice.”