From Food Critic to Top Chef Judge: Meet Chris Nuttall-Smith

Image: Libby Roach

Top Chef Canada is back, and while the competitive cooking show’s format remains largely the same, the cast and crew is drastically different. Adding new judges to the culinary throwdown, one of the big names to grace the panel is former Globe and Mail restaurant critic Chris Nuttall-Smith. Finally, we all know what he looks like.

We sat down with Chris to get the skinny on his television debut on Top Chef Canada: All-Stars.

How does it feel to have the mask of anonymity lifted? Your former twitter pic was a well-fed toddler, and now we all actually know what you look like.

It feels great. I spent 10 years skulking around; trying to sneak into restaurants so people don’t know it’s you, so it feels nice after a long time of doing that to come out of the woodwork and be a sort of regular person.

But that’s an intense trajectory, from completely anonymous to photos on a giant billboard…

*Laughs* I have NOT gone to see the billboard yet- I find it very, very strange! But I love how excited people are for the show. And that billboard is a part of it. And justifiably, it’s a really fun show. And it really is Canada. And that’s something I love about it. And to be a part of that, yeah I’ll live with a few billboards, that’s fine!

So you were a fan of the previous seasons?

Yeah, absolutely. What’s really cool is that they’ve brought back some of the very best chefs from those seasons. But they’ve refreshed the show and focused it even now more than ever on cooking, on food, on what’s on the plate. There’s no gimmicks. One of the things that’s so exciting to me and was a surprise as well, is how little artifice there is in this show – it’s about the cooking. No one ever tells you what to do, what to say, what to think, how to be; you go in there and you are yourself. You’re at this table with really really smart food people and you eat and you discuss. And over the course of the 10 weeks, you pick a winner. That’s a really cool thing.

Image: Food Network Canada

So there’s some commonalities from your previous food writing job, which you’re still dabbling in…

Yeah, I mean, I’m still doing that, I’m still a restaurant critic, I’m not doing weekly columns anymore which I’m happy for but it’s very similar, a lot of the judgement and critical stuff is the same. You think about food the same way. But at the same time, it’s very different. At the core it’s about having the scope of experience, the scope of judgement, the scope of knowledge to be able to judge what’s on your plate to try and figure out, is this good? Is it hitting me on a sensory/emotional level, which of course is your first thought, but then what else are they doing? How did they do this? What are they trying to accomplish? What are the ideas behind the dish? All those things are things that I’ve spent the last ten years plus thinking about every single day, so to suddenly find yourself at the judges table on a really great culinary competition show, I didn’t find it too much of a leap.

You went from lone wolf to wolf pack. Bouncing ideas and absorbing what others think with the judges and sharing conversations on dishes, how has that transition been?

Being a newspaper and magazine writer is for the most part a really solitary existence. I work from home. So you’re at home, alone, and writing about that experience, and then going to a TV show. What I really loved about it was that everyone was in it together. Everyone has the same goal: to run a really great competition that you can be proud of and that makes great TV, which is almost an afterthought for the judges. I think that great cooking is naturally dramatic. At the judges table we very often wound up agreeing, because in some cases the food is just so much better and in some cases, despicably bad. It’s like a great dinner party where everyone really knows food.

The cast is quite diverse. Chefs, restaurant critics, and a food blogger. How did that all gel together?

It was great. Mark brings such depth and experience. His knowledge is so current. He knows how to make a great restaurant. Janet is such a force of nature. She knows food cold, such impeccable judgement. Someone asked me earlier, oh you were there with a blogger, what was that like? And I said to them, and I really believe this, is that the medium is NOT the message. Mijune is one of the most thorough critics writing in Canada right now. She goes into such depth on everything she writes. And Eden is just fantastic, a well-trained chef. Sometimes the producers would go, okay guys, you’ve been talking for 30 minutes now, wrap it up!

Image: Food Network Canada

What’s next? Is this the last we see of your face?

There’s lots of magazine stuff I’m working on. I’m still writing in-depth magazine articles, including The Walrus and Lucky Peach. There’s a lot of interesting work out there.  There’s a really cool project I’m working on, a pilot for a project that will look in-depth at food stories. We’ll see if it ever sees the light of day!

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Are you excited to finally see the elusive Chris Nuttall-Smith on Top Chef Canada: All-Stars? Let us know in the comment section or tweet us at @ViewtheVibe

Libby Roach

Libby Roach

Libby Roach has been following Toronto's food scene since 2011, stalking chefs, overeating and indulging to bring you the best bites in Hogtown. You can follow her new food adventures over at
Libby Roach