Deep in Mississauga, Ont., on a balmy September evening, a two-camera television production crew, four dinner guests, a handful of producers, PR flacks and other interested observers (well, me) sat huddled in virtual silence in a cramped basement apartment, while over in the kitchenette, a vivacious, blond woman named Cathy struggled to assert control over some defeatingly bouncy scallops.
When she at last wrestled them onto her square black dishes, she looked up at the nearest camera in triumph—but only briefly—for as she did so she caught sight of a neglected bottle sitting on top of the fridge. An overlooked ingredient? No, it was just the badly needed wine, which Cathy had evidently been keeping all to herself, while over at the dinner table her guests struggled with conversation unassisted. Even baseball wasn’t working (“Alex Rodriguez . . . he plays for the Blue Jays, right?”). So Cathy materialized to nervously splash some lubricating red plonk into four, thoughtfully chilled stemmed water glasses. Yes, into the frozen water glasses. But this was not a mistake on which to dwell. It was time to serve her appetizer—“the salty sea,” crusted scallops served with cucumber salad—and, according to my watch anyway, they were already stone cold and then some.
“How did you like the scallops?” Cathy asked her guests a few minutes later. “Are they cooked?” “I like the cucumber,” one ventured, meekly.
When Cathy left the room, the knives came out. Actually, they were put down—and the forks too. One desperate guest set about trying to hide the offending molluscs between the rim of her bowl and the plate beneath. “I don’t even want to look at them,” she said to the camera.
Welcome to the unspeakably catty, often excruciating and invariably entertaining world of Come Dine With Me Canada, which launches on W Network on Nov. 1. Our take, produced by Proper Television, closely mirrors the format of its U.K. progenitor, launched in 2005. On the off-chance you are not amongst the millions to have watched that series in reruns, I shall explain how it works.
First and foremost, it is essential that all contestants believe resolutely that they know how to cook and entertain. They cannot shy away from insulting others—and should instead relish the prospect. From their midst, five complete strangers are selected from the same town, or part of the city. Each of them is charged with hosting the other four for dinner in a sequential rotation. They must rate each others’ efforts and are encouraged to talk behind each others’ backs. At the end of the week a winner is proclaimed and awarded $1,000.
That sounds like a reliable recipe for conflict, doesn’t it? But there’s more. Before dinner, to help the contestants get in the right mood, they are allowed an unsupervised free-for-all in their host’s home, wherein they rummage around in private places (bedside tables, lingerie drawers, medicine chests, etc.) and hold up whatever they find there to ridicule on camera. Secondly, to boost the cattiness quotient—or maybe just to strike fear into the countryside—at least one of the five guests tends to be gay. Finally, all exchanges, confessions and asides are commented on by an unseen, relentlessly caustic host. “It’s social anthropology,” said Come Dine With Me Canada executive producer Guy O’Sullivan, when pressed to distill the show’s appeal, which clearly is not the cooking. “You take wildly different people who would never meet and put them in a room and see what happens.”
What happens is clearly something other people want to watch. Even excluding imitators—like, say, the stupendously asinine Dinner Party Wars on Food Network Canada—Come Dine With Me has already spawned 30 international editions. Quebec already has theirs—so does Iran, Croatia, Spain, Russia and Denmark. Why people watch is easy to understand; the mystery is, what gives contestants the blithe overconfidence to volunteer. “All I can say is I’m very thankful they do, because it’s a really fun show to make,” O’Sullivan replied. “At the end of the day I guess the worst that can happen is you make a sh–ty meal and no one likes you.” Yes—bring them on.