Tammara Behl is one cook who refuses to say goodbye and walk away from a challenge.
Sporting a black mane of hair, she is big, bold and dramatic. The term “go big or go home” was coined for her.
So it’s no surprise the intrepid St. Albert-raised Calgary resident is one of the nine finalists on the inaugural MasterChef Canada airing every Monday on CTV.
A self-admitted risk-taker, Behl declares that cooking is a full-throttle affair.
“I believe cooking should be bold. Bland food is for babies. Having exciting food in your mouth is wonderful. Food is happiness. Food is emotion.”
In the last MasterChef episode, Behl was on one of two teams barbecuing generously portioned 12-ounce Canadian rib-eye steaks with two side dishes for 151 soldiers of the Royal Canadian Air Force Base in Trenton.
In one of those flukes that can only happen on reality TV, Behl chuckles, “We won because the other team ran out of food. We got 107 out of 151 votes.”
As in the popular U.S. version, MasterChef Canada contestants face individual and team-based, timed challenges where one or more competitors are eliminated each week.
When a casting call was issued in July 2013, hundreds of wannabe chefs went through the audition process. Applicants were whittled down to 50 semifinalists through a long process of phone interviews, camera interviews, solo cooking and judges tasting food.
To impress the judges with culinary creativity, Behl prepared her signature dish, vegan samosas in a tamarind sauce and a sweet and spicy mango sauce.
“Being from Alberta I wanted to surprise them. And it worked. The vegan girl didn’t get through. I did.”
As one of the 26 finalists, her first challenge was to cook a chicken dinner using only one pan, one flipper, one tong, one knife, one cutting board and one burner.
Largely influenced by her ethnic roots and adventurous trips to Australia and Asia, she paired chicken dumplings with Asian pear slaw.
When the judges complimented the combination, Behl felt very accomplished.
“I was ecstatic. It was the best feeling other than the birth of my kids and my marriage.”
Since the initial episodes, she has cooked a variety of restaurant-ready dishes such as spicy grilled pork with peanut butter satay noodles, roasted and smoked bone marrow, chopped liver poutine and wild boar burgers.
“I don’t use recipes. Every recipe in the show I created myself.”
Behl was destined for the kitchen even before birth. Cooking was in her DNA, something she could not escape.
Growing up in St. Albert and later attending both Bellerose High and Paul Kane High, her first food inspiration came from home.
“I’m Jewish-Ukrainian and cooking has always been a big part of our family tradition.”
In addition, her family owned two businesses: Campbell Park Bingo and an Edmonton-based Albert’s Family Restaurant. Needless to say, the hospitality industry was a big topic at home.
“I was brought up in a restaurant and I have a very good palette. Give me a sauce and I can break it down easily.”
Now a teacher for special needs children, she continues to use food field trips as a learning experience.
“They don’t have many life skills. So we teach them to go out, buy food and we cook it at school.”
As the series progresses, the episodes have intensified and tempers flare more easily. Yet oddly enough, Behl feels more secure in the high-pressure environment.
“I don’t see the cameras. I’m just there to cook,” she states. “Initially I was in shock with the cameras. But after the first introduction, I had to get used to it right away or it would affect the cooking. So you put it out of your mind. I wished there was only one camera, but there are 25.”
Never the underdog, Behl stacks up well against her opponents and has been consistent in delivering strong presentations.
“It’s been a once in a lifetime experience. I can’t say one negative thing about it. It’s amazing.”
MasterChef Canada is broadcast Monday at 8 p.m. on CTV.