by Curtis Brown
How stressed out would you be if you had to cook for four complete strangers?
On Come Dine With Me Canada, five strangers are placed in the awkward situation of attending five dinner parties over the course of a week, where each person takes a turn hosting and cooking a three-course meal.
But unlike a dinner party with friends, where the guests will be too polite to say anything about the rice you under-cooked or the shelf you forgot to dust, these random party guests will ruthlessly critique every aspect of your meal, by privately scoring your efforts on a 1-10 scale on the car ride home and, frequently, right to your face while they pick at your dry, under-seasoned chicken.
Placing five strangers in this unlikely scenario leads to some interesting reality television, since the five half-hour episodes (which air on OWN) must be watched in succession. You become invested over the 2.5 hours in wondering who will emerge victorious (the winner walks away with $1,000 cash). But you also become simultaneously enamored, interested and infuriated by how the five random people interact with one another, because you can’t help but wonder how you would fare in the same situation.
You may love to cook, and you always do your utmost to make sure your guests in your home are well-fed and watered. But chances are your previous dinner parties have only included friends whose company you enjoy, and who aren’t inclined to call you out on your cooking or hosting skills. And, if they do complain, they’re only going to do so behind your back – if they pipe up and point out that the dessert you slaved over all afternoon was a sticky, raw mess, chances are they won’t get a return invite to your next engagement.
The genius of Come Dine With Me Canada is that it puts an uncommon twist on a common situation. Come Dine With Me Canada mixes people who would have absolutely nothing to do with one another in real life but unlike a real dinner party with friends who share mutual interests, the show takes combustible combinations of personalities who are likely to collide in competition. Some of the standard people who are likely to be found at the Come Dine With Me dinner table include:
• The Food Snob: Instantly recognizable for his pretentious airs (and ironic/ridiculous haircut or facial hair), the food snob will only eat ingredients that are fresh, handmade and local. He will turn his nose up instantly when he finds out the peaches in your dessert came from a can, and that you don’t know whether you used an arbol or cascabel chile to spice up your mole sauce.
• The Free-Spirited Older Lady: The most relaxed host because she doesn’t care one whit what you think of her (or her cleavage-baring, form-fitting cocktail dress), the Free-Spirited Older Lady is sure to liven up your dinner party by downing that extra glass of wine and discussing the details of her sex life. Try getting that image out of your mind as you struggle to keep your appetizer down.
• The Ruthless Competitor: A close cousin to the Food Snob, the Ruthless Competitor isn’t here to make friends, people. He will point out every little thing that’s wrong with your presentation, your ingredients, the cleanliness of your house and your life choices in general. Obsessed with winning but oblivious to her own shortcomings, the Ruthless Competitor will test the limits of your patience – and your resistance to murdering your dinner companions.
• The Uptight Vegetarian: She does yoga, keeps Lululemon in business and eats nothing but brown rice and kale. She claims your barbecued meat menu doesn’t bother her, but she’ll stare daggers of guilt at you for enjoying that juicy, blood-red steak you’re carving up, and act all disappointed that the tofu dish you served her is bland and rubbery (note: despite what my vegetarian foodie friends say, tofu is the one dish that is impossible to make appetizing).
• The Meat Enthusiast: The Uptight Vegetarian’s natural enemy, he likes dead animals juuuust a little too much. Likely an advocate of the paleo diet, but only if the ancient cavemen had access to a butcher, didn’t bother with vegetables or grains they scavenged and all died of heart attacks instead of sabretooth tiger bites.
• The Kid Who Tries Too Hard: To contrast with the zany old lady, practically every Come Dine With Me Canada features a young guy or girl who tries to show they can hang with an older, more sophisticated crowd used to a higher standard of hosting than offering guests frozen pizza and cheap wine. Usually, they either a) massively overcompensate by buying the most fancy liquor and food possible or b) try to disguise their novice kitchen skills by borrowing their nona’s homemade ravioli recipe to give them the ultimate edge (except, since nona isn’t making it, it doesn’t win anyone over).
This dinner of mismatched guests then follows a formulaic pattern. First, everyone shows up and makes awkward small talk. Then, the host goes to make an appetizer and the guests pair off and start snooping through the host’s stuff, which is bizarre and not cool, but always tells you a great deal about the host’s personality. Then the appetizers, entrée and dessert are served, and the guests praise and/or complain about what they’re eating. Some more enterprising hosts will have after-dinner entertainment, while others become the entertainment after they overserve themselves. Then the diners provide scores in the car on the way home. The process repeats itself four more times until the final night, when the scores are read and the winner collects a silver platter holding 50 twenty-dollar bills.
Come Dine With Me Canada is one of more than 30 international spinoffs of the original Come Dine With Me show concept, which originated in the UK. Although highly entertaining, the competition itself is flawed since it is easy for ultra-competitive hosts to provide lower scores for their main competition. The Food Network show Dinner Party Wars, for example, instead features couples competing and expert judges choosing the winner after watching each party unfold on hidden cameras. This is far more realistic, as the oddest and most unlikely thing about Come Dine With Me Canada is that the competitors’ partners are nowhere to be found. (Do they have to go get McDonald’s when their husband or wife is hosting? Do they at least get the leftovers?)
However, based on watching way, way too many hours of this show, I have learned some important “do’s and don’ts” of dinner party etiquette:
• Do: Get anything embarrassing out of your house. Your house guests will go through your closet and find your fuzzy pink handcuffs and pleather chaps. Be sure to bury them in the backyard before the cameras broadcast your kinky bedroom habits to the world.
• Do: Keep your hosts refreshed, but … Don’t: Get drunk yourself. The best parties seem to be the ones where the hosts keep the guests plied with drinks, as the tension lowers and the conversation flows. But if you are the host, do not – DO NOT – get bombed yourself. Don’t be like Deb in Season 1, Episode 12, who admitted she has “a tendency to forget things during dinner parties because I get too looped” and whose Mexican-themed dinner turned into a tequila-fueled failure.
• Do: Bring a gift. No one likes the jerk that shows up empty-handed. Always bring a decent bottle of wine or flowers. Your host will appreciate it.
• Do: Polish your silverware, wipe your glasses and set clean plates: The second the Ruthless Competitor finds a dishwasher smudge on her wine glass, you’re screwed.
• Don’t: Be a picky eater. Yes, we know you don’t like shrimp … or arugula … or cute animals. But don’t spit your food into your napkin, or pick at your plate like you’re lifting a bug out of your salad. Just eat it, offer some faint praise and then passive-aggressively give your host a 5 out of 10 behind her back on the car ride home.
• Do: Have a theme and/or entertainment. Hosts seem to get extra points when they have a fun theme, or if they offer some entertainment. But while some fun costumes or after-dinner music livens the mood, this can be taken too far, like bagpipe players brought in to pipe in the haggis, or the host who had a royalty-themed dinner at the same resort in PEI where Prince William and Kate Middleton once stayed.
Be sure to follow these helpful tips for your next dinner party – or better yet, just invite the friends who will always appreciate good conversation and a free meal.