TORONTO — Chris Nuttall-Smith has ditched his spy-like lifestyle built on disguises, fake names and temporary phone numbers.
As a judge on "Top Chef Canada: All-Stars," kicking off Sunday on Food Network Canada, he's making his TV debut and introducing himself to viewers across the country — a stark contrast to the anonymity he worked hard to preserve for the past 10 years as an influential food critic, first with Toronto Life magazine and then the Globe and Mail.
"It was time to start doing something else," said Nuttall-Smith, who is no longer a food critic with the Globe but still writes for various publications, including Air Canada's enRoute magazine.
"That's a lot of going out, a lot of eating, a lot of responsibility and dealing sometimes with restaurateurs who aren't happy. I'd been approached about doing TV quite a few times, but 'Top Chef' in particular really grabbed me."
Chef and restaurateur Mark McEwan is back as head judge for the fifth instalment of "Top Chef Canada." Also returning are all-star chefs from previous seasons, who are competing for a $100,000 grand prize and kitchen appliances valued at over $25,000.
Nuttall-Smith and the other judges (Mijune Pak and Janet Zuccarini) are new to the franchise, as is host Eden Grinshpan.
"There were a couple of competitors who I had reviewed their restaurants poorly in the past," admitted Nuttall-Smith. "I think it was hard for them, it was a little awkward for me.
"But one of the great, pleasant surprises is some of them who I hadn't necessarily been that hot on in the past have really come a long way and you see that and that's unbelievably exciting."
Nuttall-Smith said he loved having a direct connection with the show's chefs he was critiquing and watching their cooking process unfold on the fly.
By contrast, as an anonymous food critic, Nuttall-Smith never looked anyone in the eyes when he was dining out. He didn't want chefs to recognize him or go over to ask how his meal was. His just wanted to be treated like a regular diner and not get special treatment.
To achieve such a goal, he had to resort to trickery: change his hairstyle or eyeglasses, make reservations under different names and numbers, and get his friends to arrive at a restaurant before him to ensure they'd get a regular table and server.
Those who dined with Nuttall-Smith also had to abide by certain rules — not that they always remembered to stick to them.
"My wife, for instance, God bless her, she's the nicest woman on Earth, but she was horrible to go out with because she's so indiscreet," he said with a laugh.
"It would usually take about 10 minutes before she'd blurt out my first and last names at the table."
For all his efforts, some restaurateurs were onto him.
"When the Momofuku company opened in Toronto, and this was early on when I was at the Globe, I heard that they had photos of me that they'd taken with their security system and they'd blown them up and put them in the stairwell, which made me really, really unhappy," said Nuttall-Smith.
He's now enjoying the freedom of being treated as a regular diner and going back to restaurants he loves.
"I'm booking under my own name and it's fraught a little bit, because some restaurants know you're coming and they wonder what's up," said Nuttall-Smith.
"But if I'm booking under my own name, it's because I just want to go out and have a nice night and a good dinner and I think generally restaurants get that.
"It's nice not to have to skulk around the city."
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press