Canadian broadcaster Citytv is putting ex-cons with no culinary skills to work in a classy Toronto restaurant for "Conviction Kitchen," a new reality series set to premiere in the fall.
Sure, TV chef Jamie Oliver trained disadvantaged youths to staff his Fifteen restaurant franchise. But the Canadian series has a film crew follow local celebrity chef Marc Thuet and his wife and co-restaurant owner Biana Zorich as they whittle down 84 former bank robbers, thieves and petty offenders to seven waiters and six cooks. The finalists then endure a three-week culinary boot camp before “Conviction Kitchen” opens its doors to ordinary restaurant patrons.
Thuet said the eight-part series is no media stunt to launch a new business. Instead, he said, “Conviction Kitchen” provides first-class food and second chances for reformed criminals newly sprung from jail.
"This (TV show) will move viewers, and prove you can hire these people. They are grabbing this second chance and turning round their lives," he said.
Dramatic tension? The original group of 13 trainees is now down to 10 after one ex-con threatened Zorich when he was told to cut his hair. Another trainee, like many an ex-addicts, left after he was found shooting up in back of the kitchen.
Thuet, a former drug and alcohol abuser now four years sober, connects on camera with ex-cons he wants to empower as chef trainees while they fight the temptation to return to destructive habits.
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"This is probably the most emotional show we've ever made," said Simon Lloyd, president of Toronto indie producer Cineflex Prods. "You've got someone taking heroin, who can't stay in the restaurant because he can't be around recovering addicts."
Lloyd added that he and Thuet, a French-born chef who originally trained at the Dorchester in London, originally envisioned a TV show where they turned a prison kitchen crew into trained restaurant chefs just before they are released.
But after they failed to secure the cooperation of Canadian prison authorities, Thuet and Zorich decided to close and relaunch one of their Toronto restaurants, Bite Me!, as an Italian restaurant.
"Conviction Kitchen" differs from most reality TV series in that no one is voted off the show at the end of each episode. But Thuet and Zorich don't disguise their challenge to keep the new restaurant open beyond opening night.
And once the cameras stop rolling at Conviction Kitchen, Zorich hopes the trainee chefs and dining room servers remain with the new restaurant until they've learned enough to further their new careers elsewhere, or even open their own restaurant.