The upcoming Citytv fall reality series Conviction Kitchen sends Canadian ex-cons to a culinary boot camp led by celebrity chef Marc Thuet and his wife and restaurant co-owner Biana Zorich so they can cook and serve food in their new Toronto eatery. More real life than reality TV, the Cineflix produced series will see former criminals get a second chance at life as they master first-class food preparation and service.
How was the Cineflix Productions series cast? Delicately.
Thuet and Zorich sorted through 84 former thieves, drug smugglers and other former prisoners to find six chef trainees and seven waiters for their Italian eatery. Alain Strati, vice-president of specialty TV and development at City parent Rogers Media, insists the ex-criminals are not rapists or murderers, and only served time for lesser crimes. One robbed a bank, but didn’t shoot anyone, his probation officer assured the show’s producers.
Still, the ex-cons’ crimes did have victims. And some may well tune in to see a familiar face on screen. ‘That will happen. These are people, and some of them have had a difficult path,’ Strati says of risks City is taking in backing the series. The sympathy viewers may have for the 13 trainees, however, will come as they attempt to turn their lives around.
Thuet insists he looked for ex-cons willing to finally win in life when selecting his kitchen trainees. ‘I was looking in their eyes, at their competitiveness, whether they were willing to succeed,’ he recalls.
Overcoming drug addiction will be a major plot point in the City series. Thuet believes he knows that struggle. He should. He’s been there. ‘I was an addict for 25 years,’ Thuet declares, before adding he has been sober since 2005. He insists he never missed a day of work during that period, but battled ‘demons’ every step of the way. Key moments in the series include struggles by the ex-cons to follow Thuet and stay clean.
A passion for fine food and running restaurants turned his life around, Thuet says. So transmitting that same culinary passion to the ex-cons provides much of the series’ drama, and social responsibility. ‘I know passion saves lives. If they can be as passionate, if they can understand my passion, then it will save them as well,’ he says.
Thuet and Zorich even attempt to catch their trainees when they stumble. One would-be chef was forced off the show and into a drug rehab program after he was caught on camera shooting up in the back of the kitchen. Zorich insists he had to leave the restaurant to keep three other angry ex-addicts in the kitchen from similarly falling prey to past bad habits.
‘It’s survival of the fittest. One had to go so three could stay happy,’ she explains.
But even in its high-tension drama, Conviction Kitchen is less Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen than Jamie’s Kitchen, the 2002 TV series that saw British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver offer professional training to disadvantaged youth so they could run his north London restaurant, Fifteen.
Similarly, City’s Conviction Kitchen aims to turn Thuet’s culinary success into social purpose and experiment. Zorich hopes trainees remain with the restaurant until they secure enough training to land jobs as line cooks or servers elsewhere in the hospitality industry.
Of course, getting Thuet to don a clean chef’s jacket and smile on camera was no mean feat for Cineflix Productions president Simon Lloyd. Thuet rebuffed many earlier TV offers. But he did jump on board when Cineflix proposed a show where a prison kitchen crew is trained to cook professionally in a restaurant once on the outside. A U.S. prison agreed to the concept, but no Canadian institution gave its permission. So Thuet and Zorich decided instead to rebrand an earlier King Street restaurant as Conviction Kitchen, and invite a camera crew through the doors for an eight-week shoot.
Cineflix has already fielded offers from international broadcasters to acquire the Canadian series. Securing a U.S. deal is more problematic. U.S. broadcasters have already told Lloyd a series about ex-cons will never fly in an American society where the concept of ‘rehabilitation’ has little value. Thuet’s French accent also doesn’t help the cause.
Thuet knows all that, but insists a Canadian TV series about life’s second chances can succeed in the U.S., if given a chance. ‘This [TV show] will move viewers, and prove you can hire these people. They are grabbing this second chance and turning around their lives,’ he insists.