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Carlo Rota on Recipe to Riches and Why He's Through Getting His 'Just Desserts'

July 13 is your last day to find out - in person - if you have a Recipe to Riches. The CBC reality show will be holding auditions in Toronto on Saturday, the final stop of their audition tour. If you turn up, producers and professional tasters will be sampling your dish. And maybe Carlo Rota, too. Because the show's new host will be there in person, cheering on every would-be chef.

Rota's best known as an actor. He's starred on CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie and The Great Canadian Food Show. "I show up like a bad penny on various television shows," he jokes: 24, Nikita, Breaking Bad.

But before he was on TV, he spent most of his time in the kitchen - albeit some of the best kitchens in Canada. If you mine the archives of Toronto Life magazine, you'll find a back issue dubbing him the best maitre d' in the city. And his father, Dante Rota, was a culinary superstar in Toronto, acting as executive chef of the Windsor Arms Hotel. (The father and son eventually worked together at city restaurants including Orso and Noodles in the '80s and early '90s.)

How's that experience going to come to the table on Recipe to Riches? You'll have to wait 'til the show's winter debut. But Rota spoke with CBC Live about his new gig, and what hopefuls can expect from the Toronto auditions.

-- CBC

CBC Live: I was hoping you could tell me about your background as a food lover, because I understand you have quite an extensive one.

Carlo Rota: Yes, well, far, far before tentatively becoming an actor, that was my job. My career was in the hospitality industry, and I ran and owned a number of restaurants in Toronto. My father was a highly respected chef, worked all over the world. As a result we grew up all over the world -- you know, the Far East, the Caribbean, around Europe, the Middle East. Finally, in his travels he came to Canada.

My earliest memories of my dad, he always used to wear his chef's outfit. I mean, not to bed -- but you know, he used to wear his chef's outfit whenever he worked: white jacket, black trousers, large white hat. And I used to remember him taking me to work with him when I was three or four years old, and he'd take me to the kitchens he was lord of, and he'd sit me down somewhere and give me a steak or something. And so, it was very influential in my association with food, and what food is and how it's made and the joy it brings and the career you can have in it.

CBC Live: How are you bringing your experience to the table as host of Recipe to Riches? Will you be involved in the judging at all?

Unless things change, drastically, in the shooting process, I am not there to judge. I'm there to marshal and to corral and to cajole.

The first thing I'm really happy about with Recipe to Riches is, for me, this is a great chance to just take a breather from some of the other stuff I do. I play a lot of really despicable people on television. Like, I mean, just a ridiculous amount. I'd say of all the roles I get, at least 75 or 80 per cent of them are people who are morally bankrupt and just terrible people who at the end of each episode - or film, or series - get their just desserts.

I'm hosting the show, so thankfully I don't have to play the bad guy -- I don't have to judge these people, I don't have to kick them out. So this is a real fantastic breather for me.

A sampling of the not-so-nice characters played by Carlo Rota: La Femme Nikita's Mr. Jones, Boondock Saints's Yakavetta, Thundercats's Ratar-O.

CBC Live: When you're in Toronto for auditions this weekend (July 13), what's your role going to be? What can we expect to see you doing on the ground?

CR: My role during the auditions is to make people feel included, to make sure they feel part of the process and to represent the show.

I'll be interviewing people. I ask them how they came up with their particular creation. I ask them how they felt being judged. I ask them what they're going to do as they go forward to try and convince the judges that this is a creation that would look good on a store shelf and that people want to buy, because the other thing about the show that I do think needs to be given its due is it's not just how these dishes taste, it's whether or not they are marketable, whether or not they can be produced in large quantities by an entity like President's Choice and put on a shelf. That's really something they have to think of. It's not enough to bring something that just tastes good.

CBC Live: You were at the try-outs in Vancouver earlier this month. What did you find there?

CR: It was all kinds of different things that people brought and I was glad to see a large variety of Canadian diversity reflected in the people and their recipes.

I think as the host of the show that's something I'm looking forward to as much as possible, is that one of the things that really does elevate the idea of quote-on-quote Canadian cuisine is it doesn't have the same stringent boundaries that many other cuisines do. The point is the Canadian experience is an immigrant experience. And so all these diverse people bring their culture and their gastronomy to the fray and that's always a lovely thing to experience.

Also, the thing about the auditions - and the important thing about the show is - the people who are participating are amateurs. My visits to Vancouver, and my experience with food has always been with professionals: chefs, people in restaurants and hotels and the like. But the auditions, all these people are amateurs and I really applauded the people who came out. Because, you know, it's an audition process: you have to bring your creation, and then you have to be judged. That's something people like me have to do on a daily basis to get a job, but it's not easy for someone who doesn't do it every day, to face that judgment.

CBC Live: If you had to put a fine point on it, what do you think makes a great Recipe to Riches contestant?

CR: Someone who really believes, who really passionately believes. It's funny, people have asked me, 'This is a television show, so what's more important: the food or the person?' Right? And from my experience in Vancouver particularly, I saw the people who were the most passionate believers in their creation were, in fact, a fantastic combination of the two. In other words, their creation was great and they were great. So I think the more personal this is, the more history, the more private personal stuff, the more history that goes into whatever it is they're bringing, it'll stand out. It's bound to stand out.

The Recipe to Riches try-outs reach Toronto Saturday, July 13. Walk-in registration will take place between 9 a.m - 6 p.m. at the 11 Redway Rd. Loblaws. Visit the show's website to pre-register online and get more information on the event.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

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