Furor over horse meat on Top Chef Canada

The food TV show Top Chef Canada is stirring up a giant stew of controversy with a segment in which chefs will cook up from scratch a dish using horse meat.

TV series uses 'cheval' in cooking competition

Top Chef Canada head judge Mark McEwan, seen at left, is shown with host Thea Andrews. Chefs will compete to create a dish from scratch from horse meat on Monday night's show. (Food Network Canada/Insight Productions )

The food TV show Top Chef Canada is stirring up a giant stew of controversy with a segment in which chefs will cook up from scratch a dish using horse meat.

Top Chef Canada is airing an episode Monday night called "The French Feast," which will require chefs to create a dish from scratch using horse meat. Horse meat has been on menus for a long time in Europe and is available on supermarket shelves in Quebec. 

But in the rest of North America, it's not considered a palatable staple. Three Facebook groups have popped up encouraging viewers to boycott Top Chef Canada.

In a statement posted on the show's Facebook page, Food Network Canada said that "while we understand that this content may not appeal to all viewers, [our network] aims to engage a wide audience, embracing different food cultures in our programming."

The statement also said that "horse meat is also considered a delicacy in many cultures around the world."

'It's tender no matter how old it is.'—Food writer Chris Nuttall-Smith

Chris Nuttall-Smith, a food writer and regular columnist with Toronto Life magazine, said horse meat is a great ingredient for chefs because "it's tender no matter how old it is."

"It [tastes] a little wilder, more grassy and more minerally," Nuttall-Smith told CBC Toronto radio host Matt Galloway on the show Metro Morning.

"I've never seen it at the butcher's counter [in Ontario], but there are probably four or five restaurants in Toronto that serve it on a regular basis."

Nuttall-Smith pointed out that Alberta does a roaring business selling horse meat for consumption to Europe, Japan and Brazil.

Human qualities attributed to horses

In Canada, "cheval" meat, as it's sometimes euphemistically called, is just not viewed as something most people can stomach.

"We are more sentimental about horses than we are about any other animal," Nuttall-Smith said. "What little nine-year-old girl doesn't have a poster of a pony in her bedroom?"

The food writer said many people attribute human qualities, like nobility, to horses — something they don't do to other animals that they eat.

The controversy already reared its head in Toronto when animal rights activists protested earlier this month in front of one restaurant, La Palette, serving horse meat in the downtown core.

Chef Brook Kavanagh told the Toronto Observer newspaper that "we're not going to let other people's opinions change what we do."

Kavanagh said horse meat is tender, juicy and flavourful and he knows exactly where he gets his meat from, ensuring that the horses have been raised humanely.

Animal rights activists and vegetarians say it's important that consumers understand how the animals they eat are treated while alive.

Nuttall-Smith said he agrees with that attitude.

"We're starting to think where our meat is from and how it's raised so in the future, I think we're going to eat a lot less meat but better-quality meat."

Top Chef Canada, based on a popular U.S. series, premiered in April.  It features professional chefs competing for a $100,000 grand prize and kitchen equipment worth $30,000.