When Mary Berg’s photo came across the “MasterChef Canada” casting table in 2015, executive producer Cathie James knew she had the look of a TV star. The 26-year-old insurance broker had red hair, bangs, glasses, and a beautiful smile.
“Her features looked almost animated,” the Proper Television co-president recalls. “I remember the casting director telling me they were really excited about her. I said, ‘Wow, she sounds amazing. I really hope she can cook.’”
Fast forward to the end of 2022 and Berg has starred in two Bell Media cooking shows, “Mary’s Kitchen Crush” and “Mary Makes It Easy,” which was picked up for two seasons by the Food Network in the U.S. Berg has also authored two cookbooks, won four Canadian Screen Awards, guest-starred on the Bell Media comedy “Children Ruin Everything,” and appears on lifestyle shows across the country as a food expert.
On Dec. 15 she makes her co-hosting debut alongside pastry chef Andrew Han on the new CTV culinary competition series “Cross Country Cake Off.”
Not only can Berg cook, she’s parlayed her Season 3 win on “MasterChef Canada” and is quickly becoming something of a Canadian Ina Garten: a relatable host whose joy and love of food transcends formal training and has catapulted her into one of the most recognizable faces in Canada’s culinary scene.
“She just cooked in a way that was really unique,” says James. “She is an incredibly intelligent person with a photographic memory. Her ability to cook at that level she did, even when she was 26 on that show, was extraordinary.”
It’s a journey Berg nearly didn’t take. Her family and a close friend had to convince her to even audition for “MasterChef Canada.” She was confident in her abilities as a cook, but she was scared she would smother her creative spark if she turned it into a full-time gig. Unlike many of the “MasterChef” competitors over the years, running or working in a restaurant never appealed to her.
“I love cooking, I love eating, and I want to be able to make something and then sit down with people and enjoy it,” she explains. “That’s just not something you can do when you’re creating food for a group of people as opposed to for yourself and a group of people.”
On “MasterChef,” there was no time for Berg to be anyone but herself. She was a lacto-ovo pescatarian with a penchant for shrimp and a dark sense of humor that helped her to create dishes like her Mary Had a Little Lamb Sausage. She could also bake and understood the science behind the food she was creating, making her a unicorn in the world of home cook culinary competitions. Behind-the-scenes, producers were already envisioning the possibilities.
James recalls facilitating a lunch between Berg and a Canadian cookbook imprint shortly after her “MasterChef” win. It was an important step during a time when instructional cooking shows had fallen out of favor with programmers. Bell Media had yet to launch its current lifestyle channel, and although it was interested in pursuing a show given the built-in “MasterChef Canada” audience, it was still a risk — one they eventually took.
“Bell Media is very much in the Mary Berg Business,” says Justin Stockman, Bell Media’s vice-president of content development and programming. “We always knew Mary would be a star and a huge success. She quickly established herself as a relatable on-camera personality and we wanted to provide the best platform to build upon that.”
Throughout its airing in 2019 and 2020 on CTV, “Mary’s Kitchen Crush” attracted an average audience of 408,000 total viewers with an average weekly reach of more than one million total viewers.
For Berg, building that series was almost like returning to school. Her love of learning previously led her to double major in History and English at Wilfrid Laurier University, and to pursue a Master’s in Information Science at the University of Toronto.
“I realized the kitchen is a great place because you’re never going to know everything,” she explains. “It’s the same thing with television — there’s always someone who’s smarter than you and better than you and you can learn something new. When I realized television is just like a big kitchen, that’s when it really clicked for me.”
When Mary and her husband moved to a new home in Toronto, she doubled down on that TV commitment and renovated her kitchen to make it more camera-friendly for her second series, “Mary Makes it Easy.”
The series itself features Berg sharing tips, tricks and recipes to everyday cooking woes, and it’s something she’s actively built from the ground up as a writer and producer. Each recipe is hers, developed for the people she loves. Opening her home up to audiences was an easy decision.
“There are so many people putting in so much effort and spending their energy on one thing, it’s really a lot of pressure,” Berg says. “I don’t take it lightly that oftentimes I’m the only face you see. I want to make these people proud of what they do — I don’t want to be something people bury on the resume.”
Berg herself avoids entering any partnerships or programs she can’t be proud of by following what she calls her “wibble.” That’s how she describes the instinctual feeling she gets in her upper stomach that tells her when something doesn’t align with her gut — even when her brain is trying to convince her otherwise.
“I’ve never not listened to my wibble on bigger things, but it is my North Star and the thing I have to keep reminding myself to listen to, especially as things progress,” she says.
“Mary has always unabashedly been herself and that’s something our viewers love,” adds Stockman. “She’s always exhibited an enthusiasm for cooking and an ability to engage with people across Canada, making it feel like you’re cooking with a friend in her kitchen.”
When “Mary Makes It Easy” debuted during the 2021-22 broadcast year, it ranked as one of the Top 10 programs on CTV Life Channel. The second season continues to rank in the Top 10 among total viewers this broadcast year to date.
“The cooking show is an intimate, one-on-one experience,” says James. “You have to have somebody in your home that you enjoy, but even then sometimes the recipes don’t work that well. Mary even has that — when you try her recipes at home they work. On top of having this winning personality and creating an environment that people want to be a part of, she is bringing something useful to your life in a practical way.”
The executive ventures to call Berg an Ina Garten for the new millennium. “She has the ability to play on that larger stage, but also have that intimate, quiet, one-on-one relationship with the audience,” she adds.
It’s a moniker Berg certainly aspires to.
“I look up to her,” she blushes, citing one of Garten’s holiday episodes where she’s making fettuccine and has had a little too much wine.
“It’s an excellent episode of cooking TV that feels like you’re at home with her. She keeps things small. It is a cozy, small world, trying to get people to expand their lives just a little bit to fill it up,” she continues. “That’s something I talk about a lot. Filling up your life a little extra. There’s so much pressure to go outside your life and there are people who are built to do that and make these sweeping [changes]. But if all you do is make your life a little bit fuller? That’s amazing.”