An Interview with Canadian Celebrity Chef Mark McEwan

We’ve reached a unique period in Toronto’s dining history. No longer are the lavish, large-scale odes to classical French and Italian cuisine dominating the dining landscape. Complex, ingredient-driven preparations are fading staples of the pass. And the allure of celebrity chefdom has captured the intrigue of both the diner and disciple.

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On a snowy December day I sat beside Chef Mark McEwan in the living room of Sol Shalit’s (Shalit Foods) Rosedale condo, while Spinning Plates’ director Joseph Levy joined us over Skype from his Los Angeles home. Our discussion would revolve around the restaurant industry in Toronto – how food television and film have influenced audiences and aspiring cooks, what makes a successful restaurant in Toronto, and what the future holds for our city’s budding culinary landscape.

Despite occupying two dichotomizing spheres of the industry, both men are on a constant quest for authenticity in their own work as much as the work of others.

“The trend in TV is that they’re creating a heavily manufactured reality,” Levy remarked as the chef nodded along. In Spinning Plates, Joseph managed to capture deep and difficult times in a restaurant’s existence, something that’s often left out of the mainstream television narrative. McEwan will confess that food television can give aspiring chefs a false vision of life on the line.

“There’s an allure to the restaurant industry that’s been brought out with food television – it’s like flies to a light – they’re attracted to it and then they die,” McEwan admits.

Though both deem passion to be an intangible characteristic for aspiring chefs, it takes more than just a tablespoon of enthusiasm to punch out successfully at the end of each day.

“I still see people coming into the industry with passion,” Levy tells us. “Unfortunately, people are looking towards the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is their cooking show.”

The reality of a cook’s world still lies in the back room – where temperatures blaze and a five-minute mistake can cost you your whole service. It’s an industry that’s built around service standards and defined by dedication – one where Gordon Ramsay won’t be throwing overcooked items at the wall and wailing insults at the saucier with tears in their eyes when they’ve botched the roux. The best kitchens in the world – as exemplified by Alinea in Spinning Plates – are controlled and meticulous, as well as nurturing – and they generally don’t come with a TV contract.

As a young executive chef heading up the Sutton Place Hotel, McEwan took a giant, yet calculated leap of faith. He sacrificed everything to start his first restaurant (North 44) in his early 30s, including his engagement money and first marriage. His view on entering the industry came with a curt, but meaningful message for new restaurateurs.

“Put your head down and work – it’s going to consume 20-hours of your day for 2-3 years – and that’s if you’re successful,” he stated matter-of-factly. “It’s not the place for everyone.”

When I asked him if there was a formula for the success of a restaurant in this city, his poetic analogy couldn’t have been clearer. “I’m a big believer in the chaos theory – a drop of water will not roll off a leaf the same way twice.”

Though Chris Nutall-Smith recently called 2013 “the year of the diner,” we’re still without a recognized service standard in the industry. Fledgling restaurants across the city continue to ignore the financial intangibles of running a restaurant – it comes down to the bottom line, not just what comes off the line. Similarly, food television overshadows the operational elements that exemplify the best restaurants in the world: a dedicated Maître D, an educated sommelier, a service staff that make an obtrusive job graceful and comforting. Why don’t they make food shows about these characters?

Every day is different in the world of a restaurant, Mark explains. “It’s like live theatre. The menu stays the same but the scene is always changing. It’s one of the most complex businesses that will ever exist.”

At the tail end of a two-year stretch that saw the largest restaurant boom in Toronto’s history (with about just as many restaurants closing shop) there are certainly a great number of success stories. Toronto chefs like Buca’s Rob Gentile and Bar Isabel’s Grant Van Gameren (to name just two) are turning back the clock – putting out menus that display reverence for the ingredient first – a refinement of cuisine that harkens back to the roots of contemporary cooking.

International, serial restaurateurs like David Chang and Daniel Boulud have laid bricks and mortar here in Hogtown. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’re seeing an unapologetic display of fusion cooking like the Asian-American pub grub (if you can call it that) from the Han brothers at Oddseoul or the laidback East Coast cuisine at Geoff Hopgood’s Roncy hideout. The wave of casual ramen restaurants has also popularized Japan’s most famous fast food in a city where Japanese restaurants dominate roughly half of the market.

But what bearing does this have on the future of Toronto’s culinary scene?

One can become a social media sensation like Matty Matheson (Parts & Labour) or erect their dining room after winning a television food show like Carl Heinrich (Richmond Station, Season 2 Winner of Top Chef Canada). The fact is for the vast majority of aspiring chefs and restaurateurs out there, it’s about going back to basics. Attention to detail, mise en place, a pristine dining room, and servers that actually give a shit.

We still need to push for greater transparency in our media as well our business practices. Preserving the authenticity in both the food that is cooked and the respect we have for those that cook it for us. In Chef McEwan’s opinion, we’re still worlds away from becoming a true cosmopolitan dining destination. But even though we may not have the appetite for “elite level dining” as he calls it, maybe this 2-year boom has been our boiling point, and we’re ready to simmer the broth on a stock of admirable restaurants for the everyman.

Jason Finestone

Jason Finestone

A Toronto based food fiend and travel nut with a lust for all things tasty. If his liver can process it (somewhat) then he’s likely game to give it a go. His wanderlust spirit has taken him all over the globe, living in 6 different countries from Canada to the US, South Korea to Europe. Along the way he’s developed a propensity for irreverent parlance and inhibition-less adventure. “If meat is king then dumplings are queen — I am a prince of noodle soups and a duke of hard drink — street food is life.”
Jason Finestone

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