EXCLUSIVE: AN INTERVIEW WITH TOP CHEF MARK MCEWAN
APRIL 5, 2012 | CADILLAC FAIRVIEW
Some might think he’s intimidating, but Mark McEwan speaks genuinely about his experience as a top chef. The mogul of cuisine and head judge of Top Chef Canada owns numerous restaurants that have refined the palates of Torontonians including North 44, Bymark, and One. Fabbrica — his Italian restaurant — and McEwan Markets are located at the Shops at Don Mills, where Top Chef Canada is filmed. Though he appears to be inflexible on television, he’s able to recline when he talks about his connection to food. See our interview below with questions from our Twitter followers.
How’s your day going?
It’s gorgeous out here. It’s a fantastic day.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Yorkville.
What are you doing there?
I’m just walking down the street. I had a bit of lunch and a business meeting with a friend and business partner.
What is the best olive oil for salad dressing?
That’s a loaded question. Anything of really good quality. Olive oil has a lot of different characteristics. Some people like it peppery and some like it fruity. My olive oil at McEwan is actually a Greek olive oil. It almost has zero acidity and beautiful full fruit. The peppery quality is sort of a minor component, which I prefer, so you don’t get that excess of peppery taste in the back of your mouth. So I like the full fruit olive oil. It should be simple linear, cold pressed and of substantial quality.
What do I do with all of my cheap red wine I don’t want to drink?
What items are always in your fridge?
White wine, butter, yogurt and eggs. That’s probably all that’s ever in my fridge.
What about fresh fruits and vegetables?
Well, my problem is, I own four restaurants, a grocery store and two catering companies. I have food everywhere. When I load up my fridge at home, we never eat because we’re always eating out. I pretty much have an empty fridge, which is actually very funny.
If you could only use one spice for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Cumin. I love cumin.
What is the best thing you’ve ever eaten?
I can’t answer that honestly. I think probably the one flavour I’ve tasted and experienced that just blew [me away] was beluga caviar. There’s something extraordinary about caviar. There’s a reason why it’s famous and sought after. It may sound cliché and very upper crust but it’s absolutely true.
Where did you eat beluga caviar?
I had it when I became executive chef at the Sutton Place Hotel in the early 80s. That was the first time I had beluga caviar. I just freaked out.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I don’t suffer from guilt – I find it a big waste of time, but I have funny things that I will eat. I like going to Dairy Queen and having a small Skor blizzard. I’ll order it with my sunglasses on so nobody sees and bothers me. So I would say that’s one of my funny little quirky pleasures.
That's pretty unexpected.
Skor bar is kind of a sophisticated candy bar so it cuts me a little bit of slack there. It’s not like eating an O’Henry bar, it just sounds a little better that’s all. That’s just me trying to go off and justify it…
Are you ever not thinking about food?
Well, I’m never not thinking about the business, that’s for sure. My business is very complicated now but I think about food all the time, you know, when I drive, when I sit on the beach, when I work. It sort of relaxes me. It’s the one steady thing in my business. For me, there’s no pressure with food. Compared to the reality of all the people, costs, expenses of the business, food for me is the nice, wonderful quiet zone I can always think about and relax.
What are some of your thoughts on Toronto’s restaurant culture?
I think the city is in great shape. We have a lot of chefs and bartenders opening up cool little spots and working very hard, and it just adds to the whole culture. I think Toronto has a great restaurant scene. I went to Bestellen, Rob Rossi’s new restaurant at 972 College Street West. He was a runner-up in Top Chef last year and did a great job. He opened up a new spot a couple of weeks ago and we had a great meal last night. I’m sure he sold every valuable thing he owned and spent every cent in his chequing account. Now he owns a restaurant and he’s thrilled.
Do you still keep in touch with the older contestants?
Yes. Surprisingly, we still cross paths whether it’s by email, text messages or if you see them at functions. The Food Network has kept a lot of them busy doing promotional work and commercials. It has made a huge difference in their career and it’s also made them very visible. It’s me hanging out with kids my children’s age!
How does it feel to host a reality show? What were your expectations?
Well, would you call our show a reality show? I think the show is a real genuine contest. The show is certainly not about me, or any one of the contestants. It’s about the contest and the journey and winning the challenges. I feel very comfortable doing it – I get to sit back and assess it the way I see it with no flutter, no silliness. For me, it’s pure cooking and I told them all that. At the end of the day the person that [produces] the best dish, the most thoughtful dish, and listens to the challenges is going to win so I find it very easy actually.
In the second season I felt a lot more comfortable with the whole TV format and talking in the camera and someone’s talking in your ear and you’re supposed to recite it. I worried about all the structure of all this. The actual content of the show, though…I really like it and when I look at the chefs I think it’s legit.
Which food trends are the best right now?
Oh, just the fact that we don’t have one right now is what I like. I hate trends. I hate what’s the next fashionable thing, what’s the next food trend. I think we’ve grown up a lot. Chefs today are cooking real product. It’s more about the origin of the product than really genuine cooking. Most cooking taking place in the city today is more to the homey side and it’s about the ingredients and simple preparation. The days of the nine-course tasting menu with fifteen elements on a plate is gone, thank god.
What is your favourite food city?
Oh, it would be New York. My daughter lives there. Whenever I need to recharge and see something different, I go to New York.
What does your daughter do?
She’s in the fashion business. She graduated from New York University this past year and is working at a branding company that deals with young designers. She refers to herself as “your broke-ass daughter in New York”.
What about your other kids?
My son is with me at the grocery store on the retail side of business, and my nephew Matthew is on the restaurant side with me. I’m starting to get the kids involved. My son and nephew are 26, my daughter is 23. I hope to get my daughter back in town. I keep telling her, “Food is fashion, honey, just look at it differently.” She hasn’t bought it yet.
But she is in the capital of all the greatest food ever, so…
Well you know what, I let her go to NYU and it was all my fault. Once your kid lives there for four years, it’s pretty hard to shoo them out. She lives in Brooklyn with a couple of girls and she’s living the life, having a blast. She’s exploring.
What’s your favourite meal to cook for your family?
Do you have any thoughts on the slow food movement or the local movement?
It’s great for us but I wish we lived in California where we had it nine months of the year instead of two months of the year. The whole movement is perfectly suited for where we are, like, we think about where we buy things from all day long. So that ‘phenomenon’ is here to stay. The local food movement or the 100km movement is kind of tough here sometimes only because of the seasons, but when Ontario is in bloom we do nothing but buy from here.
Do you grow your own fruits and vegetables?
I wish I could but our business is way too big for that. We buy the top tier one percentile of everything. I don’t price-shop for product. I buy the best product in the market and I charge what I have to charge. So, when we buy fish we buy absolutely the best fish. We never skimp on anything. We buy double zero flour from Italy hand-ground because it makes better bread and dough. Dehydrated salt makes better pizza dough. We get it from Naples only because if you cook without it, it doesn’t taste the same. So I find you can’t take shortcuts on the base cost at all.
If you were on death row, what would your final meal be?
A very tall, very dry, cold martini with an olive. I’m an emotional eater. If I was on death row, I wouldn’t be worried about what I was eating. I guarantee you that I’d push my meal to the side. I eat less [when I’m stressed].
When’s your birthday?
May 7th. I’m a rare Taurus.
Anything else to add?
We’re having fun. We’re looking forward to patio season. We’re all geared up with new menus and it’s going to be a very exciting season. I can’t wait for it.
Congratulations on your success with Top Chef Canada.