It was in my undergraduate years when my eyes were first opened to the Toronto culinary scene. At the time, I was working part-time at a high end department store and recall conversations amongst clients about the fabulous food at North 44. It was then that I learned about Chef Mark McEwan. Almost 20 years later, through cautious and steady growth, Chef McEwan has turned his first restaurant in North Toronto into a culinary empire. With multiple restaurants, a successful catering business, gourmet grocery stores, TV shows and books, his business has gone from strength to strength.
Reflecting on those early days of culinary exploration and Chef McEwan’s success, I wanted to learn more about his culinary favourites, hosting tips as well the secret to his staying power in an exceptionally challenging industry. Our chat revealed a persistence, determination and laser focus on client service that one would only expect of a top chef and entrepreneur.
Q: What’s your favourite drink/snack?
A: (I like a) Manhattan with orange peel and rye. (I’m a) Persian nut fan…and sell them at the store. I have a friend who is Persian (who introduced it to me). When I opened my first retail store, I started buying it by the case and would bag it at the store….made up of pistachios, cashews, macadamia nuts, a variety of raisins, etc.
Q: What was your favourite childhood meal?
A: My grandmother owned a post office in Mount Pleasant, Ontario. It was also a general store; epicenter of the community. (She made) mac and cheese with smoked ham from the butcher. (She would also) do baked beans and big hunk of bologne roast. Served it with toasted bread. As a kid, I would dream about eating it.
Q: When entertaining friends at home, what types of dishes do you like to cook?
A: I like hosting friends at the cottage. (I’ll cook) brown lentils with root vegetables (with) a hint of curry. (I’d) marinate salmon in demerara sugar, mustard, sricacha, coriander seeds, fresh herbs. Score the salmon, put it in foil and roast it on the BBQ. Serve it with yogurt sauce, fresh herbs and citrus.
Q: What do you think the key is to hosting a good dinner party?
A: Hosting relaxed…achieve within your spectrum of talent…(don’t) over complicate (things) and be stressed out. The more you can do ahead of time, the better. A good mis-en-place…have your platters, serving utensils and all condiments out (in advance). Be organized. Guests arrive and have a cocktail or a Manhattan. Main course may be 1 item (that you can prepare) last minute…(perhaps) rolled pasta, like pappardelle with glazed meat…(you can) make the pasta in front of (your) guests.
Q: Who inspires you in your work?
A: (There’s an) amazing group of young chefs now. Old standards (also) inspire. Daniel Boulud and Gordon Ramsay are very talented and amazing business people…Rob Gentilli cooks really tasty food. (I) look in a lot of places…lots of different people. (There’s a) tremendous food culture in Toronto…(it’s) on fire. I’m inspired by doing a good job and getting better…(I’ve) never had any idea about being static.
Q: What is the best lesson you’ve learned from a mistake?
A: Don’t repeat (your mistakes). Hard fought lessons are the best lessons. You can never do enough research. Never fall in love with your own ideas; poke holes in your own ideas. When North 44 was built, (I) spent twice as much money than (I) had (on the) design and build process. When it comes to spending money (or) realizing a project, (you) always have to pay the money back…(easy to) get carried away.
Q: Of the various aspects of your career, what are you most passionate about?
A: My connection to clients. (I) love that about the industry…every business has its moments of frustration (but I like the) nice simple direct relationship with clients.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge of your career to date?
A: (The) task of trying to stay fresh…and stay relevant. (It’s like a) theatre show…can’t get tired of the rhythm. Have to attack it every day…looking to get better every single day.
Q: What has been your proudest moment of your career to date?
A: (There isn’t) a single moment. (I’ve) cooked for famous people…spent a week with the Pope cooking for him. Best thing about (my) career is that at 58, people respect what I’ve done and (I’ve) been in the game a long time. Building up that reputation and respect is hard fought.
Q: What are you currently excited about in terms of new approaches to cooking and food?
A: Excited that market has matured. (The) concept of a trend isn’t a trend anymore. (It’s) about good processes, good regional food, old styles of cooking and delivering amazing basics. (A) loaf of bread has become important. Comes through education…gimmicks are just gimmicks. Maturity in industry really resonates…(knowing you) can do an excellent job and do well…not about crazy décor, concepts or fusion. About good operations.
Q: What does the future hold for you?
A: (I will) continue to build retail…will build restaurants and grow carefully. We have lots of room to move in GTA and will do that. (It’s a) tough game to brand yourself in the restaurant (business)…finding chefs, a gifted barkeep…(it’s an) art form to find a gifted barkeep. You can only build a restaurant if you have a team; it’s all about the team. (You) need the right chefs and (team) to manage the craziness of (the) industry. (I’ve) never seen a bigger build in Toronto than over the past 5 years…onslaught of restaurants…3800 restaurant seats have opened in fine dining.
On the topic of building a brand…
I never thought about building a brand. I was (focused on) doing a proper job. Sometimes (one) can be too single minded about building a brand…it’s about service, delivery and consistency of delivery. A couple of years ago, (it was) very fashionable to talk about brands.
The final word…
You need to connect with clients on a personal level. I tell all managers, chefs, (those who) wait on tables…that’s what we do. (We) need to lie down and take it for the clients. (It’s) completely self sacrificing. (You) can’t have an ego about yourself. (That’s) why a lot of people have crashed and burned in the industry.
Further information about The McEwan Group, including restaurants, stores and recipes can be found at http://mcewangroup.ca/.