Behind the line: Calgary chef Neil McCue of Whitehall

McCue on English flavours, food culture of Calgary and his experience in different kitchens.

Chef Neil McCue Calgary

Calling the British-born chef, Neil McCue, a Calgary chef may be a bit of a stretch, as he has only recently returned to town to open his new buzzed-about restaurant, Whitehall. Having said that, McCue came to Canada almost 18 years ago and landed in Calgary in 2000, when the city was but a twinkle a contemporary food scene's eye, to open up Catch Restaurant and Oyster Bar alongside chef Michael Noble as the dining room chef of the refined seafood-centric restaurant in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

McCue took a short break from working the pass to talk about how Calgary has changed over the years, dining in London, chefs who have grown into culinary stars and why restaurant Instagram feeds can be false advertising.

How did you come to be situated in Calgary, or in Canada, for that matter?

I came in 1998 to work at Langdon Hall in Ontario. It’s a great place and an amazing area for produce and whatnot, but it was still technically a hotel and I wasn’t really wanting to do the hotel side of things. I just wanted to focus on the restaurant, so that’s why it didn’t work as a long term thing for me. Then, one day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Michael Noble.

Like, completely randomly?

I might have been sort of looking and he basically said, “Look, I’ve got a plane ticket for you, come out here to Calgary and see what you think.”

What was Calgary like back in 2000?

There were only a couple of decent places. I obviously wasn’t familiar with the city when I first arrived. I just remember it being really cold. But, in terms of food, I thought the level was definitely getting up there, but everything was located on Stephen Avenue, it seemed. Everything was really centralized. It wasn’t 17th Avenue; that was more for drinking. In the four years that I lived in Calgary back then, I don’t think I went to 17th Avenue even once. I just didn't really know it existed.

Between leaving Calgary in 2004 and coming back this year, what has changed?

There are still restaurants on Stephen Avenue, but it’s not the "happening" area. 17th Avenue has such a great vibe, it’s a good example of what modern dining is--interesting food, great spaces and somewhat casual.

You left Canada over a decade ago. What propelled you to come back?

I was thinking about coming back, anyway. I had finished what I wanted to do, working in England, and felt like having a change would be good. My girlfriend is Australian and she wanted to travel too. Initially, we thought this might have just been a two-year project type of thing, but then we came back and I have good friends here from [opening Catch], so it was just really easy to get back into the swing of things.

I’m good friends with Duncan Ly. One day, he introduced me to Lance Hurtubise [of Vintage Group] and obviously, from a financial perspective, we are now connected. That’s how it happened in a nutshell.

“Hey Neil, do you want to look at opening a restaurant?”

“Yeah I do!” 

When you opened Catch as the head chef of the dining room, you were essentially the boss of people like Duncan Ly, Nicole Gomes and Nick Nutting. Is it amazing for you to see how much they have accomplished since you’ve been gone?

Yes, yes absolutely! I’m so proud and I’d like to think that I had a little bit of something to do with that. I think Nicole Gomes and Duncan Ly would agree with me on that, even Nick Nutting out at Wolf in the Fog in Tofino. They were all in my kitchen for four years, it was really a great time. I am bowled over by seeing them all do so well.

In Calgary, a lot of people talk about the “magic” with that group of Catch alumni. Something in the water?

Back then, nobody really left or quit, everyone was happy at work and we were always pushing forward. The place was busy and it was definitely the spot to be at the time, but we also had this amazing relationship outside of work too. We used to go to the mountains to snowboard together, hang out all of the time. It was like a family, it really was. And it’s still like that now. Duncan, Nicole--God, we can still sit, talk, laugh and drink gin and tonics until the cows come home. 

What do you think of Jamie Oliver? A general do-gooder or overdone in the media and restaurant markets?

You know what. I love Jamie Oliver. I think he’s fantastic. Marketing-wise, it’s amazing what he’s done. You compare him to someone equally high profile like Gordon Ramsay, for what Oliver’s done for Britain, how he handles himself and the way he is on TV, I think he’s only just gotten better and better. He saw an opportunity and ran with it and fair play to him for that.

In North America, many of us have watched him improve food quality in Britain. Is that something that you think has had a lasting effect over there?

Yes, but more specifically for the home cook, absolutely. He’s obviously a big eye for seasonality and all of that. He has started this culture of seasonality,good quality cooking and appreciating good ingredients, from home cooks to restaurants. He has kind of bridged that gap in a way. I think he’s fun and he’s intelligent too!

The menu at Whitehall has a contemporary British focus. What are some ingredients that would be staples for you in London that you have a hard time getting here?

Oh, lots of things, certain types of fish: fresh mackerel, fresh anchovies, sardines, herrings. All of those are a lot more tricky to find here. Things like different types of unpasteurized cheeses, you can find some of that coming out of Quebec, but a lot of the firm cheeses we get in the UK are things you can’t import. Fresh Spanish Iberico is very difficult to find. There are ingredients in the United Kingdom that I’ll miss, but you just have to adapt, right?

What’s your take on hiring staff here in Calgary compared to London?

It’s tough. Most applicants' skill levels are just not there. You will get people who have worked at quite a lot of chains, they all see themselves as a sous chef  who can cook, until you get them in and see what they’re about. I don’t know. I’d rather take green people, apprentice level. Nick Nutting was a great example of that perfect young apprentice spirit. He just soaked everything up in the Catch kitchen like a sponge.

These days, you see a lot of people who got to head chef roles at a much younger age than is typical. They need to go back. It’s all about the quality schooling, all about having good apprenticeships, kicking it into them at a young age. This is a career and a love, it’s not a money-making job. When I get people coming in and asking for a sous chef level and they’ve only done three years somewhere, it’s a bit of a joke.

All you really need is an eager person, a winning person, and somebody who truly loves food and the business. That’s someone you can mould.

Calgary’s economy is not great right now. Is that a concern to you after just opening a restaurant?

Yes. It’s tough right now, but I can use pieces of meat that are lesser cuts and still turn them into something magical, charge a little less for them and make them approachable rather than scaring people off with weird techniques. You’ve got to adapt to the times, right? Right now, I’m not going to buy ingredients that are overly expensive. Sticking with the seasonality approach should always keep you in good stead.

I’m always surprised that restaurant trends can differ so dramatically from country to country. The last time I was in London, people seemed really into American barbecue and burgers.

Barbecue! Yeah, they definitely are. People go to North America and they see things like that and they go home and they want that. In England, it can all be a little too serious sometimes. In Canada or America, it’s a bit more, I don’t know, more real? So, now they are getting this American or Canadian-style restaurant that’s casual and bustling without the stiffness, but with great pieces of meat!

What’s one food trend you absolutely hate?

Maybe throwing flowers on things just for the sake of it, or using micro greens just because you’ve got them. Things should always be relative to the dish, if you’re putting them onto the plate, not just covering things with greens because you can grow them.

You rarely see a beautiful plate of food on Instagram look the same in real life. I think that’s false advertising on some level, don’t you ?

I do, I really do. I can’t f%&king stand it. A lot of people, even in this city, spend more time plating a dish and taking a picture of it. It’s probably a lot more real when a blogger or a writer takes a picture of something at their table than a chef who’s plating something in the kitchen for a picture. Fifteen hours with their camera behind the pass and they have no service going on. The reality is, that if you’re taking it from the pass, it has to represent what you do day-in and day-out.

I’m definitely with you on that note.