Q&A with iconic Canadian chef Mark McEwan

Chef, restaurateur and Top Chef Canada judge on what he's adding to his empire

We all know him as the calm and exemplary chef judge of Top Chef Canada, but Mark McEwan has been sculpting Canada's food culture long before that. With four successful restaurants, a catering business and premium food shops, this chef is busier than ever, raising the bar in the city's food scene. We chatted with McEwan on what's in the works for the veteran chef, how the food scene in Canada differs from that of other cities and his picks for up and coming chefs.

Now that Top Chef Canada is over, would you want to do more TV?

It’s been an amazing ride. They thought it was going to be a one-season thing, so to do four was pretty amazing.

I wouldn’t mind doing more television. I guess it would have to fit into where I want to be. To me, it’s all about food, and it’s all about being a good chef and real cooking. I don’t make my living doing television, although it’s a great sidebar. My business is the food business.

What are you concentrating on now?

I have my new McEwan store opening and that’s going to be in the TD Centre. That’ll be my second food store and I’m working on my third deal right now. That’s going to keep us very, very busy. I’m going to do a little mini bar renovation at One and a little mini renovation at North 44. I don’t think I’m going to build another restaurant in the next year or so. I’m going to wait and watch the city for a year, and then we’ll figure which direction we’re going to go.

How is McEwan different from other premium food stores?

Well, I don’t think there are very many premium food stores. That’s a pretty short category, and I think we’ve covered our bases here really well. The high level of service, the high level of quality -- you have an edited selection without having to walk through an 80,000-square-foot store. And, we have everything covered, from cheese to bakery, to prepared foods to the edited grocery aisle; we have it all. With these big stores, it’s just way too much stuff to sift through. And, what they would call a high-end food store is very boutique and more gifty. You can buy some prepared food but you can’t really shop there every day, because they don’t have the right offer. So, the idea with this store was to create a smaller store, which still has scale, and that you can relate to three or four times a week.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I’m sure in five years, we’ll have a couple more restaurants added to the scene and hopefully, I will have five more stores. 

What’s your favourite thing to cook right now?

You know what? My wife and I, we eat very cleanly. We eat a lot of vegetables -- vegetable salad, green salad -- and then a nice piece of white fish that they take out of Georgian Bay and a glass of white wine. I’m 57 years old now so I have to watch what I eat but we eat really well. We eat a lot of interesting foods with lots of herbs and good olive oil and citrus.

Speaking of good olive oil, tell me more about Fabbrica, the last restaurant you opened.

Fabbrica is a completely genuine expression of Italian food. It’s all about quality and the back story of where we bring product from and the procedure in which we handle it. I’m very, very proud of the restaurant. I think that from tip to stern, we do such a good job there. That has been a fun story to us. We cure our own meat, we make everything from scratch, and the greatest part is I have a bunch of older Italian women, the Nonnas, who really love coming to the restaurant, and they love the food because it’s authentic. They come for brunch and we have our version of Italian brunch. They come for fish and seafood, and fresh pasta and Neapolitan style pizza; it’s the real deal. Shut your eyes and you’re in Naples. I’ve always had this love affair with the Italians and their food.

Where do you think Canadian food is heading?

We’re a bit of a melting pot, and we’re a young one at that. I think we have a very international and talented footprint in Toronto. We are very traditional along ethnic lines, whether it be Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese or Indian. The backbone is definitely sort of French-Italian. The future certainly looks very bright for Toronto: it’s a highly competitive market, with lots of good people involved in the industry and no shortage of restaurants.

How does Toronto compare to other cities like London and New York?

We’re still a young city and we’re doing incredibly well. Do we still have work to do? Sure. Do we have the depth of history that New York and London have? I would say not, but are we any less of a food scene? We’re just a younger one and we’re still spreading our wings. Toronto has tremendous energy. The need for all young chefs to do a good job and tell the right story, prepare right and be creative -- from that incubator comes great things. As the city gets older, it will develop polish, it will develop history. It’s already developing history. I’ve had North 44 for 24 years now. We’re starting to develop our own historical reference point within the city now.

Who are some of the up and coming chefs that we need to watch for?

I think David Hawksworth, out in Vancouver, is a really hot commodity. Carl Heinrich, a young guy who won Top Chef Canada two years ago -- he has richmond station and he’s doing a really great job. Rob Gentile at Buca is doing a great job. Rob Rossi at Bestellen is a Top Chef Canada alumni, and he’s doing really well there. And then you have Connie DeSousa out in Calgary. Connie is their little rock star out there; she’s done an amazing job. She went from being this skinny little shy girl who could barely keep her pants up on Top Chef Canada and she has transformed into this unbelievable character. She’s doing such a good job of managing herself. I’m really proud of her.