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Monday October 31, 2011

Mark McEwan the epitome of a cool chef

Mark McEwan is one chef who wears numerous hats to the hilt, and he’s loving every minute of it.

WHEN you meet Canadian chef Mark McEwan, you really don’t want to talk about food – not what his favourite dish is or how he likes to cook his fish. You don’t need to know what he ate the night before or the first dish he ever cooked.

No, what you really want to know is what makes this top chef tick. How does he juggle running four restaurants (North 44, Bymark, One and Fabricca), a large and upscale catering business, a 2,140 sqm gourmet grocery store called McEwans, find time in between to write two cookbooks, star in his own reality TV show (The Heat With Mark McEwan) and appear as head judge of the top-rated cooking show, Top Chef Canada. All this, mind you, without ever raising his voice, throwing a tantrum or smashing any plates.

“I have ADD (Attention Deficient Disorder),” states McEwan. “If I am in one spot too long, I get a little uneasy. I like to have a lot of things to manage because it keeps me happy. If I don’t have anything to do, I’m not a good guy. I just don’t know what to do with myself.

“It’s a big joke with my family. We’ll go to the cottage (in Muskoka, Ontario) and sit on the deck that overlooks Georgia bay. It’s really beautiful and you’d think I could sit there all day and read a book ... but I can’t. So when I do go (and sit on the deck), my wife and kids will look at their watches to see how long I would sit. And they often joke, ‘Oh, look. He sat for three-and-a-half minutes. You did really well today’.”

McEwan is arguably one of Canada’s top chefs and restaurateurs. Through The Heat, viewers get a peek into his life as a restaurateur, caterer, businessman and boss.

Unlike most celebrity-chef shows, McEwan doesn’t do much cooking on TV. He doesn’t show you how to pan-sear tuna or braise short ribs to perfection. Instead, he shows viewers the other – perhaps less glamorous – side of what chefs do.

McEwan swiftly dispels the misconception that all a chef does is cook. Allowing cameras to virtually follow him everywhere he goes, McEwan clues viewers in on the demands of running a kitchen, the logistics of operating a restaurant, the challenges of setting up and cooking in a makeshift kitchen (for his outdoor catering events) and the hours of work it takes just to get a piece of seared tuna on a plate.

“I kind of fell into TV,” McEwan says. “It just happened. I was chatting with a friend at a ski club. He was a TV producer and we were talking about the Food Network and I told him what was missing on the Food Network was a show that actually showed what a chef does in real time. We’ve seen the chef that stands behind the counter and cook, and all other varieties of that, but we’ve never really seen what a real chef does every day.

“So on a lark, he followed me to a very large scale catering event soon after and a whole bunch of things went wrong. Ultimately, everything was corrected before the guests even knew, but the backstory was all on tape. He made a little 15-minute movie out of it, took it to the network and they fell in love with it.”

The 54-year-old chef was in town recently for the American Express and Asian Food Channel’s Celebrity Chef Series which is aimed at giving culinary enthusiasts in South-East Asia a chance to meet some of the channel’s top rated chefs and sample their food. On his maiden trip to South-East Asia, McEwan made three stops: Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Unique perspective

The Heat With Mark McEwan premiered on the Food Network in 2006, and the third and final season of the show is currently being aired on AFC (Astro channel 703) on Wednesdays at 8pm (moved up from its previous timeslot at midnight).

“The show isn’t for the mass market because it isn’t really a spectacle show. It is event driven and men like it a lot. Anyone who likes the technical side of the business will enjoy it. Let’s say we’d do a wedding in the country for 300 people. The show would start with us setting up the tent and constructing the kitchen (in the tent). Then we’d truck in everybody and everything we need. Viewers love it. They love the visual of how we build it up, manage it for the day and then break it down. The weather might be good or bad, the truck might break down. There is some great storytelling in there,” says McEwan.

Challenges are constant in his world but McEwan never seems to lose it on the show. You can see the wheels in his head working when something doesn’t go according to plan, but throw a tantrum? Never!

“If you work with me, you will find me to be pretty serious and really organised. I get very excited when the lines are working and the food is going out. If something is wrong, I do get crazy but I don’t jump on anybody. I’m not a yeller or a screamer. I just make sure it gets fixed right away,” he says.

Though the show was popular – “we had good ratings; not fabulous but above-average” – McEwan had no interest in shooting for more than three seasons.

“How many times can you tell a catering story? We told 39 of them and that’s enough.”

McEwan does not come from a family of cooks or restaurateurs. His mother was a housewife and his father, a television producer (this, he assures, had no bearing on him eventually being on TV).

“I had an amazing family, a simple middle-class family. We lived on a street where every house was exactly alike, just painted in different colours. There were a hundred kids on the street and we all went to the same school around the corner. My mother didn’t work or drive. She stayed home and took care of four kids, made lunch for me every day, made my bed. My father was a pretty dynamic guy for a young boy to look up to. I was the shy middle kid. The quiet kid, though you’d never know it because I never shut up now,” he shares in this 40-minute exclusive interview at the Ritz-Carlton in KL.

His first taste of the culinary world came in the form of a summer job when he was just 16.

“I found a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. It was the first time I’d ever worked in a restaurant. The owner liked me because I did a good job. When they needed a cook, he grabbed me by the scuff of my neck and threw me in the kitchen and taught me how to do the line. I never thought of it as a career choice at the time; it was strictly a job. But I really enjoyed the way the kitchen operated. It wasn’t that we were doing great food. The food was fine but I loved the service, the kitchen, the customers, the buzz. It was the first time I felt like that,” he recounts.

The following summer, McEwan worked in another restaurant. After high school, though he was accepted to a hotel school in Ontario, McEwan decided to work as an apprentice in a restaurant for a year before pursuing his studies.

“I figured that a year in the kitchen won’t hurt me even if I eventually decided to become a hotel manager.”

He secured an apprenticeship at Toronto’s Constellation Hotel in 1976 which marked the start of his more than 30-year career in the food business.

“It was a nice big hotel that was very well run and I loved it. I just loved it. I wanted to be a hotelier until I actually saw what a hotelier did every day. I realised that I enjoyed what a chef did far more. The kitchen was the heart of the hotel, the lifeblood. It’s what brought people into the hotel. I found that warm spot and so I stayed and I’ve never looked back,” says McEwan.

So, instead of a hotel school, he enrolled in a culinary programme at George Brown College (where he won the Red Seal Award for a scholarship). After graduating in 1979, he won an apprenticeship at Switzerland’s prestigious Grande National Hotel Commis de Cuisine.

First restaurant

In 1981, McEwan was hired as executive sous chef at the Sutton Place back in Toronto and two years later was appointed as chef, the youngest in Canada to hold such a position.

While there, he cooked for Pope John Paul II when the Pontiff visited Toronto in 1984.

In 1985, McEwan ventured out of the hotel business to run his first restaurant – Pronto Ristorante – with two partners. Pronto soon became one of Toronto’s most prestigious restaurants (he sold his share in Pronto in 1992).

In 1990, he opened North 44 and 12 years later, Bymar. McEwan’s third restaurant, One, opened in 2007 and Fabrica, his fourth and latest eatery, opened last year. Most recently, he opened McEwans.

“I think my job relates very well to what I am good at. I have an artistic bent, a very good eye for presentation, a very good feel for things and I handle pressure well. All these things are really critical for a chef. I think having had that big hotel experience as a young chef also make me very strong on the managerial side – the budgets, scheduling, managing departments all came easily to me,” he says.

“When I was a kid, I was a little different from my brothers and sisters, and my friends. When it snowed, I saw money; I saw the opportunity to shovel driveways. And when the grass grew, I saw money again as it meant I could mow lawns. When the leaves fell in the fall, I saw money falling down. I guess, I was made that way.”

It was a natural progression to run his own restaurant. “Profit and loss statements are just simple maths, not calculus,” he shares.

The only downside to it all, he says, is having to cut back on the time he actually spends in his kitchen in front of the stove.

“How often do I cook? Probably only 15% of my day. It’s hard to do any more than that with so many operations going on. But I still review everything all the time. I’m in each restaurant at least twice a week, and I am in the store all the time.”

Ever the over-achiever, McEwan has ideas up his sleeve for his next venture. He recently finished taping season two of Top Chef Canada and is contracted to appear on another season after that. While McEwan enjoys his tenure on the show, he is quite sure he will never do another competition-based show.

“What I am hoping for is a programme that is a little more intellectual, less game-based and less competition-based. Not theatre for the sake of theatre but something about the science of food or the personalities of great chefs like Daniel Boulud, for example. I think that would be fabulous.”

Catch the latest season of The Heat With Mark McEwan on AFC (Astro Channel 703), Wednesdays, 8pm.


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