Mark of a cool chef

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - PEOPLE -

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-anda-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 15minute 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.” n Catch the lat­est sea­son of The­heat With­markm­ce­wan on AFC (Astro Chan­nel 703), Wed­nes­days, 8pm.

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