Twenty years ago, on the tails of fashion’s heady ’90s ride, I asked the late pop-culture visionary Malcolm McLaren about where things were going. “What’s the next red-hot arena? And who are the future superstars?” Without skipping a beat, he replied, “Oh it’s going to be about food. Food is so sensual, even sexier than fashion. And chefs will be the next big celebrities.” While I’d always appreciated the art of cuisine, I couldn’t imagine that super-stardom would be in the cards for any of the culinary masters I knew. But, here I am two decades later, sitting in Yorkville’s glam One Restaurant, across the table from Mark McEwan, one of Canada’s most savvy and successful chefs, and his rockstar glow is unmistakable.
“I sort of chuckle about it,” says the 63-year-old, who helms an empire of fine eateries and gourmet emporiums in and around Toronto. “Because when I first got into the business in the mid ’70s, it wasn’t glamorous to be a chef. We were relegated as domestic help. When I told my family that I was working on an apprenticeship to be a cook, there was absolute silence at the dinner table,” he reminisces. McEwan’s family, who lived in Buffalo, NY, would have preferred that he’d be a lawyer or accountant. “You’re gonna cook chicken?!” asked his incredulous grandmother. McEwan’s family didn’t have any inkling of the food business, and neither did he, but he’d worked a bit at restaurants in high school and got hooked. “I love the whole interaction of a restaurant, customer service, the bar, the wine list. I thought it was all amazing,” says McEwan.
So he took a year off from school in 1976 and got an apprenticeship at Toronto’s old Constellation Hotel, devouring cookbooks by French chefs like Paul Bocuse and fantasizing about going to Europe to pursue his dreams. But instead, he began paying his dues and learning invaluable lessons along the way. “It was anything but glamour,” says McEwan, “but I discovered that I was a natural with service, making breakfast for 800 people, and getting it out on time, and making all the customers happy. I was really good at the mechanics of the business. Then I learned to cook after that.” As his confidence soared, McEwan rose through the ranks and then went to study at George Brown College. His first executive chef posting was at Toronto’s swank Sutton Place Hotel in 1979. But by the mid ’80s, he’d hawked everything he owned to buy a partnership in a cool Italian restaurant called Pronto. It wasn’t long before McEwan struck out on his own, with a spectacular eatery called North 44, the likes of which Toronto had never seen. The year was 1990 and McEwan was determined to make a splash. “I brought a designer in from London, England, to do it,” he says. “And I just about buried myself. I spent twice as much money as I had. But thank God I knew how to work hard and work my way through things.”
North 44 had a glorious 28-year run. By the time it closed its doors in 2018, McEwan had become a household name, synonymous with the gourmet experience. Besides launching into the TV stratosphere in 2006, with his own show “The Heat” and later “Chopped Canada,” he’d become a national hero as head judge on the popular “Top Chef Canada,” which is starting its eighth season, and he has authored several cookbooks. But most impressively, the intrepid gourmand had opened a series of successful hot-spot restaurants, including the tony Bymark in 2002, Yorkville’s inviting One Restaurant in 2007, and his first of three contemporary Italian eateries called Fabbrica in 2009, including one in Thornbury, Ont. In 2015, he took over operations at Diwan, the Middle Eastern restaurant at the Aga Khan Museum. McEwan’s three eponymous Gourmet Grocery locations (Don Mills, Yonge and Bloor, and TD Centre), which stock a large percentage of prepared foods, have also been very well received. “People don’t really want to cook anymore,” opines McEwan. “With all the condos around, I would venture that if you open those fridges, you’d just find a half bottle of white wine, a half-dozen eggs, and maybe some moldy cheese,” he chuckles. “I don’t think they shop much. They’re always about the next meal.” This modern notion of not stocking up by doing large grocery shops is the way McEwan likes it in his own kitchen as well. “I’ll always have good standard basics in the fridge. I don’t buy processed food. I don’t buy much in boxes. I don’t need 80 feet of pasta. I just want three selections of really good pasta and a homemade sauce. I don’t think the big box store is the future for average people.”
When it comes down to what’s modern in food preparation today, McEwan has a definite point of view. He feels the modern approach for chefs is actually to be very traditional. “It’s about going back in time and learning the art of curing meat and doing old-school recipes perfectly well, rather that a lot of fanfare and orchestration on the plate. Those days are somewhat over. I have no interest in that food any longer,” he says. “I like seasonality. I like food to be super simple and really good. I think a lot of chefs are starting to do that now.”
It’s the pursuit of beautiful simplicity that drives McEwan — a philosophy that also informs his notion of the ideal home kitchen. “A proper refrigerator with a double door, a six-burner gas stove and proper oven, a set of sharp knives, and a cutting board,” says McEwan. “Some of the best cooking comes out of the simplest kitchen… I still cook in the Le Creuset pots I’ve had for 15 years and still use the same wooden spoon. And I get yelled at by my wife, Roxanne, because I still use this really ugly, grungy looking cutting board to display food because I think it’s beautiful. She thinks it’s unsanitary. But I think it’s got oodles of character,” he smiles. McEwan feels that, sometimes, kitchens can be too slick and too “designed” for cooking. “And they’re not actually fun to cook in because they’re so pretty. For me, a kitchen has to have a bit of muscle to it, some oomph… surfaces that you can feel good about mucking up a bit. And you need a big sink next to the area that you chop on, and you need a place for garbage slop. So if you actually cook for 12 people, you’re not always trying to tidy up and feeling unorganized. You need a place where you can actually cook and process,” the master chef advises.
McEwan’s favourite place to cook is at his country home in Thornbury, Ont., not far from his newest Fabbrica location. He’s the most relaxed there, with more time to make meals for his friends. “We entertain a lot. Almost every weekend we have people over to the house, whether it’s six people or 12 people. I’ll make a big pot of short ribs in a massive Le Creuset pot and I’ll start in the morning and braise things, because that’s easy to do. And then I’ll do a starch component like a soft polenta, and whatever veg is interesting, and I have a wine cellar, so I’ll pull some wine out.” Listening to the chef’s cozy routine, I’m suddenly transported to McEwan’s feel-good country kitchen. His passion for cooking for his friends is palpable. And it’s evident that despite all the satisfaction he finds in running his chic restaurants, fancy gourmet emporiums, and huge catering business, McEwan’s true joy really does come from pleasing people. And, major skill set aside, it’s precisely that air of affability that’s made Mark McEwan such a distinctive and beloved, true superstar chef.
Photography by Colin Faulkner
Wardrobe styling by Jessica Gilbert
Grooming by Tricia Langenberg-Kealy