STYLE

'Top Chef Canada' judge Mark McEwan offers tips on organization for home cooks

04/16/2013 09:13 EDT | Updated 06/16/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Eleven minutes go by "in a heartbeat" when you're on the hot seat showing off your culinary abilities.

Mark McEwan, who owns four restaurants and two catering companies, is no stranger to the spotlight when it comes to cooking. But in a reversal of his role as head judge, in this week's episode he cooked for the young chefs competing on "Top Chef Canada."

The show is in its third season with 16 young chefs competing. Each episode features a quickfire challenge in which the contestants must prepare a dish according to certain requirements or participate in some other type of culinary test.

McEwan made ricotta gnocchi with scallops in 11 minutes and 17 seconds. Then the young chefs were challenged to make a similarly complex dish in the same length of time.

"I had to make a dish that I felt had a complicated side about it, so the dish had to have a variety of elements in terms of cooking and saucing and garnishing and it had to come together very, very fast," the Toronto chef explained in an interview ahead of the airing.

"And the dish came out really well. That's what I tried to impress upon them — if you spend your time properly focused on things, you can achieve a lot in a span of 11 minutes."

He made the entree from scratch, with no advance preparation. McEwan, 55, acknowledged his experience helped him figure out what he was going to make and he knew where all the ingredients were kept on the set, but he had no practice time. "It was all on the fly."

Like the chefs he's judging, he had to assemble his pots, pans and ingredients and set up his station.

"Everything has to be done, from making a butter sauce to gnocchi to frying scallops to cooking pancetta and making a compound sauce, and then doing a presentation and doing two plates. Eleven minutes goes by in a heartbeat.

"It's amazing what you can do when you actually put your mind to it. You don't waste a second. You don't waste a move."

Home cooks can incorporate some of the techniques professional chefs use to make their own entertaining easier.

"Whether you're doing a restaurant service or just doing a one-off item or you're doing a demonstration in front of 300 people, having it thought through in your mind, like calming your mind down and thinking the process of it, really helps you to achieve a better end result," McEwan said.

"I always visualize myself walking through something, so I physically shut my eyes. I imagine myself doing the process. And I like shutting my eyes so I don't get distracted and I think about exactly what I need to do."

Figure out the sequence and do things in the proper order. Some tasks might take longer or require another stage. The gnocchi McEwan made on the set of "Top Chef Canada," for example, has three stages: the dough had to be made and cut into pieces, then poached and lastly pan-fried.

Be organized. "I think the greatest strength I've had as a chef is that I have been hyper organized my whole life," said McEwan, who opened a gourmet food shop in 2009 and says he's looking to expand his grocery business.

If he's hosting a home dinner party for eight people, he doesn't want to be a slave in the kitchen. "I have everything organized, from the platter and knife I'm going to carve the meat with to the spoon I'm going to serve the succotash with all ready to go ... It takes me 15 minutes to get ready and then I'm not running around when I've got people talking to me and there's socializing going on."

Rely on favourite recipes you've had success with, perhaps experimenting with just one item.

"Don't try to overachieve. Usually simple is better. And I tell the chefs on 'Top Chef' that too. Simple products can have just tremendous results."

McEwan, who is also the author of "Great Food at Home" and "Fabbrica," said he loves the opportunity to mentor the young chefs on "Top Chef Canada."

"Rather than just be critical I like to offer commentary that they could take away and hopefully when they feel a little better about it they can change their ways and have a more successful result."

"Top Chef Canada" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/10 p.m. PT on Food Network Canada.

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