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Celeb chef Mark McEwan dishes on effect of food television on industry

06/08/2015 01:56 EDT | Updated 06/08/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Food television has created a groundswell of attention to the restaurant game, says chef Mark McEwan, who was head judge on the culinary contest show "Top Chef Canada."

But young people pursuing a career as a chef often have a big surprise when they get into the business and realize how busy service can be.

McEwan, who owns four restaurants in Toronto — North 44, One, Fabbrica and Bymark — also hosted "The Heat" on Food Network Canada, a look behind the scenes at his restaurant and catering business along with the building of his first upscale gourmet food store, McEwan, which opened in 2009.

McEwan, also author of two cookbooks, said he did "the pass" every night till he was age 47, a high-pressure role that involves monitoring orders and the quality and presentation of the food as it goes out of the kitchen to patrons.

"And now I see guys and they're 32 and they're not doing the pass anymore and they have a chef de cuisine and it's like 'I'm past it all now.' You know what? You've got to stay in the game," he said in an interview last month at the culinary conference Terroir Symposium.

McEwan, now 58, stays on top of his game running his company, the McEwan Group with a staff of 500, which includes catering and the upcoming opening of a second store in downtown Toronto.

"You have to always be messaging, always be talking to your people, always creating culture and then refining the food, refining the conversation," he added.

CP: Does food television give viewers a false sense of the business?

McEwan: It's very strenuous work. It's long hours, longer than most hours, tougher conditions. You're working weekends. Your service can last five hours and that's rigorous. It's athletic. It's hard — if you're in a busy restaurant.

But then I think there's a lot of places for young kids to go other than the restaurant business, so getting into food styling, they're getting into the catering business, they're getting into institutional work....

To be a mainline chef in a top-flight restaurant it's a long journey, a long journey to get there. And I don't think a lot of these young people understand what it's about.

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CP: Were you influenced by producers about how you would choose a winner in "Top Chef Canada"?

McEwan: I was all about the best chef winning. It was always about the cooking for me. It was never about anything else.

You do have television colliding with the professionalism of cooking, what's going to sell, what drives ratings, how do you get broad viewership and now the whole platform is changing. Cable television is changing. You have Netflix. You have the Internet, people doing a lot of video clips on the Internet now. It's like this molten foundation that's trying to find a new direction.

Do they window-dress for television? Sure, they do. They do that in every aspect of television, but having said that, at the same time it's been very good for the chefs. It's been very good for the industry and now we're at this point of change and flex in food television and it's going to be fun to watch and see what the direction is, like where will it land in two or three years.

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CP: Have you ever faced criticism in social media with respect to the decisions you made on television?

McEwan: No, I never had any blowback, none at all. I think I was always pretty measured about what I said. I didn't go up one side of a person and down the other. If I didn't like it I told them, and if I liked it I gushed about it.

People thought that I was a tough judge but fair.

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Answers have been edited and condensed.

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