I had the opportunity to sit with Chef Mark McEwan for his Valentine's Day dinner menu "sneak peek" at Fabbrica Restaurant in Toronto. As a result, not only did I gain a superior new food experience, but also, important tips on success that every chef should know, and an update on the forthcoming Top Chef Canada Season 3!
With culinary greatness running in his family of farmers, Chef McEwan grew up with large and exceptional quality dinners that his grandmothers would prepare. With a continued love of fresh food and agriculture, he made it clear that he isn't afraid to get dirty as a gardener. "Yes I have fancy clients,[but] I'm still a simple kid born in Buffalo," he said with a warm smile while we sat and chatted in Fabbrica, right before one of the most classic, heartfelt Italian meals I've ever experienced. I just had to know how one could handle the expectations of McEwan Group (with restaurants such as Bymark, North 44 and One), the upscale grocery business McEwan, and being a judge on Top Chef Canada amongst many other things?
"It's a divide," Chef McEwan said. "You sort of run the gauntlet between being a chef and being the owner of multiple businesses, so there's a bit of a leap of faith there. As for doing many things at once I've always been built that way, I don't like sitting still for very long." When it comes to task management, he admitted, "I am very old school that way": He uses a traditional method of writing down all of his tasks "with a 19 cent blue Bic pen." He added: "I have a hit list for every single operation that I have; a to-do list. Every single day I redo each list according to what needs to be done. I never let it go."
Success definitely did not come overnight, considering that he started working in the restaurant industry when he was only 16 years old. "When I got into the industry I did not have anyone guiding me," Chef McEwan said. "No one showed me the ropes. I went into it blind." He also described the impressive amount of support he has received from his wife Roxanne over the years. "She never, ever made me feel bad about not being home," he said. "I wasn't out gallivanting, but she was never the type to cry or challenge me about it. Been together 32 years."
To sum up the secret to success, Chef McEwan made it clear, "If you're going to be a good chef you're going to have to like the heat of the battle." Speaking of battles, Season 3 of Top Chef Canada is fast approaching us, so I asked how successful chefs deal with "the heat." He answered, "A very average chef will fall under pressure. Ask yourself, 'what can I do with these ingredients?' while putting a twist on it. You can move within your comfort zone. It is also important knowing what you're good at and knowing what you're not good at." Chef McEwan clarified that on Top Chef Canada, he is a fair judge. "At the end of the day, it's not about you or me, it's about the dish." So how does he deal with criticism when dealing with clients? "You gotta roll with it, don't take it personally, just fix it right away. "
Chef McEwan also agreed to let us all in on a few hints of what to expect on Top Chef Season 3. "We have some really badass chefs this year and the audience is going to be very pleasantly surprised at how wild and crazy they are! Lisa, Shereen and myself are also all getting better at being judges, and we are able to encourage these chefs enough to get their best work out of them".