Mark McEwan was Toronto’s first celebrity chef in the familiar sense. Others are easy to recognize from television or put their name on a restaurant, but right now he’s the one doing all of these at the same time.
I had the chance to catch up with McEwan and chat about the rewards and challenges that come with running a culinary operation with such a varied collection of activities.
As was the case for all chefs from his generation, McEwan started on the bottom rung of a restaurant kitchen. “I wanted a year off school,” he says. “And had cooked for a few years. It was a way to make ends meet, so I did my apprenticeship and went to Europe.”
He graduated from George Brown in 1979 and was clearly a rising star by the time he was hired as executive sous chef at the Sutton Place Hotel in 1981. He was promoted to executive chef relatively quickly and stayed at the Sutton Place until 1985. “That’s where I learned to run an office,” he says, “I was a hands-on chef, working hard.”
The 1990s saw him open his own restaurants – Pronto, Marketta, and Terra have all closed, but North 44 remains an important part of his restaurant group. But success didn’t come without its challenges — during the stock market crash, McEwan sold his car and fiancee’s ring to finance North 44.
Despite hard times and bumps in the road, McEwan has survived and prevailed as a top chef, business owner, and culinary innovator. When asked about being the first chef to cross over into the luxury grocery business, he proudly notes: “very few chefs owned their own restaurant. I was the first chef in Toronto to own multiple restaurants.”
This prominence made him a natural choice for one of Food Network Canada’s first behind-the-scenes restaurant shows.
“There was never a script for The Heat,” he maintains. “It had to be a real client and a spontaneous day.”
If you remember the episode from the first season whose central conflict was how to deal with a malfunctioning cottage grill, I think you’ll buy that the show’s challenges weren’t contrived.
McEwan made the same level of realism and a focus on cooking a requirement when he was approached about host-judging Top Chef Canada. “I’ll do it,” he recalls saying, “if it’s a real, legitimate competition.”
When his schedule allows, McEwan makes travel a priority to relax and seek out culinary inspiration. What is his favourite destination? “I’ve traveled to Italy more times than anywhere else.” He explains that his wife, Roxanne, “particularly loves Italian food; she’s a little bit fussy.” He still remembers that first revelatory taste of “Neapolitan pizza with San Marzano tomatoes and great olive oil.”
Perhaps this love of Italy inspired McEwan to open Fabbrica — the youngest child of the McEwan gang of restaurants. This uptown bistro seeks to create an authentic Italian cuisine, with many ingredients are sourced from Italy — including the sauce’s Roma tomatoes and flour hand-milled in Naples for pasta and pizza dough.
On our brunch tasting menu, it’s a feast of Fabbrica Benny with poached eggs, guanciale & fontina crumpet, prociutto and hollandaise sauce ($16); garganelli pasta with swiss chard, asparagus, fava beans, and pine nuts ($19); lemon ricotta pancakes with Ontario blueberries and whipped mascarpone ($15).There’s also the innovative Matteo panini ($10) that brings back a childhood classic: peanut butter and banana sandwiches, with bananas, Nutella and peanut butter smoothed onto toast.
But when asked what food is the most difficult to translate into a Toronto restaurant, McEwan pauses and offers, “Rural cooking is hard for a restaurant guest to connect with.”
Perhaps diners have to be out of their normal routine and near the source of rustic ingredients to see “how fabulous a simple plate of pasta with a ragu of meat can be.”
Back in Toronto, decor redesigns and renovations were undertaken at both North 44 and Bymark this year. When asked if that means that the menu also changed, McEwan says, “Do you tweak it? Absolutely,” but also noted that valued, regular customers are vigorously attached to established menu items, especially at North 44.
When McEwan jumped into high-end food retail and opened McEwans at the Shops at Don Mills, he believe he was ahead of the pack again.
“With grocery, we squarely underestimated the complexity,” he says. “But we rose to the challenge.”
What’s next for this gutsy chef? McEwan’s company will focus on opening a new grocery store later this year — this time in downtown Toronto. They get the keys for the 5,000 square-foot space in the TD Centre on November 1 and hope to be open by April 1, 2015. The new location will be smaller than the original McEwans at the Shops at Don Mills and will “lean to the prepared side” and “have fewer grocery aisles,” McEwan says.