Mediaplanet: What inspired you to pursue a career in the culinary arts?

Mark McEwan:  I worked in a couple of restaurants during high school and I enjoyed food. I started to read about the food scene in Europe, and I had planned to go to hotel school but decided instead I wanted to take a year off, so on a lark I signed up for an apprenticeship in the kitchen. It turned out to be the perfect choice for me and has worked out really well. 

MP: What are your thoughts on the local food movement in Ontario?

MM: We have an amazing food culture in Ontario. The local food movement from the supply side is getting better every single year. If you go back fifteen years we didn’t really have one, it was pretty basic. Today there is a real food culture across the country and a lot of thought, time and effort going into growing product, raising animals, and creating specialized products. 

MP: Why is food traceability important?

MM: You want to know where your food comes from, especially from a chemical standpoint. It’s very important that you can trace it back. I only buy the best products, whether it’s for the store for retail, or for the restaurants. There is a heightened level of awareness for what you’re feeding your children in terms of processed food, and what that actually means. Everyone is concerned about their health and essentially, you are what you eat.

"I buy Ontario grown as soon as I can and as much as I can."

MP: Where do you draw your inspiration for your restaurants’ menus?

MM: It’s through a lot of conversation amongst the chefs and managers. We follow the seasons. When I cook for my clients I like to cook food they enjoy, so they are ultimately the filter for me. When I hit the right notes with my clients I know I’m doing the right thing. 

MP: What is your favourite dish to cook?

MM: That’s a hard question. I have tons of favourites! I love our octopus dishes that we have in the restaurants, I love taking ricotta cheese and making gnocchi out of it—I love the Italian kitchen. Favourites go up and down with the seasons. It’s fun to just work with food, I love the process of it. 

MP: How can parents get their kids excited about food and cooking?

MM: It’s all through exposure. Don’t do the lazy thing and buy frozen chicken fingers, frozen corn and give them baby carrots to eat. Actually cook at home. When they’re young, braise lentils and serve it with salmon and yogurt sauce and get them used to this kind of food. If you bring your kids up through the first five years on store-bought prepared and processed food, that’s what they’re going to be used to. But if they start eating branzino and octopus when they’re two, they’ll think it’s perfectly normal. That’s what I did with my kids. 

MP: What is one action people can take in their daily lives to make cooking enjoyable? 

MM: If you pick things that are fairly straightforward to make, you can eat a very good diet and it doesn’t take long to prepare. You can do one-pot or one-pan meals very easily, whether it be a piece of fish, a vegetable, a starch component - all cooked in one pan. Just don’t overcomplicate it. If you can buy certain things from a store – my store has lots of prepared food – or maybe you’re just making one aspect of the dinner, you’re contributing to it but you’re not doing it from beginning to end.

You’ll end up spending a lot of money buying a lot of groceries and thinking you’re going to cook everything from scratch. You’ll always have to buy more than what you need and then don’t use it. Sometimes buying prepared food and then one simple item like a piece of fish to cook on a barbeque is really the smart way to do it.

MP: How has Ontario’s seasonal agriculture influenced your dishes?

MM: Heavily, I buy Ontario grown as soon as I can and as much as I can. The unfortunate thing is that it’s a short season. Raspberries are here and then gone in two weeks. Strawberries maybe last a month. When the wild harvest foods come in, we try to buy them in abundance and put them away. We’ll put a lot away and preserve it and make chutneys, jams, things we can use throughout the year just because the season is tight. When it’s there we have to take advantage. 

MP: Do you preserve a lot of foods?

MM: We do. If you go to the store and see all the preserved foods we have, it’s pretty amazing. All of my grandmother’s recipes are there, and fun things like chili sauces and barbeque sauces that are really tasty and wholesome.  

MP: What are your thoughts on greenhouse grown vegetables?

MM: I think they’re quite excellent and the amazing thing about hydroponics is they use absolutely no chemicals. It’s one of the cleanest products you can eat. In southern Ontario along the north side of Lake Erie, they grow hot house tomatoes that we otherwise wouldn’t have in the winter. They’re actually quite fantastic.

MP: What is your favourite kitchen tool and why?

MM: I would say my Vitamix— probably one of the greatest things out there.

MP: What exciting things do you have coming up?

MM: We have the new store [McEwan] opening in TD Centre right next to Bymark in the concourse. It should be open end of June and we are very excited to be downtown.