For Mark McEwan, who’s dedicated a lifetime to culinary perfection, whipping up a work-of-art needs nothing more than a spatula and some quality ingredients.
As I’m chaperoned into a private second-floor office in Toronto’s newest gourmet grocery store mcewan, a wide-grinned face throws a subtle stop into my path. The tall figure is casually decked out in jeans and a blazer, making him almost unrecognizable to audiences of The Food Network’s The Heat, who might expect the no-nonsense chef in a white coat. Sitting down for some premium-brand Chasers orange juice, I’m told: “You’re absolutely drinking liquid gold,” as McEwan recounts his first boyhood glass at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The conversation evokes a growing curiosity about his younger years, forcing me to ask about McEwan’s earliest memory of food. “My grandmothers were ladies that lived in the countryside, and they were used to feeding 16 people for lunch and dinner,” he says. “They preserved, pickled, made jams, little ginger pears, soft meringues, and macerated berries with ice cream on top,” the chef recalls, admitting that his favourite delight was strawberry angel food cake.
Since his childhood, McEwan has become one of the country’s top gastronomic moguls. After starting his career in 1976 at Toronto’s Constellation Hotel, he ascended the cooking ranks faster than smoke rising from a cedar plank. McEwan’s simple approach to the art of cooking was likely to blame. “If you go to Italy and look at the cuisine, you find Italians aren’t fancy, but they have a real love and beautiful connection with food,” he says, pouring juice into his Murano glass. “And they don’t screw around with it. They put it out there the way it’s supposed to be.” The legendary chef is well known for his fine dining Toronto restaurants North 44, Bymark, and The Hazelton Hotel’s One.
Offering a personally guided tour, McEwan leads me downstairs into his Epicurean-style market. Open for just a week, its spacious aisles bustle with curiously amazed shoppers. A gourmet coffee bar comes into view, enhanced with French-inspired quiche, Sicilian flatbreads, and Japanese sushi chefs ruling their countertops like ancient shogun. Nearby, a hot-plated display boasts a truffle mac and cheese, seven-bean soup, braised brisket, chicken pot pie, and Buffalo baked beans – a tribute to McEwan’s birthplace. “But this is what I really get excited about,” he says, pointing to house-made rabbit terrine. “You can’t find it anywhere else. It doesn’t exist.”
Amidst smells of heavenly cuisine and sounds of guests’ congratulations, I notice an intensely passionate man. At the end of his day, McEwan admits to sitting on a terrace with his wife, “chatting about the day and enjoying a good bottle of white wine.” And when it comes to living la dolce vita, his secret is simple: “It’s fun to make dreams happen,” he says about his store – a conversation piece for years until it came true. “Now I sit back, look at it, and it’s pretty cool. For me, that’s the way I like to live.”