Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — The night Beau MacMillan first cooked for Wayne Gretzky, he was the one who was given Hall of Fame treatment.
“We were in the kitchen finishing up and Wayne comes in and says, ‘You guys have to join us.’ We declined but he insisted, saying, ‘You guys don’t understand. If you don’t join us, my wife’s going to kill me.’ That’s the kind of guy he is, just very decent and good-natured. We went and he and Janet had the two of us who cooked the meal sit at the head of the table,” recalled MacMillan, who was the Gretzky family’s personal chef during the Great One’s days as part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, a tenure that began in 2000. “They’re amazing people. Totally down to earth and not at all what you would expect from a celebrity like that.”
The stories of Gretzky’s grace and chivalry are almost as legendary as his feats on the ice. MacMillan’s account that he shared with me blends in with so many other tales of No. 99’s sense of decency. The chef offered some insight into what it was like to be that close to one of Canada’s icons last week when he visited Toronto to help promote Scottsdale, Arizona as a travel destination. Cooking for the Gretzkys, sometimes meant cooking with Paulina and her brothers, too. “The kids would come into the kitchen and help make ravioli and other things,” said MacMillan, a superstar in his own right.
Best known in the culinary world for beating Bobby Flay on an episode of Iron Chef America, MacMillan is also the chef at elements, a restaurant in the ritzy Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain resort in Scottsdale. The upscale city next door to Phoenix is filled with golf courses, a famous nightlife scene and an increasing number of fine-dining options.
“It’s definitely changed. Ten years ago, it was really just a meat-and-potatoes-type of town, but people’s palates are becoming more diverse, and the chefs there are really focused on using more of the local ingredients,” MacMillan pointed out. “In the past, Americans were used to getting whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, but that’s not practical any more, and not really the way the world is going. We’ve got so much great stuff in our own backyard. We want to focus on that.”
Canadians aren’t a tough sell for the sunshine of Arizona. In fact, the members of the Phoenix and Scottsdale tourism boards said residents of Canada’s largest city “stay longer and spend more” than any other demographic of visitor to the Grand Canyon State. That statistic alone was enough for several of them to head north in February to make a pitch, which smartly included some hockey flavour.
A Boston Bruins fan, MacMillan said he enjoys coming to Canada because he has roots in Montreal and an uncle in Toronto. During his recent visit, he dropped in on Chuck Hughes’ Garde Manger in Montreal and then cooked with one of Toronto’s top chefs, Paul Boehmer. The duo combined on tantalizing plates for a media luncheon at Boehmer, the relaxed Ossington Street restaurant with an open, airy ambience and tightly run kitchen that turns out excellent dishes on a regular basis.
MacMillan made a citrus-cured Kurobuta pork appetizer that was tender and succulent, matched with pumpkin seed and ginger vinaigrette, while Boehmer delivered a thick rainbow trout fillet evenly cooked and served with an inventive vegetable root cake.
“Canada’s got some great chefs,” MacMillan said. “I always appreciate it when I come up here.”
More About Visiting Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona
Round-trip Flights: Strangely, round-trip airfares departing from major Canadian cities (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal) all cost roughly $1,000. Sadly, you can save a significant amount of money if you drive to the closest airport on the United States’ side of the border.
Where to Stay: The Phoenix and Scottsdale region has upscale and historic hotels, many of which are notable for their architecture. I’ve stayed at the Arizona Biltmore, heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and exceptionally comfortable.
Where to Dine: Beau MacMillan’s elements has to be on your list, but so should Pizzeria Bianco, the famed and very good and reasonably priced establishment in Phoenix.
More About Boehmer Restaurant in Toronto
Location: 93 Ossington Avenue, Toronto, ON (see map below)
Hours: 5:30 pm til late, Tuesday to Saturday; drop in just to see some of the artwork near the back, including a vintage, custom-built motorcycle.
Menu Prices: $20-$39 for main courses, which include a mouth-watering veal chop with lobster mashed potatoes ($39).
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