For 40 years the kitchen has been Mark McEwan’s world. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, he came to Toronto to attend George Brown College. At age 25 he became the youngest executive chef at a top-starred North American hotel, the Sutton Place.
In 1990, he opened his first restaurant — North 44. Today he owns five restaurants, as well as McEwan, a gourmet food emporium with two locations in Toronto. To his credit, he has written two cookbooks, has hosted his own TV show, and was selected as head judge on Top Chef Canada.
McEwan is probably the coolest chef you’ll ever meet. There’s no room in the heat of his kitchen for bad behaviour or sensationalism.
Today, at an age when many chefs have burned out, he exudes boundless energy, contagious enthusiasm, and the sense that he is still moving forward and having fun doing it. He and I chatted about his career and travel highlights.
Vacay.ca: After graduating from culinary school, you didn’t return home. What was the attraction of Toronto?
McEwan: Even back then, Toronto was pretty vibrant compared to Buffalo and it was growing. I never looked anywhere else and I’ve always been happy to call Toronto home.
Vacay.ca: How does travel influence your life and work?
McEwan: I have always had a real appreciation for other cultures. Especially Italy. It is my wife Roxanne’s and my favourite out-of-country destination. It never gathers dust for us. I love the food, how Italians argue about it and how opinion-based those arguments are. New York is always a hot spot that I enjoy and then happy to come home. I love to ski and sail so in Canada, for me, BC is spectacular. There is an amazing food scene here. So many people enjoy nature and are really active outdoors. And at the coast, the ocean lends a different character to the land mass. Then there’s Whistler that for me rivals any ski area in the world.
Vacay.ca: Where are you travelling these days?
McEwan: Roxanne and I are going to Tuscany in October for 10 days. We’ll stay at a small hotel or little inn, take day trips, eat in little restaurants and visit Florence, which we love. It will be a time to relax. On the job, my days are full. I don’t need a jam-packed schedule when we are on vacation.
Vacay.ca: Is there a destination that you look to for culinary inspiration?
McEwan: Anywhere I find it. I’m pretty broad-based. That’s the beauty of Google where you can find multiple options from around the world. It is such a bonus to be able to watch another chef from a different background assemble a dish. All I have to do is to see something physically and I know how to do it mentally.
Vacay.ca: How would you describe your cooking?
McEwan: The best quality ingredients and not being too serious about the presentation. I love the comfort aspect of food. My style is steeped in the European tradition and the older I get, the more I become myself.
Vacay.ca: What advice would you give someone wanting to take a food-themed trip?
McEwan: Include a hands-on school. Get in a class where you get your hands dirty. You’ll find terrific schools in France, Italy, Portugal and Asia — just to mention a few.
Vacay.ca: What has been the highlight of your career to date?
McEwan: Longevity in a career where personalities come and go. Forty years is a long time to work in this field and I am still going strong. I have a good team. My son Eric has joined me in the company. He runs the retail stores. He is very good with clients and an equally good sounding board for me. There are still exciting things ahead.
Vacay.ca: How would you like to be remembered?
McEwan: Roxanne says she is going to engrave my tombstone with, “He didn’t do drive-thru.”