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Calgary’s Darren MacLean Brings Exotic Flavours to Canada’s Heartland

Chef Darren MacLean has sparked much interest among Calgarians for his creative Japanese-inspired cuisine. (Photo supplied by Darren MacLean)

Darren MacLean, one of Canada’s most acclaimed and outspoken chefs, owns not one, but four restaurants in Calgary, his home city. Shokunin, his izakaya-style (think Japanese version of a tapas bar focusing on chicken and grilled meats) restaurant, has won national acclaim.

In 2019, MacLean and chef Duncan Ly opened Greenfish, a sustainably sourced sushi takeout and delivery restaurant. In 2020, MacLean opened two new restaurants. NUPO, an omakase sushi experience (the sushi equivalent of a chef’s tasting menu), featuring plant- and fish-based dishes. NUPO is about “Japanese food — serious sustainable fish and organic plants in a fun, sexy atmosphere,” he says. EIGHT, is a discreet, immersive cross-cultural experience for just eight guests, hidden behind NUPO. Seated at a kitchen bar, guests  enjoy a  tasting menu based on local ingredients, and the people who make up the Canadian mosaic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, MacLean’s restaurants are among the many in Calgary and across the country offering takeout and delivery options. He’s also among the restaurateurs championing the #stayathomewinthewar hashtag to help promote physical distancing to slow the spread of the disease. EIGHT has also teamed with neighbour Mari Bakeshop to offer a limited number of takeout meals for those who enjoy multi-course experiences with their in-home dining.

MacLean took some time from his busy restaurant life for a chat with Vacay.ca about his culinary career and travel influences.

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Whole fish taco is served with a variety of condiments at NUPO, located at Calgary’s Alt Hotel East Village. (Photo courtesy of NUPO)

Vacay.ca: Where did the inspiration for NUPO originate?

Darren MacLean: With my mother. She encouraged me to delve into the power of plants as a means to promote healthy eating and sustainability. My mother has been my inspiration my entire life and the name and the spirit of wellness at NUPO is in honour of her.

Vacay.ca: You have become renowned for your passion for sustainability. How do you define a sustainable dish?

DM: For me, there are four things. Is it good for the customer? Is it good for the environment? Does it contribute to the local economy? And is it delicious? If you can answer “yes” to three out of four of these questions, then you are moving in a sustainable direction.Local doesn’t always taste better, but is it better for the wellbeing of the community.

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EIGHT seats as many diners as its name suggests, creating an intimate culinary experience that is overseen by chef Darren MacLean. (Photo courtesy of EIGHT)

Vacay.ca: You have spent extensive time working and travelling in Japan. What is it about  the country’s cuisine that inspires you?

DM:  I have been obsessed with Japanese food since I was in my 20s. I ate it all the time. But until I went there, I really didn’t know anything. I discovered that Japanese cuisine is simple, and it is all about the details.

Vacay.ca: Some chefs see being Canadian as a disadvantage. You see it as an advantage. Can you explain that?

DM: Our ethnic mosaic inspires me. This is the foundation of our national food cuisine. 

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Vacay.ca: How do you define that cuisine?

DM: I don’t like to define it because it is still being developed. It depends on the ingredients, on the person who is cooking them, and it takes a tremendous amount of time for that cuisine to evolve. Pasta, for example, came from China, but it was the Italians that developed it. Quebecois cuisine is quite well defined because Quebec  is older than the rest of Canada. I think it will take 200 years for Canadian cuisine to be fully developed.

Vacay.ca: In 2018 you were Canada’s sole contender and a finalist on Netflix’s global cooking competition, “The Final Table”. How has that experience impacted your career? 

DM:  It was the best experience of my life. It was very humbling to be judged by the best in the world and to be found worthy. I learned how amazingly talented other chefs are and I learned a lot about myself.

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Japanese influences abound at Darren MacLean’s restaurants, including in this vegan ramen dish with cashew milk and mushroom broth served with glass noodles, mushroom chasu, and crispy sunchoke chips. (Photo courtesy of Darren MacLean)

Vacay.ca:  Is there any one chef who has especially influenced you?

DM:  I have been fortunate to have many mentors, but none have influenced my philosophy of sustainability and foraging as much as Yoshihiro Narisawa, one of Japan’s most revered chefs. I met him seven or eight years ago on a trip to Japan. His restaurant, Narisawa, has two Michelin stars and has been named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world.

Vacay.ca: How do you showcase Canadian cuisine to international audiences?

DM: By ensuring I make the best food possible so that I provide a lasting memory. The world knows the value of Canadian foods. We need to tell our own stories, within the country and outside.

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Yoshihiro Narisawa was an important mentor for Calgary chef Darren MacLean, who apprenticed with the Japanese master. (Photo supplied by Darren MacLean)

Vacay.ca: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

DM: Being brought up by a single mom, I went to work in a kitchen at age 12 to help out financially. I didn’t  like it and never dreamed of being a chef.  But I loved food and fell in love with cooking when I went to Stratford, Ontario’s chef school.

Vacay.ca: If you weren’t working in Calgary,  in which other Canadian city would you like to have a restaurant? 

DM: Montreal. Because it is a city that loves food more than any other city in the country. It is Canada’s culinary capital in many ways. There is such a depth and history of Canada in the  ingredients being used.

Vacay.ca: Where do you like to travel in Canada?

DM: I love Vancouver – my first visit was a time of many firsts. The first time I saw the ocean, the first time I had sushi on warm rice, the first time exploring a world city and a fleeting, silly first love in my 20s. I love PEI and the giant bridge to get there. Everyone should drive that bridge in their lifetime. The wonderful culture connects the land and farming to the sea and fishing. And Toronto — if you can’t travel the world, you can eat the world here.

Vacay.ca: What kind of a traveller are you?

DM: Super light. I like to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain. Get your picture taken in front of the Louvre and then go and explore on your own. I walk. I like to get uncomfortable. I like to be challenged.

Vacay.ca: What is your best travel advice?

DM: Even if you only have three or four days in a new place, don’t rush the experience and don’t try to see everything. See the one thing you want and let it linger.

Vacay.ca: For you, what is the best thing about travel?

DM:Anonymity. If you allow yourself the opportunity, you get to know the people.

Vacay.ca:  What would you like to be remembered for?

DM: That I enhanced someone’s life by creating really great food and providing a really good time.

Vacay.ca: Happiness is. …

DM: Connecting with other people. Being content with yourself so that you can put others in front.