Mark McEwan recently encountered two young boys in his store. They were ten and twelve years old, and on their days off, they bake soufflés.
“I was playing street ball when I was that age,” the celebrity chef laughs.
McEwan is very aware of the shift in foodie culture, a landscape that has changed drastically over the course of his career. Today known for Top Chef Canada, Chopped: Canada, and a string of groundbreaking restaurants in Toronto, McEwan was something of an early bloomer on the scene. Eschewing the footsteps of his father, a crooner who sang with Sinatra before transitioning into television production (“I was not gifted with a good voice,” McEwan chuckles), young McEwan intended to go to hotel school. At the age of nineteen, he planned to first find a hotel that would allow him to work as an apprentice for a year before furthering his studies. But this gap year turned into the discovery of his culinary calling. “I got into the kitchen and never looked back — it was just a great fit for me.”
Forty years later, McEwan is attacking the industry with no less vigor. He opened his second gourmet grocer —named McEwan—last year in downtown Toronto, a nice appendage of the shop’s midtown flagship. He has also returned to his role as a celebrity judge on Chopped: Canada, now in its fourth season. And reality television is by no means easy, as McEwan learned in his role as head judge on Top Chef Canada, a series that concluded in 2014 following a dip in ratings.
McEwan has been fairly open about the learning curve and takeaways from the show’s missteps.
“With the best of intentions…sometimes things can get a little carried away. Where does the game show end and where does the food competition begin?” says McEwan. “For me it was very, very important that Top Chef Canada be a pure, raw food competition — with the best caliber chefs, with great food products so we can have great results.” The story in reality television, he explains, will find itself when the focus is on the food. With that kind of competitive tension, and those kinds of personalities, there is no need to fabricate drama. “That’s exactly the way we shot [Chopped: Canada] this year, and I think people are going to love it. The food quality was super high, the caliber of the chefs was high, and there were just great challenges with great results. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.”
The same rule applies to McEwan’s own performance on the show. He is adamant about maintaining his professional integrity; he is, first and foremost, a chef. “I never fake anything. I refuse to,” he says. “I call it exactly the way I see it and the best chef always wins, and I don’t do anything for effect on the show.” Of course, certain things may be enhanced in editing—long stares and the like, which he describes as a sort of necessary “prop” that producers use to create drama—but McEwan is unequivocally himself. “I don’t misbehave for ratings. That’ll never happen with me.”
You might say that McEwan has no time to misbehave. Between his grocers and restaurants, he is the boss of over five hundred employees. “I look for the boy scout in everyone,” he says of his leadership methods. “I try to be fair. I don’t play favorites, and anybody who puts honest effort in gets rewarded.
So what exactly does a celebrity chef, with a small empire to run, eat himself?
“I eat what I cook in the restaurants,” says McEwan, but admits that he often feels the need to stop cooking when the day is over and leave the work — well, at work. “My wife cooks, or we go out, which is usually the case. We’re always dining somewhere.”
One can imagine that it would be a tricky thing to get caught up in overconsumption in the industry, particularly when any meal could potentially be justified as field research. “But how much foie gras do you really want to put in your body?” says McEwan. His passion for food is rooted in a passion for health, and this is reflected in his diet. “I eat really well,” he says. “Fish, a lot of plant based vegetable consumption on my part. I try not to drink too much, live clean, don’t smoke, exercise — all that boring stuff. You have to wake up in the morning and feel good about what you’re doing.”
As one of the country’s leading and most-recognized chefs, McEwan is often jokingly asked what he would eat for his last meal. “Most likely, if I knew I was going to perish, I wouldn’t have much of an appetite,” he laughs. “I’d probably have a double martini.”
Chopped: Canada airs on Food Network Canada on Saturdays at 9pm E/T.