On Your Mark

Photo By George Whiteside

The third season of Top Chef Canada kicks off Monday night. Renowned Chef Mark McEwan will continue as head judge. Jacob Richler caught up with McEwan as he launched his new food emporium at the Shops at Don Mills in 2010.

Recently opening a new restaurant in Toronto and releasing his first cookbook, Mark McEwan is on top of his game. When McEwan meets foodie Jacob Richler at his new food emporium, the result is a feast for the senses.

Mark McEwan, chef and proprietor of an enviably successful and unrepentantly posh trio of Toronto restaurants named North 44, Bymark and One, is — uncharacteristically — showing a touch of strain. To be precise, one gets the distinct impression that even though he is groomed and dressed for the part, he would not mind it one bit if the television crew presently filming his every move for the third season of his hit Food Network Canada show The Heat would just go away for a while or at least let him take his next sip of coffee unrecorded for posterity.

But there is no chance of that because, in about three minutes, at 8 a.m. sharp, the doors will open on his newest project, an eponymous six-million-and-some-odd-dollar fine food emporium, which occupies nearly 22,000 square feet of the spiffy new Shops at Don Mills.

McEwan, the store, has been keenly anticipated across the city for many months. Finally, at the appointed hour, the concealing brown paper that for the duration of its construction has masked the inside of the store’s floor-to-ceiling windows is dramatically peeled away. But from our interior vantage, this does not reveal the expected view of the concrete piazza outside.

Instead, we see a row of eager, prospective customers — most of them of an age when this time of day has long since been unburdened with concerns of getting to the office on time. Their collective noses are all but pressed against the glass and, as they abandon that position to make their way for the newly opened doors, McEwan clocks that his first problem of opening day as a retailer is going to be a little different from what has happened at his restaurant openings. This time, it’s not going to be kitchen equipment or wait staff failure, an unforeseen shortage of champers or nefarious goings on in the handicapped bathroom but, rather, fingerprints and misty breath all over his recently polished store windows. The window washing crew is promptly redeployed.

“Openings are all the same,” McEwan observes as he moves on to the next thing. “It’s just the details that are different.”

With its windows uncovered, the store is flooded with early morning sunshine, and it shimmers enticingly on the seamless chromed trim and gently curved glass of the nifty custom-built Hussmann display refrigerators — and even on the floor, which is cast from a stylishly rugged, polished concrete called RetroPlate. The ceilings are conspicuously high, and the walkways and aisles luxuriously wide. When customers make their entrance, they first pass — sensibly — a coffee bar and next an array of prepared foods. The immaculate designed contents are striking: a fridge to one side holds an eye-catching pizza decorated with sliced heritage tomatoes of every conceivable colour and a scattering of fresh vivid green basil leaves. Another is full of oven-bronzed roasts, each resting in a shiny, new stainless steel All-Clad roasting pan.

At centre, a display of crisp salads and a most enticing selection of sandwiches on crisp baguettes, wrapped as they should be in small paper vests instead of the customary soggifying cellophane wrap. Further in, one finds a meat counter displaying a magnificent variety of well-marbled and obviously well-aged crimson-tinged steaks, as well as racks of young, whey-fed pork, skin on, and other essentials.

Of more particular interest on this promising warm summer morning, the fish counter is full of delicacies rarely seen in these parts: say, a mound of exquisitely plump fresh whole Dover sole (caught wild in the icy waters off the coast of Holland) and a few sides of that distinctively orange Tasmanian ocean trout (from a farming operation originally established with the exclusive goal of satisfying the great Japanese-Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda).

I make my way onward, past an expansive cheese selection rich with the best artisanal offerings from Quebec and then a produce section where the fresh morels beckon. I finally wind my way back to the coffee bar to collect an espresso and a croissant, settling at the nearby white marble counter to contemplate the burgeoning crowd. They are clearly not McEwan restaurant regulars — to be blunt, many are actually wearing baseball caps. But then, one suspects that their cars can accommodate a lot more groceries than the cocktail hour crowd from One can squeeze into their Ferraris and Porsches. And if McEwan had meant to open a store intended for that exclusive set, it would be a quarter this size.

“I had a serious panic-attack-holy-shit moment late last night,” McEwan confides quietly, as he leans up against the counter alongside me. “I was looking around at all this produce, all this food we’d made, and I suddenly thought to myself, ‘What if no one comes?’ ”

But as is usual for him, they did: it has barely gone a quarter to nine, and there must easily be a hundred customers in the place. And even though this is hardly shopping prime time, they are not just browsing but filling their baskets and carts. At this early hour, the hot prepared foods that were conceived to be one of the store’s main attractions — in many ways, its raison d’etre — are yet to be on display for lunch, so I head upstairs to the showcase kitchen to see what’s cooking. There, amid the expected commotion, I find McEwan’s chef Ivana Raca — at 25, already a veteran of two of McEwan restaurant kitchens and fingered to run the show at the store.

Gesturing at an open can of Red Bull on the shelf above, she volunteers that she was up cooking all night — along with the rest of the staff. “But it wasn’t nearly as hard as the opening at One,” she admits and then walks me through the opening day lunch offerings to which she is now applying finishing touches. There’s a large pot of tomato sauce — “Roxy’s tomato sauce,” named for Roxanne, McEwan’s wife of 23 years — gently simmering, pregnant with veal and ricotta meatballs. And alongside, chili con carne, curried chicken, roasted tomato and fennel soup, braised red cabbage, slow-roasted pork belly, duck confit, Hong Kong-style pork ribs, stewed veal and roast fingerling potatoes. A little something for everyone, one might say.

Or a lot for me, I think to myself, succumbing to the aroma of it all.

Back downstairs, I find McEwan at the front door, talking to developer Peter Cohen, who with Bruce Greenberg built the Hazelton Hotel, home to One restaurant and its corollary room service. McEwan is pointing out a nearby window and across the street at an as-yet empty space in the new mall. “That’s the space we’re looking at,” McEwan says of a second store location.

That’s right: McEwan, the store, has been open for an hour, and McEwan, the chef-entrepreneur, is planning his next move.

The anchor of McEwan’s burgeoning food empire is North 44, a defiantly upscale uptown restaurant that McEwan opened a restaurant-eternity ago back in 1990, after first garnering local attention as executive chef at the Sutton Place hotel and then Pronto, where he was also part-owner. North 44 represented his first go at being both sole owner and chef.

Gourmet magazine ranked it the best restaurant in Toronto for three years running. North 44 begat North 44 Caters, then came Bymark and, a year later, its much celebrated cheeseburger topped with shaved truffle, sautéed king mushroom and brie de meaux, which arrived on the market at $32.95.

“Next I’m going to do a $35 souvlaki,” he said to me at the time.

But instead, in 2008, after a two-decade absence, McEwan returned to the hotel business to open One in the new Hazelton Hotel in Yorkville. It single-handedly upped the local ante for hotel food with an ingredient-driven concept (vaguely inspired by Tom Colicchio’s Craft in Manhattan), wherein the tasting menu and all their associated pretensions were completely rejected in favour of absolute customer choice — in everything, right down to the vegetables that accompanied your fish. That, the nifty decor, stunning patio and Dom Pérignon at $95 a glass resonated perfectly with the underserviced and over-budgeted Yorkville set: in its first year, One surpassed McEwan’s rosiest sales predictions by some 25 per cent.

This sort of track record obviously attracts suitors; many a developer has invited McEwan to bid on space for another restaurant on their site. But in McEwan’s assessment, three high-end restaurants in one Toronto-sized town is a natural saturation point, which is how he came next to refocus his sights on an idea for a different market — food retailing — an idea that had been percolating for some seven years, since before he opened Bymark.

“Look at our chain stores,” McEwan said to me over a quick lunch of red synthetic motor oil-coloured chicken wings back in the spring at a fast-food chain near his store, which was then just a construction site. “Fresh produce is the last thing they think about. The focus is on what’s in the aisles. The produce is ordinary, the fish counter is worse, the meat is a joke. The best bread you can find is from Ace. The prepared food is … inedible. Our focus will be the opposite.”

Indeed, the McEwan concept is something new for these parts. The fundamentals of the food store were inspired by grand markets he had seen in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Soho edition of Dean & DeLuca. But the business plan was more unusual; it was bolstered by a planned symbiosis with his restaurants that he was uniquely poised to choreograph.

His early vision for the food store naturally encompassed peerless produce — and specifically, he did not want organic-classified goods segregated from less rarefied equivalents, to facilitate reasonable item-by-item decision-making (do you really need an organic yellow onion in your chicken stock?).

He saw added value in selling less commonplace, seasonal items like, say, ramps, packaged with instructions on how a chef would make the most of them. The meat counter represented a key opportunity for him and his customers if he were to sell them the same dry-aged USDA Prime beef he was using at Bymark, One and North 44; his new trading volumes would justify moving the entire meat supply program in-house instead of contracting it out as he had always done before.

In striving to stock his fish counter with product other than usual local suspects (farmed salmon, sushi-grade tuna, Chilean sea bass), he had already arrived at the solution: routing supply directly from Montreal’s exceptional fish retailer La Mer. The bread he planned to bring in from the artisanal Quebec bakery Boulart would serve well in his restaurants, too — and so would the largely Canadian (and majority Québécois) cheese selection he was arranging for his cheese counter, sourced from the same supplier, Provincial Fine Foods, that he uses for the restaurants.

But the ultimate expression of this tidy relationship between his store and his restaurants was in the planned McEwan selection of prepared foods, a lamentably under serviced category of Toronto food retail that represented his best and easiest opportunity for setting his store apart.

“The thing is, when you entertain, the last thing you want is to be stressed out and stuck in the kitchen all night. It’s fun to a point, but that’s it,” McEwan explained. “Imagine instead that you can fly in to my store at four o’clock and pick up four perfectly braised veal shanks, and just concentrate on making a great risotto or poaching some asparagus on the side, with a really good hollandaise — which is a big deal for most home cooks. Or come at it the other way around — buy our prepared vegetables and concentrate on your meat or fish. Then throw together a good cheese course, grab the bread on the way out and you’re done.”

This all makes good sense, of course, and it resonated with McEwan in some part because he had been in the habit for years of walking out of his old office at North 44 and, on the way through the kitchen to the back door, taking what he needed for dinner that night at home in all states of preparedness (restaurateurs do not bother making chicken stock, sauce gribiche or veal blanquette at home).

More to the point, while like so many well-known and hugely accomplished chefs McEwan first made his reputation preparing multi-faceted dishes of impressive complexity, his tastes grew simpler as time went by, and he now favours nothing quite so much as a dish that lets its fine seasonal ingredients speak for themselves, undisguised and unhindered by the distraction of flashy technique. And that is the way he usually cooks at home. For example, on the weekend following that early discussion about the store, he was planning on taking advantage of his new fish supplier to take home whole loups de mer to grill and plate simply with steamed new potatoes and local asparagus with hollandaise.

“Hollandaise allows you to consume a great deal of butter without necessarily realising it,” McEwan says, pausing wistfully. “Such a great sauce.”

And when, a few years back, McEwan dropped by my family cottage in Quebec, we managed to get by without any buttery sauces at all. We lunched on a dry-rubbed chicken, butterflied and grilled over charcoal, plated simply with a salad of ripe tomatoes he had plucked from the garden at his Georgian Bay cottage, sliced thickly and dressed with a basic shallot-laced ¨vinaigrette and shredded fresh basil. In preparation for dinner, he capitalised on a squash that had been languishing unloved on my kitchen counter for a few days.

McEwan lopped it in half, diced its flesh, used one half to make a squash stock and spread the balance out on a cookie sheet to dry in the oven. For our first course, he took a cue from the culinary hero of his youth, the brilliant Austrian chef Eckart Witzigmann, and popped a whole foie gras into the hottest oven in our Aga cooker, then served up the quivering roast surrounded with braised apples and toast. Then I grilled the beautifully marbled rib steaks he had brought along, while he tossed off an exquisite squash risotto. Simple, wholesome home cooking — McEwan-style.

It works for me.

(November 2010)