Food has always been in Darren MacLean’s DNA, but his relationship with it started as a tenuous one. MacLean started in the industry as a dishwasher and line cook at just 12 years old to help his mother financially and that’s when the seed was planted.
There were moments of wavering faith in food for MacLean, which led him to study finance at Calgary’s Mount Royal University before leaving the program to pursue his career as a chef at the Stratford Chef School in Ontario. This was a pivotal point for the young chef.
“I didn’t truly fall in love with cooking until I started to understand seasonality and produce while attending Stratford Chef School,” MacLean says.
Following graduation and a failed first foray into the restaurant industry with his bistro Downtownfood, MacLean packed his belongings and headed east — all the way east — to study Japanese cuisine and culture alongside Japanese chef Yoshihiro Narisawa.
The experience cleared the murky waters of MacLean’s future and gave him a sense of what he wanted — and needed — to do.
“We began talking about satoyama and what it meant to him. Satoyama is a Japanese term for the people, places, farms and forests between the mountains and the sea. I was so intrigued by his food and interested in understanding more about the culture,” MacLean says, “When he invited me to travel with him, everything changed. The knowledge and memories he imparted changed the way I cook forever.”
In 2015, MacLean returned home inspired and equipped to start a new path. He launched Shokunin, a 50-seat restaurant in Calgary, which features an open kitchen and a patio. It specializes in Japanese dishes such as chicken Karaage ($14) and Shokunin ramen ($18) and offers Yakitori with choices ranging from liver ($4) to chicken breast ($5).
MacLean has become renowned for his local and sustainable dishes and while the 36-year-old chef says he can appreciate the importance of those traits, they’re not what defines him. Rather, he sees his culinary style as quintessentially Canadian: a culinary cultural mosaic of sorts that invites guests from all over to enjoy his dishes.
“I’m not concerned with traditional boundaries — that’s the Canadian in me. I believe whenever you try to put a cuisine in a box or firmly define it, you limit the possibility of that cuisine,” he says.
From here, MacLean only looks forward. He recently opened Greenfish, a fully sustainable sushi venture, with business partner Duncan Ly (Foreign Concept). The restaurant uses only green-listed fish approved by Ocean Wise and fully compostable takeaway containers.
He plans to open another exclusive eatery, for those with a finer taste, in the coming years. “We’re opening Nupo, which is our plant- and seafood-based restaurant. Highlights will include a secret eight-seat fine-dining restaurant that will be introducing new chefs, including six Michelin-Star chefs, in the New Year,” MacLean says.
Written by Nick Laws