Volume 48, Issue 1
Written By: Fatima Siddiqui
After losing a vote with his business partners to name his restaurant, 31-year-old chef Darren MacLean is now taking inspiration from the moniker.
While the partnership didn’t work out, the name Downtownfood has endured since 2012. “The heartbeat of any really great food city is what it offers downtown,” says MacLean, explaining the restaurant’s name, before adding, “The inspiration was completely a mistake in my opinion, but it has really served us well.”
MacLean is proud to serve his city. He’s purportedly the first chef in Calgary to have established a rooftop garden, equipped with two beehives and more than 40 herbs, vegetables and fruits. With allergies on the rise, he wants to accommodate consumers’ dietary restrictions and eliminate food insecurity. “I always considered myself a food activist first and a chef second. I really got into it, because it’s a way to positively affect change in the food industry by giving people a pleasant food experience with things that taste great.”
Defined as “true Canadian cuisine” with hints of ethnic notes, MacLean’s Downtownfood menu is inspired by local ingredients and flavours with dishes that cater to customers with a diverse ethnic palate. “Our flavour profiles are unique. We don’t just put soy sauce on something because we want to make it Asian, the flavours have to make sense.”
MacLean strives to deliver dishes that tell stories and ignite memories. For lunch, guests who order burgers — such as the popular Korean-spiced patty ($17) — receive a complimentary root-beer float — a nod to MacLean’s childhood memories of enjoying that meal with his dad. “We are telling stories of Canadian cultures and terroir through our food,” he explains.
Customer favourites at the 76-seat bistro include braised-beef ravioli ($27), salt-and-peppered Humboldt squid ($12) and tempura scallop maki ($14). MacLean’s goal is to provide fresh, healthy and affordable dishes under $30. Why cook for a few when you can cook for many? he asks. “Reach them with your message of food equality instead of food insecurity.”
The executive chef has had lots of time to consider such a mandate. He began his career as a dishwasher at a Ricky’s restaurant at age 12 — he told them he was 15 — and moved up from there. But, it was only six years ago that he became serious about a career in cooking. He dropped out of university, walking away from an education in finance, to move to Ontario and enrol at Stratford Chefs School. “I tried to get away from cooking, but I love the fire and the adrenaline you get when you’re cooking service, and I like making people happy.”
The Gold Medal Plates’ bronze- and silver-medal finalist aims to continue his quest to bring people joy. He’s preparing to open Shokunin Izakaya this summer, a Japanese-inspired restaurant that will foster collaboration with local farmers to harvest his own ingredients, raise free-range pigs and ferment miso and soy. It’s all part of his dream of introducing bold flavours with global inspirations.