I started in the business in the mid-’70s, and at that time, professional cooks were almost considered domestic help. There was absolutely zero glamour,” says Mark McEwan, chef and founder of The McEwan Group. Today, of course, things have changed — McEwan has become a familiar face on television, with a series of best-selling cookbooks to his name, in addition to his McEwan shops and his fleet of Toronto-area restaurants: ByMark, North 44, Fabbrica and Diwan at the Aga Khan Museum.
“Lucky me for locating in Toronto in the ’70s, when things were just percolating. It’s been a lot of hard work but, at the same time, very rewarding,” he says. “In the 40 years that I’ve been involved in the business, it has gone into the stratosphere, where chefs have celebrity status. There’s television, there’s publishing, there’s a massive amount of attention paid to the industry — which is great for the industry.”
Looking back at the evolution of the industry over the years, “the outstanding trend for me is that we’ve continued to get better at it,” he says. “There’s this ferocious appetite for exactness of craft. As you get better at it and you mature, you become more refined.” Publishing cookbooks is part of this process. “It solidifies what you were doing in a period of time,” he says. “It regulates all your recipes and creates a standard for you. I’m all about order and consistency; publishing, for me, was more about formalizing everything.”
McEwan’s interests are shifting away from the traditional restaurant model. “I hope to make all my restaurants better as time goes on, [but] I’m not as eager to build lots of restaurants as food stores. I love retail food, so we have lots of plans to grow that story,” he says.
To that end, he is about to launch the third location of McEwan at Toronto’s Bloor and Yonge. “It’s for condo dwellers and people who work in the area: people who need a meal right away. I’m a big believer in buying prepared foods; buy what you can eat, and don’t buy any more,” he says, decrying the food waste that has become so common.
“I turned 60 this year, and I’ve never felt better about what we do,” he says. “We’re going to grow and we’re going to keep feeding people: that’s what it’s all about.”
Written by Sarah B. Hood