Words by Suresh Doss
Photography by Kayla Rocca
Art Direction by April Tran
Like the food version of the parlour game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, pick any cook in Toronto and I bet you can draw a culinary line to chef Mark McEwan. With his 40-plus-year culinary career in Toronto covering restaurants and gourmet food supermarkets, McEwan has mentored a generation of hospitality professionals.
Toronto’s dining scene has evolved, changed and shifted numerous times since the 70s and very few chefs have been able to enjoy the kind of repeat success and city-wide reception that McEwan has managed. I believe this is largely due to the chef’s uncompromising approach to detail and a core dedication to the art of hospitality. “I like to think I have an understanding of what the customer wants; we are here to entertain, we’re here to present theatre,” he says.
The Buffalo native set his sights on Toronto in the late 1970s when he was hired on by the Regal Constellation Hotel in various kitchen roles. Since then, McEwan has embraced Toronto as his own, establishing modern icons of Toronto’s dining scene with restaurants like North 44, Fabbrica and ONE Restaurant. Even if you only spend a few minutes with the seasoned chef, a few things are immediately apparent: McEwan is a workaholic who stresses over the finer elements, and oozes charm with a quick witted-sense of humour. He treats his restaurants like a cook’s mise-en-place: only what’s needed, everything in its place and as close to perfection as possible.
The charm was a key ingredient in transporting his career out of the kitchen and into the role of hosting shows like The Heat and Chopped and now becoming the head judge on Top Chef Canada.
There’s a lot on McEwan’s plate these days. (We chatted a few days before the new season of Top Chef Canada was announced.) He reflected on his career and how he seeks refuge at his Georgian Bay cottage where he hosts dinner parties with his wife Roxanne.
He also shared how his diet has evolved to keep up with his fast-paced lifestyle. “I’m in my 60s now, aside from working out five days a week I’ve started to pay close attention to how I eat. This is also reflected at our restaurants; diners are more aware about their meals” McEwan said.
I sat down with the chef at his flagship restaurant ByMark to chat about his changing tastes and what inspired these three recipes that are part of his new-found love for “healthy-ish” cooking.
Spring Vegetable Slaw with lime-yogurt dressing
When he’s not overseeing his Toronto restaurants, McEwan spends a lot of time at his cottage in Thornbury. “My cottage provides me with all the elements I need to get inspired,” says McEwan. During the summer months, he flexes his green thumb in the backyard with a vegetable and fruit garden. “It’s my refuge, if I’m not on my laptop, I’m knee-deep in the weeds.”
McEwan rotates his crops and grows a wide variety of tomatoes, leafy greens and fruit. This salad is inspired by the bright colours of his garden and the changing seasons. McEwan suggests the core ingredients can change with whatever you have at hand. “Try to mix it up with the colours and textures.” The sauce is the star of the plate, the lime yogurt dressing livens up the salad with the pomegranate and grapefruit bringing acid, sweetness and zest to the plate.
- ½ ripe avocado
- 3-4 grapefruit segments
- 2 cups shaved vegetables (see below)
- ½ pomegranate
- ½ cup sweet peas
- ½ cup cooked red quinoa
- Pea shoots
- 1 red chili, sliced thinly (optional)
- Fresh mint and parsley, torn shaved
- 2 each of red, yellow and candy-cane beets
- 2 radishes, mixed colours or shapes
- 1 mixed bunch orange, yellow and purple baby carrots
- 5-6 asparagus, shaved with a vegetable peeler
lime yogurt dressing ingredients
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
- 1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
- 2 Tbsp good quality olive oil Salt and white pepper to taste
If using purple carrots and red beets, wash under cold water until water runs clear. Use a mandolin for shaving.
To assemble the lime yogurt dressing: Whisk everything together until well combined.
To assemble the spring vegetable slaw: Carefully mix all vegetables together in a bowl with the quinoa. Cover lightly with dressing and season with salt and pepper.
Arrange the mixed vegetables on a serving plate and tuck the avocado slices and grapefruit sections into different spots.
Drizzle more of the dressing over the salad and finish with sea salt and olive oil. Serve.
Sea Scallop Crudo
Scallops are one of the biggest sellers at ByMark. McEwan’s team sources sustainably harvested scallops from B.C. and has them shipped to the restaurant every week. “They’re these precious little things, very plump and have a natural sweetness that you have to respect,” McEwan says.
The scallops are available two ways on the menu: raw as a crudo or seared and served on a bed of grits with Argentinian shrimp and mushrooms. “If you source good-quality scallops they are best enjoyed raw,” McEwan says.
The crudo dish evolves a few times throughout the seasons at ByMark, but is designed for quick preparation. Try to balance the sweetness of the scallops with an acidic ingredient like tomatoes, and balance the creaminess with something vibrant like the strawberries. The two key ingredients in this recipe are the vinegar and a generous drizzle of good quality olive oil. The scallops can handle a little heat; McEwan recommends thinly sliced red chilies to kick it up.
scallop crudo Ingredients
- 1 lb dry-packed sea scallops (U10)
- 2 thin slices of Serrano ham, thinly sliced
- 2 Tbsp marcona almonds, crushed
- 6 oz macerated green strawberries, thinly sliced
- 8 oz heirloom cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced
- 1 red chili, julienned
- ¼ cup Spanish muscat vinegar
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- ¼ cup good-quality Spanish olive oil
- Smoked Maldon sea salt
- Handful of cress, basil, arugula or red sorrel (depending on preference)
- Kosher Salt
If green strawberries are unavailable, substitute with good-quality seedless red grapes
Place sliced tomatoes and strawberries in a small bowl and sprinkle with a pinch of kosher salt. Add vinegar and lemon juice, keeping everything submerged. Leave bowl at room temperature for 30 minutes.
With a very sharp knife, slice each scallop crosswise into thin slices. Distribute slices onto six chilled plates; lay them in an angular pattern. Scatter the tomatoes and strawberries over and around the plated scallops. Lightly drizzle the liquid over top (making sure not to use all of it). Scatter a pinch of smoked salt over each plate.
Scatter the ham, chilies and crushed marcona almonds evenly among the six plates.
Garnish each plate with a little cress and drizzle a generous amount of olive oil on top.
Thyme and Mustard Grilled Chicken
McEwan was first introduced to this dish when his wife Roxanne cooked it for him for dinner. “Ever since she made this for me years ago it has become a staple in our household,” he says. Roxanne is noted for her Italian cooking, but there is one dish that stands out for McEwan. A simple dish of grilled chicken served with a horseradish-spiked potato salad, it has become a standard for McEwan dinner parties. “It’s Roxanne’s signature dish, I’m just borrowing it from her.” For McEwan, the dish is nostalgic and also easy to prepare.
He suggests you choose your chicken wisely, try to seek out pasture-raised poultry for optimal juiciness. You can marinate it ahead of time (store it in the fridge in the morning or night before) for maximum flavour. This is a versatile plate, you can swap out the potatoes for a green salad or just go with the grilled beans.
grilled chicken Ingredients
- 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbsp whole-grain mustard
- 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 sprigs thyme
potato salad ingredients
- 2 Tbsp grated fresh horseradish
- 2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 lbs small red potatoes
- ½ cup sliced celery
- 15 green and yellow wax beans, blanched, refreshed and trimmed to 1-inch pieces
- ½ cup of freshly shucked sweet peas, blanched and refreshed
To marinate chicken: Combine olive oil and mustard in a small bowl and brush onto chicken. Season the chicken with pepper and place in a resealable bag with the thyme sprigs. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
To prepare potato salad: Whisk horseradish, vinegar, thyme leaves, and olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Place the potatoes in a large pot of salted water. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 - 25 minutes or until tender. Drain and allow the potatoes to cool slightly. Quarter each potato and toss with the celery and ½ cup of the vinaigrette until well-coated. Add the beans and sweet peas. Keep warm until ready to serve.
To cook chicken: Heat a grill until it is medium-hot. Season the chicken with salt and grill for 4 - 5 minutes on each side or until done. Slice each chicken breast on the diagonal. Layer the chicken slices, overlapping them on one side of each plate and spoon potato salad next to it. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the chicken and top with freshly ground black pepper.