Image: Nikki Leigh McKean
I had dinner with celebrity chef Mark McEwan and hoped he would share some wonderful kitchen secrets with me.
He did– Mark McEwan told me how to make the perfect hotdog.
First, Mark would not refer to himself as a “celebrity” chef, but that’s what many would call him because of his well-known role as head judge on the popular Top Chef Canada series, and as the subject of his own Food Network show The Heat.
Second, while he would willingly offer tips on preparing a fancy meal that I’d never recreate at home, I wanted to talk about junk food. That’s when he insisted the perfect hot dog is steamed, not grilled on the BBQ. And it should be a quality wiener, such as Mason’s (which he likes enough to carry at his gourmet grocery store, McEwan’s). I expected Mark to then talk about fancy buns. But no, he was adamant that the perfect hotdog should be served on a plain white Wonder hotdog bun. But the real secret, according to Mark, is how you prepare the bun. Most people do it wrong — you microwave it first for a few seconds then you toast it in a toaster oven, so it’s soft but crisp. This might seem like a ridiculous conversation; but that chef Mark McEwan could actually teach me a trick about something as boring as a simple hotdog impressed me.
We chatted over a meal at his most recent restaurant, Fabbrica. His other restaurants include: North 44, Bymark, and ONE. Despite the fact that he’s not into Valentine’s Day, we are sampling dishes from his Valentine’s Day menu ($55 or $85 with wine pairings). “It doesn’t have any of the cheesiness of Valentine’s Day. It’s simple, good food.” My butter-poached lobster risotto was not dyed pink and red — the mandatory Valentine’s colours. The bombolone (Italian doughnuts) filled with orange pastry cream were not heart shaped or stabbed with cupid’s arrow. It was not good, simple food. It was great food prepared by executive chef, Andrew Ellerby, and chef de cuisie, Rob Leclair. And none of it was Valentine’s Day-ish.
The third season of Top Chef Canada has already been shot and he wasn’t able to tell me much, but Mark says the contestants and the judges get better each season. I ask if he feels there’s an advantage for contestants of later seasons who get to watch what happens in past shows. According to Mark, it doesn’t matter how many shows the chefs watch, the one thing they all say is they had no idea how much of a challenge, or how difficult the competition really is. But there must be some advantage for those who get to study a season or two of the show. “Well, they know I how I feel about spices, so now chefs are afraid to serve me something spicy,” Mark laughs.
With so many restaurants and menu items to create, Mark is a fan of the old-fashioned pen and paper. He has boxes of drawings of every dish and item he’s ever created. The recipe must be written out by hand, accompanied by a drawing of what it will look like. “I haven’t changed how I do it, “ says Mark, “plain paper and a Bic pen. A blue one. It has to be blue. Not black or another colour. And I chew on it. And I draw it all out, every one.” This is the process for a top chef. While chefs are known to be meticulous and obsessive, somehow I doubt there is a drawing in one of those boxes for the perfect hot dog.
Follow Mark on Twitter: @Chef_MarkMcEwan