As the old adage goes, "Don't judge a book by it's cover." In the case of chef Dale MacKay, don't judge a star by a reality show. The winner of Top Chef Canada's first season, who seems rough around the edges, demonstrated his passion for cooking and genuine personality at the Fairmont Banff Springs for the 20th International Festival of Wine and Food.
MacKay talks about his newest restaurant, ensemble Tap, his favourite cities to dine in, and his time on Top Chef Canada.
What would you have been if you hadn't become a chef?
Realistically, I probably would have gone into some kind of business, like real estate or something like that. I like dealing with people and I like fast paced chaos, but my passions are the arts, really--dancing, singing, music, that kind of stuff. I used to dance a lot when I was younger, but I don't get to do that much anymore. Singing, I can't do well, but I wish I could. If I wasn't a cook, I probably would have gone into acting, but I probably would have ended up doing something else because I don't think I would have been willing to go through being in all the crappy movies to get to the good ones.
Your background is in fine dining. Why did you choose to make a corn succotash today?
I used to do a similar dish at Lumière, and we would make that corn custard ourselves. At ensemble, I make it with sea asparagus, smoked mushrooms, and little chilis diced in there. I love making regular things and taking them to the next level, taking rustic things like baba ghanouj and making them high end and really flavourful.
My newest restaurant is pub-style. We're taking everything from popcorn shrimp to chicken pot pie, and putting a big twist on some of them, or just doing them better than everyone else. For me, it's about quality. It doesn't matter if I'm doing pub food or I'm doing fine dining, it's about consistency and quality of food. We're getting high level chefs and sous chefs to do slightly more casual food with a twist. We're going to blow a lot of restaurant groups out of the water.
Are people surprised when they hear about the style of food at ensemble Tap?
I think so. Especially because I was so focused on fine dining on the show. This is my 12th opening and I've always been really business-oriented. Fine dining restaurants don't make money, especially high end fine dining—there are just too many little things and the costs are too high. Ensemble is low price point, high quality food, and that only works if you're busy. Since we've been open, we've been busy and we've been lucky. At ensemble Tap, we're giving people a place they can go to three or four times a week, a wide range of everything from ribs and wings to nice delicious beet salads, and a range of beers. Vancouver loves sports. We have TVs all over the place. You've got to give people what they want. They want more casual food, they want a good beer, and they want to watch the game, so that's what I'm going to do.
Are there any chefs that make you feel star-struck or intimidated?
Not anymore. Obviously, when I first met Gordon [Ramsay], I was like that, but that was pretty early in my career. Working with two of the best chefs in the world, Gordom Ramsay and Daniel Boulud, confidence is absolutely key when you're around them. You have to act confident and look them in the eye. The only way to do that is with good training and by putting yourself through the wringer. Cooks come out of culinary school and they have this fantasy that this is all just about wearing a cool jacket and being a star. It's not like that. Our job really is gruelling. You have to be confident, but not cocky, and act like you know what you're doing and follow through with it.
Speaking of being cocky, you were made to look like that on the show. How do you feel about that?
I was definitely typecasted to be the angry villain. I don't care, I've never really cared about what people think of me and I think it's served me well. You don't have to like me to taste my food; you don't have to like me to come to my restaurant. You might be a little more critical, but I'm standing behind my food, and that's okay.
The show was made to look a little more cutthroat. We all helped each other. I was helping these guys, they were helping me. If you're going to be on a show, you're going to expect things like that. In the end, the villain won, so I couldn't have been that big of a villain. I enjoyed it. I would do it again in a second. Not because I won, but because I had a great time.
Best place you've ever cooked in?
The best training years I've had were in London. There's so much money spent on food and wine in London, so it's a very "hard knocks" place to be for multiple years. From a training standpoint, I will say London. From cooking enjoyment standpoint, I would say Vancouver. It's awesome; it's got everything--amazing fish, shellfish, beef--everything you want is there. It's beautiful.
What's the best city to eat in (besides Vancouver)?
Toronto. I see the diversity. I go back there a lot now. They've got a ton of good restaurants, they've got pieces [of the culinary scene] that we don't have, like Trinidad, and other cultural foods that we don't have. I absolutely love barbecue; it's one of my favourite things to cook and eat.
Rome is my favourite city in the world. I love Italy, and I've cooked there for a few months.
How can home cooks make elegant foods at home?
I would just use quality ingredients. Source the best products you can, and focus more on simplicity and quality rather than quantity.