The owner of flashy restaurants like Bymark and North 44 has hopped aboard the casino bandwagon. Earlier this week, Mark McEwan assembled a group of the city’s most influential chefs to discuss why putting a mega-gambling complex downtown would be good news for the food industry. We joined the Toronto dining-scene stalwart to discuss the proposed casino, his unruly mane, and why wannabe rock-star chefs need to get over themselves.
You’re one of the city’s most staunch casino supporters. How come?
I honestly can’t imagine why anyone would be against it.
What about the assertion that opening a mega-complex would hurt surrounding businesses? In Atlantic City, the bar and restaurant scene has really suffered.
Atlantic City is a bad example—that’s a very old casino strip. I don’t think there’s a great deal of interesting development outside the casinos there—they almost sit as a monolith amongst all this fairly dated infrastructure. With the Toronto project, there are many studies that back up the fact that if you bring 12 million [regular] visitors to a casino area and [add] a million high-value visitors on top of that, it will bleed [revenue] into the city. People don’t just stay in the complex. Also, the casino only occupies 10 per cent of the [space]. No one’s mentioning the retail component and, most importantly, the convention component—that, to me, is the most exciting part.
That doesn’t sound super exciting. Can you explain?
Back in the ’90s, this city was a huge attraction for American conventions. We had a good Canadian dollar and the hotels were always full of Americans. Then SARS hit and the convention business never recovered. We fell into the lower 30th percentile in terms of ability to manage conventions. This new facility will put us in the top 10 per cent in North America. I don’t think anybody really understands what that will mean for Toronto. If I had a doormat on King Street, I’d be very happy to have a convention facility four blocks away.
If this does go through, will we be seeing you at the tables?
Sure, I’ll play a little blackjack. I go in with my limit. Last time, I won and my wife made me leave the table.
What do you make of the current Momofuku mania?
It’s great for the city. David Chang is a big deal and he’s put a lot of money into those restaurants. I think the city’s been a little hard on him.
Really? It seems to me like we’re throwing our panties at him.
I guess the bloggers and critics have been about 50/50. I’ve been [to Daishō] twice and enjoyed it both times. It gets my pick for best new restaurant of the year.
Would you ever endure a three-hour wait to eat Grand Electric tacos or Black Hoof terrine?
No. If I was young, maybe I would do that. Hang out at the bar down the street and wait for a call. Their food is very, very good, but I think that whole concept is for a young demographic.
None of your restaurants seem to have much traction with that young foodie crowd. Have you thought about doing something that targets them?
I don’t think you can be all things and I don’t think you should try. People know me for the category we’re in and I like where we are: established. The trend has been really casual for the last little while, but I’ve seen that pendulum swing back and forth many times. You shouldn’t have to react to trends in a darty way.
And they still have to sell 30 tacos to equal one Bymark burger.
Ha! Right—it’s a whole different game. Those guys work very hard for their living.
What is the most important thing you look for in an aspiring chef?
A good work ethic. A lot of young chefs today are starry-eyed—you can blame The Food Channel and all of this rock-star chef business. In the beginning, they just have to do the work, learn how a kitchen operates. After that, they can learn the finesse part of the business, but everyone wants to do it the opposite way. They want to do the foams and presentation and tweezers, and they actually think that that is the business.
Have you ever considered changing your hairstyle, or is that part of your brand—sort of like Susur’s ponytail?
My hair is incredibly curly—when I was a teenager, I had a ’fro. The only way I can manage it is if my hairdresser puts a little relaxer into it and then I do what I do. It’s always been challenging.
How would you rate yourself in terms of hothead antics in the kitchen?
I used to be tougher. I was never a hothead, though I was intense. I worked the line from 1982 until 2003, and I was hard to work next to. A lot of cooks have a hard time living up to intensity. I’m not a yeller or a screamer, though.
What’s the most profane thing you’ve ever said on the job?
There is no swearing in my kitchens. I don’t tolerate it.
So what would happen if someone dropped the f-bomb?
I’d tell them to knock it off, and if they didn’t, I’d tell them to leave.
Favourite ice cream?
Toasted marshmallow or pistachio.
Japanese or Thai?
The word “foodie.”
Pepsi or Coke?
Love them both.
Dogs or cats?
Betty or Veronica?
Betty, but after a couple martinis, Veronica would do.
Cottage on Georgian Bay.
How do you take your eggs?
Soft-boiled with toast soldiers.