Calgary·Q&A

Calgary chef one of 24 international culinary stars featured in new Netflix series

Calgary chef Darren MacLean is one of a select group of two dozen chefs from around the world competing in a new cooking show, The Final Table.

Darren MacLean, one of the city's top young chefs, goes global on cooking show

Darren MacLean, owner and chef at Calgary's Shokunin, is one of 24 international chefs competing on The Final Table, a new series from Netflix, which premieres Tuesday, Nov. 20. (Parker PR)

Calgary chef Darren MacLean has earned a reputation as a top Calgary restaurateur at Shokunin, which former CBC restaurant critic John Gilchrist named one of the best new restaurants in the city in 2016.

MacLean is the only Canadian competing on The Final Table, a new culinary show that debuts Tuesday on Netflix. MacLean spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener's David Gray on Monday about life in the kitchen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Q: What's the premise behind The Final Table?

A: Basically, you're given nine countries you have to cook for — if you go that far.

Each week, you're judged by the best chefs in the world. Chefs with Michelin stars, chefs from San Pellegrino Top 50 Best lists. It's the highest calibre cooking competition ever released.

Q: There's an awful lot of culinary shows on television right now. How is The Final Table different from the rest?

A:  It's all about food. [On] a lot of culinary shows, it's personality driven. I remember watching one show where they had to climb a fire ladder to get the advantage of an ingredient.

That's what's interesting about this program: it isn't about the optics. You have a dish and you cook it — and you go. You're never safe unless you're cooking.

Q: Out of the nine countries, which cuisine was the toughest to cook?

A: A lot of South American cuisine is challenging for me because I just have really very little knowledge [of the cuisine from that region].

Anything in the scope of — Japanese, obviously, Chinese, East Asian, French and North American is easy for me. But anything south of the American border is a challenge.

Q: How did you get into cooking in the first place?

A: I never wanted to be a cook but basically when I was 13, I lied about my age, more or less. North American cliche, right? Single mom, no dad, just helping out [financially] at home.

Cooking was one of the few avenues I had at that age to weasel my way into a dishwashing position and it just kind of took off from there.

Q: There must have been a few more twists along the way to go from dishwasher to owning your own restaurant

A: There was a few pretty amazing things that happened.

Q: Like what?

A: I cooked from when I was 13 on until I was about 18, and as soon as I could, I became a server. I saw the lifestyle [and] the tips [that servers earned]. I was going into Mount Royal College for economics and finance and it (cooking) wasn't really agreeing with me.

But for whatever reason, I kept one foot in the kitchen, whether it was [working at the] Chicago Chop House or going through Murrietta's, so finally I got really serious about it when I met a chef called Ned Bell.

Calgary chef Darren MacLean got his first restaurant job at 13, as a dishwasher to help out financially at home. (Parker PR)

I remember him saying, "this is my face on the plate, so you guys have to really understand what you're serving." It was the first time as a server I was made to taste the food I was serving.

That was a big thing.

He asked why I wasn't cooking because I clearly had a passion for the kitchen, and I didn't really have an answer.

Fast forward a little bit. I was in a bit of an accident that really propelled me [to take action]. I went to the Stratford Chef School. That was the next step. I did some formative culinary training with [someone] who I think is one of the most talented chefs in the country, Aaron Linley, who had a restaurant called Bijou.

At the time, [I had] the opportunity to open my own restaurant, Downtown Food, here in Calgary.

Q: Let's stop there. Downtown Food was a fine concept that was well executed, but all it seemed to be missing were people. Is that fair to say?

A: Downtown Food was an interesting restaurant. Very intense farm to table. We made all of our own charcuterie, all of our own bread — everything. But maybe what didn't resonate was it was a restaurant driven for me.

It was things I was interested in — and those are things that don't necessarily translate (into popular success).

Q: Could it have been a good lesson?

A: One hundred per cent. We weren't as busy as we wanted to be, but it was actually — our lease was up. I took over a failing restaurant, and for three years, ran it,  paid the bills, everything was fine. And then the landlord doubled the price per square foot.

Financially, it wasn't necessarily viable, but I do think having Downtown Food close was the best thing that actually happened to me in my career. But I also think running it for three years was the best thing, and that's what I've realized.

When you're young, you're not patient.

I'm still not patient, which is my Achilles heel: I want everything now.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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