Jenny and I aren’t huge fans of Valentine’s Day. We rarely mark the occasion with cards or flowers, and definitely steer clear of restaurants offering (usually overpriced) Valentine’s Day-themed prix fixe menus.
So, when I was invited to have dinner with chef Mark McEwan at his newest Toronto restaurant, Fabbrica, to preview the kitchen’s Valentine’s Day menu, I was initially skeptical. But, then again, it’s not every day the chance comes along to sit and break bread with a man who is one of Toronto’s best-known chefs and a host of Top Chef Canada on the Food Network.
As we sat and read over the special Valentine’s Day menu that will be available to Fabbrica diners between February 14 and 17, McEwan put me at ease by saying that he’s not a fan of Valentine’s Day menus built around “cheese” like heart-shaped food and chocolate incorporated into each dish for no good reason. The dishes on the $55 prix fixe ($85 with wine pairings) were developed around the same ethos McEwan says Fabbrica’s regular menu is built: good, honest Italian food done right.
Since graduating from culinary school at George Brown College in 1979, McEwan has been at the forefront of Toronto’s dining scene, owning and/or running the kitchen at some of the city’s most popular restaurants and hotels—many of which count wealthy residents and visiting movie stars as frequent diners.
But despite the flashy clientele, McEwan says he’s always made sure his menus focused on the classics rather than what’s trendy. And he thinks that’s what diners want. Even in the food trends that have taken Toronto by storm over the past year or two—think tacos, Southern barbecue and rustic Italian—McEwan says the key elements are authenticity and time-honoured technique.
McEwan says that even the projects that have brought him into the national spotlight—his Food Network shows The Heat and Top Chef Canada—have been real and honest. Of the former, which followed him as he worked to open his eponymous, upscale Toronto grocery store, McEwan, he says the show was an honest portrayal of the experience, giving viewers a glimpse at the opening of a business and the mistakes made along the way. And he says he’s enjoyed working on Top Chef Canada because, unlike some other food-based reality shows, this one is focused on good cooking and passionate chefs; “It’s not about a basket of weird ingredients,” he says, referring to Chopped—a show I admitted to him that I’m a pretty devoted fan of.
Like his restaurants, there’s a definite polish to Mark McEwan, a sense that he’s always ready to perform. But after spending a couple hours with him, talking about food, sports (he’s a Buffalo native and, like me, a long-suffering Bills fan) and ideas for Toronto’s future (he’s a big believer in the current plan for a downtown casino), I was definitely left with a feeling of authenticity in both the man and his food.