Food Vancouver Select Guide: Interview with Dale MacKay
This time the Food Vancouver Select Guide has the following interview of Dale MacKay: Top Chef and owner/founder of one of Vancouver’s most talked about new restaurants: Ensemble.
In order to see Dale in person please visit the Eat! Vancouver Food and Cooking Festival from June 10th to 12th, 2011 at the new Vancouver Convention Centre. The show will feature food demonstrations, contests and various celebrity chefs.
This has been an exciting year for you! Let’s first talk about Top Chef.
FV - What is most challenging about being on Top Chef Canada?
DM - I would say the time factor. When you’re used to fine dining and having the luxury of time to prepare, 2 hours isn’t a lot. Not to mention purchasing products in a grocery store. I’m used to having products come in, and being very selective. It was also really hard to be away from my son for that long. But I would say the time restraints and the availability of products were the most challenging.
FV - Do you get nervous before a big competition?
DM - No, I don’t get overly nervous, I would say it’s more a feeling of excitement than anything. I am a pretty aggressive cook, I wouldn’t have gone on the show if I didn’t feel I could handle it.
FV - How did you stay focused and calm?
DM - We weren’t allowed to use cell phones or go on the internet while we were taping the show – I think I read 7 books! That kept me pretty relaxed.
FV - Do you have any rituals or practices before a competition?
DM - I am not normally a superstitious but I have a few good luck toys from my son Ayden, I keep one in my knife bag and another in my pocket.
FV - How different is the show behind the scenes from what the viewer at home sees?
DM - I can’t say too much of course but the one thing that is obvious is that there is so much footage that doesn’t fit within a one hour show. We are filmed from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed and so much happens. There are things that you think will make it in that don’t and then other things that you didn’t even know happened that make it in. They really have to slim it down but I think they are doing a good - I’m really enjoying watching it!
Now for Ensemble:
FV - Describe ‘Ensemble’ for us in 3 words or one sentence (if it’s possible!)
DM - With regards to the food – the flavours are from around the world and are designed for appetizer size plates. It allows the guest to have 3 or 4 experiences rather than just the 1 you would get from ordering a main, large entrée. I guess I can’t answer this is 3 words (laughs!)
FV - You are a young chef and have a long career ahead of you. What do you do to prevent burnout and to keep things fresh and engaging for yourself and your team?
DM - After having worked for Gordon Ramsey and lived in busy cities like London and New York City, I realized you need to have balance. I put in a lot of hours and yes it’s the main focus of my life (second to my son of course) but I need to have other interests. My main focus is Ayden but aside from the restaurant I do martial arts, Jujitsu. Sometimes Ayden and I will just get in the car and head to Whistler and just hang out. When I am not training (Jujitsu) or doing other things in addition to my work is when I find I can get a bit crabby and I’m not as passionate. With the staff – even if you just look at the name ‘Ensemble’ – it’s about our team and the guests being together. A restaurant can be a pretty special place to work when you have right people. It’s a fun business – it’s a stressful business but we get to be artistic and creative and it’s really important to have fun. Something that is probably not standard or traditional in the kitchen is to play music during service. We have it going all day long – it creates a certain mood, it’s fun and everyone can relax and enjoy their time there. Everyone needs discipline and I can do that too but at the end of the day it’s about treating each other well and all being part of the family.
FV – You lived and worked in many cities around the world – would you say Vancouver is where you are going to stay?
DM - Absolutely. I will probably never leave Vancouver. I moved to BC from Saskatoon when I was 15 and it’s home for me. I love Canada. The quality of life is so great. It’s still a relatively small city – you can hop in your car in the middle of the day, drive along the ocean, take a break – it’s just beautiful here.
FV – Do you have any advice or suggestions for anyone about to embark on a career as a chef?
DM - Yes, get a job first, don’t go straight into school. A lot of this job is about passion for what you do. Get a job where you can get a good start, get trained on the basics and you will find out right away if you have a natural skill for it. Working in this business means giving up your weekends and holidays, trips to Vegas with friends… First work and find out if you love it and if you can be committed to it before you pay a huge amount of money on formal education.
FV - Share with us: Your biggest achievement so far?
DM - First I would have to say having my son. Taking care of him and being a full time father, as well as a chef – that is the biggest achievement for me as a person. Professionally, and I’m not really into awards but I was the youngest chef to receive the Grand Chef award when I was at Lumiere. I guess owning my own restaurant in downtown Vancouver at 31 is pretty good too.
FV - Your favourite restaurant other than your own?
DM - We eat pretty casually – it’s not like we go to fine dining restaurants all the time but when we’re not eating really casually I’d say La Buca, Ayden and I go there every few weeks.
FV - Is Ayden showing any signs of taking after dad?
DM - Kind of, he comes to Ensemble once a week or so – he has a little chef’s jacket. I think he would be more of a front of house kind of guy though.
FV – Is he a charmer?
DM - Yes, and he’s a pretty mellow kid.
FV - Your favourite ‘comfort’ food.
DM - The ultimate meal for me would be sauerkraut and pork.
FV - What can people expect to see form you at the Eat! Vancouver Food and Cooking Festival?
DM - That will have to be a surprise!
Be sure to visit Dale at the Eat! Vancouver Food and Cooking Festival, or go to his new restaurant Ensemble.
By Dana Mahon
Images supplied by Dale MacKay
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