If you’d peeked through the front window of a charming carriage house in Toronto on a recent evening, you would have seen a fun-loving crowd of 12 taking sips of perfectly chilled sauvignon blanc between bites of bright heirloom beets smeared with whipped goat cheese. What you may not have noticed, through the French doors behind them, was celebrity chef and Top Chef Canada judge Mark McEwan calling the shots in the kitchen.
Together with Stoneleigh and chef McEwan, we hosted a private dinner for contest winner Suzanne Van Parys and 11 of her friends. The group dined on five courses prepared by McEwan and two chefs from his Toronto restaurant One, all expertly paired with Stoneleigh wines. McEwan presided over the event, clad in his sharp striped apron, with the ease of a veteran host. “They were an easy group to entertain,” McEwan later said. “They knew how to have fun, and conversation flowed from the moment they came in.”
They were also enthusiastic about the dishes, which were each meticulously plated, served and then described by McEwan. First up, an heirloom-beet salad with whipped chèvre, honeycomb and roasted walnuts was paired with Stoneleigh’s aromatic Latitude Sauvignon Blanc. “It’s a great, crowd-pleasing dish to start with,” McEwan says.
A seafood parfait filled with king crab, spot prawns, seafood sauce and buttered croutons arrived in a sundae dish alongside Stoneleigh’s bright and fresh Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Seared tuna and sweet pea falafel was a light match for the creamy, medium-bodied Marlborough Chardonnay. The final savoury course — roasted veal tenderloin with ricotta gnocchi and chanterelles — was teamed with the easy-drinking Marlborough Pinot Noir. “It was the most classic of the dishes,” McEwan says. “Old school and well executed.” The meal ended with one of the most popular dishes on the menu at One: warm apple pie with salted caramel and sour cream ice cream.
Over the course of the evening, McEwan bounced between the kitchen and the dining room, heating up plates with a hand-held torch one moment, answering guests’ questions about his career and cooking style the next. McEwan says all dinner party hosts should aim for this balance. “Your guests come to be with you — they don’t want you in the kitchen the whole time.”
When entertaining, you may be tempted to serve an extravagant meal, but McEwan says it’s more important to be comfortable with the menu.
“I’m a firm believer that less done well is better than more done haphazardly.” And he’s adamant that you don’t need lavish food and wine to create your own impressive dinner party. “It doesn’t take 20 courses and $5,000 in wine to have an extraordinary meal. Just make sure it’s fresh, seasonable and reasonable.”
Related: See more photos from the evening
Ask a pro chef: Mark McEwan
After dinner, we caught up with the Toronto restaurateur and Top Chef Canada judge to chat favourite foods and perfect pairings
What’s important when pairing food and wine?
You want them to be complementary — neither should overwhelm the other. If you’re drinking a rich chardonnay, the food should have some acidity to balance it out. And vice versa. If you’re eating something that’s incredibly rich, you want a wine that’s brighter and fresher tasting, like a sauvignon blanc.
Rich on rich overwhelms your mouth and is really quite unpleasant. It’s like hollandaise — hollandaise is essentially butter and egg yolks, which on its own would be overwhelming. You add a reduction of vinegar, onion, bay leaf and peppercorns, and all of a sudden, despite the copious amount of butter, it starts to actually taste refreshing. That’s the balance you play on the tongue.
What’s your favourite ingredient?
It changes all the time. I can pick morels and fiddleheads in the woods at my cottage, and those are my favourite. And then baby carrots come up in my garden in July, and those are my favourite. And then beets, and then tomatoes — I like to follow the year as it goes. I just like good product, and I try to use whatever ingredients are most appropriate for the season.
My wife’s meatballs. She’ll make a bunch and pack them in the freezer in portions of eight. When I go up to the cottage on my own, I’ll eat them with some grilled bread, parmigiano reggiano and a drizzle of olive oil.
Good caviar. I don’t think anything tastes better. It’s one of those crazy indulgences when you have friends over and want to celebrate. And there’s great organic, sustainable caviar coming out of the West Coast. It’s almost polite to talk about caviar again.
What do you look for in a young chef?
A genuine eagerness to learn and to please and to fit into a crew. I look for people who work well in a group. You need someone who has that spirit and can handle the pressure of service. It’s a muscular trade; you have to be fast and strong. If you don’t have the temperament, you won’t make it.
Lemony seafood salad
Creamy avocado and tender crab star in this light and refreshing summer starter.
Prep 20 min | Total 20 min
2 1-in. slices French loaf, cut into cubes
2 tbsp butter, melted
227 g lump crabmeat
1 small plum tomato, finely diced
2 tbsp finely chopped chives
2 tbsp lemon juice, divided
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 large head bibb lettuce, leaves separated
1 avocado, sliced
12 medium cooked shrimp, peeled
2 radishes, thinly sliced into half moons
1. Preheat oven to 375F.
2. Toss bread with butter on a baking sheet until coated. Season with fresh pepper. Bake in centre of oven until golden, 8 to 10 min. Let stand to cool.
3. Stir crab with tomato, chives and 1 tbsp lemon juice in a medium bowl until combined. Season with fresh pepper. Stir crème fraîche with remaining 1 tbsp lemon juice in a small bowl until smooth.
4. Divide lettuce among 4 plates. Top lettuce with avocado, crab mixture and shrimp. Drizzle with crème fraîche, then sprinkle with radishes and croutons.
Serves 4 | Per serving 405 calories, 26 g protein, 15 g carbs, 27 g fat, 5 g fibre.
Watch a clip of the event after the 4 minute mark in this video: