Celebrity chef Mark McEwan has a lot on his plate this holiday season. Aside from stocking his Don Mills grocery store, McEwan, with gourmet products and whipping up decadent fare at Toronto’s One Restaurant, he’s also hosting a Stoneleigh Vineyards Facebook contest – where one lucky Canadian will win a five-course dinner for 10 prepared by the chef himself.
We spoke with the acclaimed restaurateur and Food Network personality (he’s a judge on Top Chef Canada!), who dished on his holiday menu, a celebrity crush he’d like to invite over for dinner and what he would cook for the Duchess of Cambridge.
What do you typically prepare for a holiday meal?
I like doing a goose for Christmas. I always do a farm-raised goose and a berry vodka sauce, with a rich, savoury stuffing on the side and a wild rice base. I love goose as a protein rather than just the traditional turkey but, then again, I love turkey as well. When you do a turkey right, it’s crazy good.
What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when they’re cooking a big, holiday meal – like turkey?
They overcook it. They kill it. They leave it in for like, nine hours, and you don’t need to do that. I recommend brining, which helps to maintain a really high moisture level and you add certain solidity into the meat. Typically, though, people err on the side of cooking too much.
What tips do you have for an amateur chef who is in charge of cooking a Christmas dinner?
Let me just say, turkey is not easy. Turkey is one of the hardest things for people to cook. I think it’s the most intimidating protein for the average person, so I would recommend a beef tenderloin for someone who is intimidated. All you have to do is sear it off and roast it in the oven.
Do you have any family recipes that make their way to the holiday table every year?
My grandmothers always did a lot of preserving, so we always have little baby pears in ginger syrup. My grandma’s chili sauce will always be on the table, along with her bread and butter pickles. They’re standard items for us that we love.
Do you have any tips for entertaining and cooking at the same time?
Well, Thanksgiving and Christmas are always the heavy-lifting meals – they’re the two hardest meals of the year. I would say don’t stick your arm out too far. Do what you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to have too many items – just concentrate on one or two things you choose to do, and do them well. Then, I would really recommend that you do a lot of cheating. Buy your homemade chilli sauce or your gravy at a specialty store. Leverage off other people’s expertise, because the worst thing that can happen when you entertain and you try too hard is that you’re so stressed out. You’re exhausted and you don’t have any fun. You need to have fun when you have people over.
How important is wine?
Very. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a great deal of money. Two wines that I drink all the time at home are New Zealand wines. One is $17.55, a Sauvignon Blanc, and it’s from Stoneleigh Vineyards out of New Zealand. They also have a Pinot Noir that sells for $19.95, which is really excellent. So they’re easy wines to drink, affordable, and they work. But I like to start out with a cocktail – maybe you do Manhattans, maybe you do classic martinis, or you do a spin martini, like pink grapefruit. I think that’s always interesting.
What do you recommend for setting a really beautiful table?
I like natural better than fussy fancy. I prefer more of a dressy country table than a dressy city table. You can have antlers, pine ferns, candles – I find that super chic. It’s very sophisticated, and at the same time it’s comfortable.
If you were hosting a dinner party, who would you invite?
I don’t get that starstruck, but I would say Eva Green would be my ultimate dinner guest. I think she has the most amazing eyebrows. My wife knows all about it and she knows about my crush on her, so she wouldn’t be jealous. So that would be my ultimate guest to invite for my dinner party. [Laughs]
What would you cook for Eva?
I’d cook her the Christmas goose! I’d bring out the big guns.
The Royal Family is coming over for dinner. What do you serve them?
I think they would love my goose dinner, but I also think the Royal Family is so sick of fancy – that would be my guess. They’re so sick of pomp and circumstance and cutting ribbons, that if you made a great pot roast they’d probably be thrilled.
What about dessert?
For Eva Green, it would have to be chocolate. I’d make little miniature cakes that are decadent, almost truffle-like, with nut accents and praline and chestnut purée. For the Duchess, though, I would make her white cake. We do a white cake, which is a vanilla genoise and has a citrus curd inside. White icing, white toasted coconut on top and we serve it on a white pedestal stand, and it’s my favourite little dessert. I think the Duchess would love that.
How would you entertain the royals?
Well, I think the boys would be easy to entertain. They seem pretty down-to-earth to me. I’ve met Prince Philip actually – twice. He was charming, very elegant. I think it would be fun to get in the head of the royals for a day or two. I can’t even imagine their life or being burdened with that, but I think they do a very good job of being the Royal Family.