Vancouver’s best chef title is about more than just the food
For a chef who built his career on fine dining, Dale MacKay is remarkably down to earth. The French-inspired small plates he serves at ensemble restaurant and bar show off his culinary chops, but the restaurant’s décor isn’t stuffy. His second eatery, ensemble Tap, features burgers and pulled-pork sandwiches to dig into while watching the game on big screens. And although he sources high-quality ingredients for both restaurants and abides by the “local, sustainable” mantra, he doesn’t make a big deal about it. (The burger’s menu description, for example, reads simply: “Lettuce, Tomato, Onion, Pickle, Fries”.)
“We have huge respect for our products, but I don’t like using it as a marketing thing,” he told the Georgia Straight in a January phone interview. “The food stands by itself.”
That no-nonsense attitude extends to his feelings on culinary trends. “At ensemble, we do trends, but I don’t really follow them,” he said in a February interview with the Straight. “I don’t really eat out very much, besides with my son, so I don’t really follow trends and I never really have, as far as what’s…cool.”
MacKay’s cooking clearly hits the mark with Straight readers. In our 15th annual Golden Plate Awards survey, readers voted MacKay as Metro Vancouver’s best chef. They also gave ensemble restaurant first prize in the best new casual restaurant category.
MacKay should be accustomed to best-chef accolades. Last year, he won the title of “Top Chef Canada” on Food Network’s reality show of the same name. But even before he became a household name, he was cultivating his culinary reputation. From his start as a fry cook at a Vancouver chain restaurant, he moved on to kitchens in Italy, Japan, and England, including the Michelin three-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. He returned to Vancouver in 2007 to work at Lumière, becoming executive chef for both Lumière and Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne.
After those restaurants shuttered in March 2011, MacKay opened ensemble restaurant in May. He followed that with the more casual ensemble Tap (often called eTap) in December.
In addition to voting MacKay number one in the best-chef category, readers also honoured two other well-respected chefs.
Rob Feenie placed second. Canada’s first “iron chef” is a Vancouver icon with a long history of fine-dining credentials. He was the original chef at Lumière, where he also ran its more casual sibling, Feenie’s. Currently Cactus Club Cafe’s food-concept architect, he is widely credited for raising the local culinary bar for chain restaurants—and, some say, independent restaurants as well.
Readers voted David Hawksworth third in the best-chef category. Another fine-dining stalwart, he worked for years in Michelin-starred European kitchens and then returned home in 2000 to West Restaurant. He opened his much-anticipated Hawksworth Restaurant last spring in the swish Rosewood Hotel Georgia, serving refined, ingredient-driven dishes. Readers bestowed Hawksworth with top votes in both best fine dining and best new fine dining categories.
Hawksworth’s peers can attest to his talent. In fact, when the Georgia Straight surveyed restaurant-industry professionals, Hawksworth scored number one in the best-chef category. Those in the industry also named Hawksworth Restaurant as best new restaurant; they voted ensemble restaurant second.
Although the Straight assured industry members that their answers would be recorded anonymously so they could speak freely, several people chose to publicly commend Hawksworth and his restaurant on the record.
“I’ve been to Hawksworth probably nine times now. It still gets me excited every time I go there,” said Eric Pateman, president of Edible Canada. “His food and everything that he’s doing—talk about somebody who sets the bar for Vancouver.…You get those dishes where every bite explodes in your mouth and makes you happy.”
“I had a great meal at Hawksworth. A perfect meal,” said Emad Yacoub. The Glowbal Group president praised the restaurant not just for its food but for its flawless operations. “Everything came together perfectly. The service was perfect. The wine was perfect. The food was perfect…from a restaurateur perspective.”
Those in the restaurant industry voted Pino Posteraro, chef and owner of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill and Enoteca, second in the best-chef category. Lee Cooper, chef at L’Abattoir, placed third.
Many of those in the know told Straight staffers why the person they voted for deserves the best-chef award. Although most didn’t want to publicize their pick, they were happy to explain on the record what makes a great chef.
The answers might surprise you.