“I love Asian food, period. It’s the food I grew up eating with my neighbours. People think of terroir as the taste of place, but terroir is heavily influenced by the people who settled there,” says Darren Maclean, chef/owner of Shokunin.
Born in Innisfail, MacLean’s family moved to an ethnically diverse area of Calgary when he was 12, and his love of Asian food stems from the time spent in his friends’ homes. He’s worked in kitchens ever since, and was often promoted, “But I was never really ready for those positions, so it never lasted long; I didn’t know how to handle being in charge because I was young,” he says.
“I worked at a golf course and became the head chef at 22, and developed a table d’hôte menu that John (Gilchrist) tried and quite liked. And I didn’t even know who he was and he didn’t know who I was.”
MacLean first saw whole salmon filleted, and classic French techniques at Murietta‘s, and decided to go to Stratford Chef School. On graduating, he worked for his mentor, Aaron Linley, whom he’s still really close to, before returning to Calgary and opening his own restaurant, Downtownfood.
“I was 26 years old and very arrogant nine years ago, and I thought I was going to change Calgary’s dining scene, but nobody has that much influence,” says MacLean. “As a chef, you have to have a tremendous amount of self-belief to put yourself out there in front of people. That’s why sometimes chefs don’t get along with other people; you win or lose based on what people think of you.”
He was ambitious, raising pigs and planting a rooftop garden, but was surprised by the negativity around trying to be different. “I always really wanted people to just eat better food and eat cleaner food,” he explains. “And so I didn’t understand. I’m not a political person, and I never will be.”
MacLean closed Downtownfood and opened Shokunin, but from it he was selected for Cook It Raw and garnered international attention, ultimately leading to an invite from Netflix to compete in ‘The Final Table’. Much has been written about the hugely successful TV contest. Shokunin now has fans all over the world, and MacLean is planning new ventures. “I know we’re doing something right,” he says. “And I think that locally, if we cared more about the food and less about the personality behind it, we would do a better service.”
So what bottle is MacLean saving for a special occasion?
“It’s my favourite sake – Kuheiji Junmai Daiginjo. It’s beautiful; it tastes like a Riesling,” he says. Kuheiji is a cult brewery from Aichi Prefecture, and pioneers of using vintage rice and aging sake to develop complexity.
“It’s actually a gift from Mitsuru (Hara – now MacLean’s sous chef), and it’s really special. He gave it to me when I opened Shokunin,” the chef continues.
“Mitsuru is a perfect example of a genius who closes his restaurant and then becomes a sous chef at a three Michelin star in two months, then runs their Tokyo operation for a year. It’s ridiculous that type of brilliance isn’t always acknowledged, and he will be the chef of the new restaurant.”
“It’s a place to showcase others, and that’s what I want to do. I’ve always been interested in collaboration, so it’s really cool that I haven’t opened the bottle because I’ve been looking for the right occasion, and we’re going to open it on the opening night.”
“It’s a magnum and I’m going to share it with everybody. I’ve never been more positive or more happy, or more excited about Calgary, the food scene and my role to play in it, and Canadian cuisine, that I am now.”