Top Chef winner Dale MacKay swears he's not so intense in real life

The Globe and Mail

Dale MacKay wants you to know he's not as serious as he appears on TV.

The highly driven Vancouver-based chef emerged as the winner of the first season of the culinary competition Top Chef Canada on Monday night, securing bragging rights, the $100,000 grand prize, and a GE Monogram kitchen worth $30,000.

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Since taping the show last fall, Mr. MacKay, executive chef of Daniel Boulud's now-closed Lumière, has opened his own French restaurant in downtown Vancouver, Ensemble. He also has plans for another, more casual, venture.

MacKay admits to The Globe he may have come across as "a bit of an ass" on the show, but he swears he's not as intense in real life.

Was it difficult to keep your win a secret for so long?

Yeah, I mean obviously, you don't want it to get out because it would really ruin the show. But everyone's testing you all the time, like, 'Did you win? Did you win? Do you have a GE Monogram kitchen in the back there?'

So what was the first thing you did when you were finally able to talk about it?

I did a fundraiser for a charity that I'm quite involved in in Vancouver called the Boy's Club at Templeton Secondary School that has a culinary program where I help train the kids. I flew Dusty [competitor Dustin Gallagher, chef of Toronto's Grace restaurant]from the show out to do a couple of courses for the fundraiser as well. So we were all out, friends and family, at my restaurant Ensemble, and we just celebrated and partied it up.

Has being on Top Chef changed the way you cook at all?

One thing I've taken from the show is everyone says, 'Dale, he's all fine-dining.' So I'm taking that as a challenge. I'm planning on doing something extremely, extremely casual but that's still going to be refined. I'm working on it, so I can't really say anything [about the details]until I actually get it done.

Did you put any of your dishes from Top Chef on the menu at Ensemble?

Yeah, quite a few. I think it's nice when people can come to the restaurant and judge the food for themselves. There's about five or six dishes from the show on the menu. I've got the 'precious pavlova'- it actually says that on the menu - I've got the soufflé, the melon soup, the black cod with Thai broth, the pulled pork sandwich, and I think I'll end up putting a couple more on there.

You disagreed with the judges' assessment of a several of your dishes.

Yeah, a few of them. And that's kind of the name of the game. Maybe I'm just a little bit too vocal with my disapproval of what they thought. One thing maybe I learned from the show is just to shut up and sit back, but I've been trying to learn that lesson my whole life.

Was it hard to take?

Criticism is fine, but it's all down to your own opinion, right? On the American version, everyone kind of has different styles and stuff, whereas I think we were encouraged to do comfort food and rustic food a lot. And, you know, it's Top Chef, right? It's not comfort food-cooking. I came here to try to be Top Chef and I felt that maybe I was being kind of reprimanded sometimes for doing fine dining. Fine dining isn't for everybody, but it's a side of food that I love. It's not about being high-end and being elite. It's about looking at food in a certain way and being able to marry flavours in a really clean way.

What was the most difficult challenge for you?

My least favourite was clearly doing the street carts. And I want to clarify something, for sure - I love street food. But it was more the fact I had never eaten Trinidad food and not being able to research it. And I just didn't understand the fact that the deeper we were getting into the competition, the more hokey the challenges were seeming to get. You'd think if you were getting to the final five and six that you'd be doing more elite challenges. Nobody in the final five wants to go home for street food. At the same time, I know I was being a bit of an ass in that episode, a bit of a douchebag, but what are you going to do?

How did you feel about how you were portrayed on the show?

In the competitive side of it, for sure. But at the same time, they didn't show any of my humour at all. I'm not a complete OCD, competitive [personality] I definitely did get along with the majority of the cast. But that's what you sign up for. They chose me to be that guy, and that's fine by me. It is what it is. You try to please everyone, you won't please anyone. You don't necessarily have to love me to come to my restaurant and try my food and enjoy it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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