Chef Darren MacLean Talks Sustainability, Seafood and Fourth Street.
CALGARY, AB | March 2, 2020.
Emily Ptak – @ptakandco
Shokunin is one of Calgary’s premier restaurants, heralded by the National Post as a singular reason to make the trek to western Canada. Currently positioned at No. 21 on coveted Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list, 4th Street is blessed to have a top-rated Chef in our midst. When I contacted Chef Darren for our interview, I could hear the din of the busy kitchen in the background as his warm and friendly voice beamed into my ear. Like a salmon swimming against the current, Darren’s passion, energy and drive are easily noticed, “Fourth Street, to me, is just this place where cultures collide. I like that it’s special, it’s more of a neighbourhood, even though it’s very trendy and upscale, it’s on the leading edge of what neighbourhoods are like in Calgary.”
Having dined at Shokunin several times myself, I know exactly what he means. Fourth Street exudes this beautifully woven tapestry of cultures, pressed up against each other, respecting and embracing one another. Japanese restaurants abut Mexican restaurants. Doctor offices share walls with boutique floral studios. The vibe at Shokunin is this eclectic blend of high-class dining with a street-level feel. I can’t remember a dinner where Ja Rule or Notorious B.I.G. didn’t end up cycling through the playlist at one point or another, as I dined on sustainable scallops stunningly presented in large, opalescent half-shells.
He continued, “I like the proximity to 17th Avenue, but I like that Fourth Street has a very individual and unique character. I think that’s the most exciting thing about continuing to inspire other people whom I meet on Fourth. To me, everything comes down to people and diversity. The experience on Fourth Street with the local businesses is that it’s about the clientele. It’s about the people, that’s who drives this. Fourth Street has always been dynamic – and that’s why I opened Shokunin in Mission.”
Given Chef Darren’s commitment to his craft, and his community, it’s no wonder that he continues to thrive and succeed – even when some businesses in Calgary are closing their doors for the last time. He mused over the success of his restaurants with me, despite the economic downturn we are in the midst of,
“When facing a recession, people eat and drink more; particularly, alcohol consumption goes up.”
I laughed and jokingly pondered why this might be. “It’s true, it’s actually a true thing,” Darren exclaimed. He continued, “but I’ve always tried to look at my restaurants as separate from the economy, in the sense that Alberta has always had a commodity-based economy. We’ve had extreme highs and extreme lows. That’s why I love a niche restaurant. I think they’re very special.”
It’s true that the innovation taking place at Shokunin has not been dampened by any economic failings in Calgary. In fact, things have been so good that Chef Darren opened a second and third restaurant in East Village Calgary. Canada’s latest, and highly anticipated restaurant, NUPO opened mid-January 2020. Tucked in the back of NUPO is the hidden restaurant, EIGHT, which opened two days after NUPO.
When you consider vegan restaurants, especially in Calgary, they typically provide a singular vegan offering, or perhaps a few meat dishes to appease their carnivorous guests. “I find it really interesting that you’re marrying vegan and seafood together. What led you to blend these opposing offerings?” I asked him. Darren laughed, cutting through the brouhaha of the kitchen’s noise, “First, I’ll add to that. Why are they opposing? I think vegetables go hand-in-hand with anything. You can go out to a restaurant, but you always have a starch, greens and meat. So we just eliminated the meat and replaced it with fish.”
NUPO has a very special feature that, according to Darren, is only available in L.A. and Calgary (take that to your American friends who think Canada is boring)! The special feature is a custom-built dry-ageing chamber for fish. “The idea of trying to find ways to preserve fish is sort of the goal of the fish itself, with pickled herring in the Nordic countries as an example. The first time I had dry-aged fish was in Japan, eight years ago. It was dry-aged tuna and it tasted like premier steak. It blew my mind. I didn’t understand how a fish could taste that way,” Darren told me.
People fly from all over the world to dine at Chef Darren’s restaurants; when a ticket to Japan costs a grand and a meal at Shokunin is $150, the choice is an easy one. NUPO and EIGHT will be no exceptions; especially with the unique offerings at both. Darren views these restaurants as an extension of Shokunin. He ruminated over his choice of opening world-class restaurants right here in the world’s biggest small town:
“Why Calgary? Why not? It’s a dynamic, exciting city full of entrepreneurial people who want to do amazing things. They try things, they’re innovative and it’s absolutely amazing. Calgary deserves the best that I can provide because Calgary is so incredible.”
Chef Darren is also widely acclaimed for his perseverance and dedication to ocean sustainability. For him, it’s not a buzzword or a bandwagon. It’s a methodology, the true essence of him, and way of being. “I have a real sense of sustainability of our oceans, and I want to see that progress. I believe we have to start at the bottom with our fin-to-scale movement.” This fin-to-scale concept is something he utilized while competing on The Final Table (Netflix, 2019) when he made a dish using the fish’s head, liver and heart. Consuming all parts of an animal is a nod to our Indigenous Canadians, and allows Chef Darren to create lush, flavourful dishes, beautiful sushi and not waste a scrap.
NUPO also provides a unique dining experience known as omakase, which Darren explained translates to “in the chef’s hands”. It’s like a set menu without a menu. Chef Darren and his team prepare what they think is best, what is the freshest, and it’s a way to literally put yourself in the chef’s hands. He explained to me that this also allows him to serve dry-aged fish at the best time: “With aged fish, certain fish tastes better at seven days versus nine days, four days versus twelve. Omakase gives us the opportunity to always provide the customer with the fish at its peak perfection.”
If you want to secure a reservation at NUPO or EIGHT, plan well ahead. EIGHT is fully booked out until May 2020, with NUPO also filling up quickly. Make sure you follow the restaurants on social media (links below) to see updates about reservations. We also highly encourage you to sign up for their email list, which will deliver key dates directly to your inbox. Of course, when a craving for seafood strikes, you’ll always have your favourite spot, Shokunin, in the heart of Fourth!