Choosing to wash dishes at a St. John’s restaurant is quite possibly the best decision Mark McCrowe could have made fresh out of high school.
It was there at the Pepper Mill restaurant that McCrowe, already passionate about food, first got a chance to watch chefs up close.
“I kind of got the bug to become a chef watching the guys cook,” said McCrowe, who later prepared meals at the Pepper Mill before leaving Newfoundland and Labrador to train for a year at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver.
McCrowe now owns two popular restaurants in downtown St. John’s.
After working as a chef for several years at Aqua on Water Street, an opportunity to purchase the restaurant came his way.
With help from his mother, Gertrude Griffin, McCrowe bought Aqua in the fall of 2008 and reopened it a few months later. It serves a variety of creative dishes, most of which involve seafood.
In November 2012, McCrowe opened his second restaurant. The Club on Duckworth Street is a gastropub that reimagines traditional pub and steakhouse fare.
Telegram food columnist Karl Wells included The Club in his list of the Top 10 restaurants in the St. John’s metro area for 2013.
“It’s definitely a lot harder,” McCrowe said of having two restaurants instead of just one.
“There’s a lot more staff and double the amount of work.”
It appears the hard work is paying off for McCrowe. His businesses have attracted national media attention, with The Club soon to be featured on The Food Network’s television series “You Gotta Eat Here!”
McCrowe is also a contestant in the inaugural season of “Chopped Canada.”
His appearance in Episode 10 is scheduled to premiere March 6 on The Food Network. Filming for the series took place in Toronto.
“I’m a big fan of The Food Network and those types of shows,” he said.
“I’ve always been sitting around with my buddies watching those shows and imagining being on there. I think I got an email at Aqua about a casting call for Canada, and I thought I might as well go for it and see if I can get on there.”
Along with photographer and fellow cook Sasha Okshevsky, McCrowe has been working on a book that takes Newfoundland and Labrador food into new areas.
“We had this idea for a cookbook based on taking a lot of local ingredients and twisting them in our own sort of style, like maybe a more modern approach to Newfoundland and Labrador ingredients. We just wanted to showcase what local producers are doing here and put it all together in a little book.”
“Island Kitchen: An Ode to Newfoundland” will be published in May by Creative Publishing.
What is your full name?
Mark Gerard McCrowe.
Where and when were you born?
January 1983, and I was born in town at the Grace Hospital.
What is the first meal you can remember cooking?
When I was young, me and my brother always used to watch “Wok With Yan.” I became obsessed with it, and I used to tape off every episode. I think I still have them at my mom’s house on VHS. I got pretty hooked on that, and I picked up a wok and a cleaver. I was probably 13 years old or something. I started cooking stir fries — beef and broccoli, stuff like that — for my family. That was probably my first real cooking inspiration.
What’s your favourite website to visit?
Well obviously Facebook (laughs). That’s the one I visit the most. I like Vice (www.vice.com) a lot. I like to look at the food section they do. They do some really cool online videos at really cool restaurants. There’s good articles in there.
What music are you listening to these days?
I like everything. I grew up listening to a lot of punk rock and alternative. Lately if I’m out around, I tune into CBC Radio 2 a lot. They’ve got some pretty good tunes on there. I’m even into a bit of classical these days (laughs).
If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
(Laughs) That’s a funny question. I don’t know. Conan O’Brien maybe.
What’s your favourite meal to make?
At home, if I’m whipping something up quickly, I always go for a really spicy, garlicky, gingery noodle stir fry. That’s my go-to if I’m cooking for myself or a couple of people.
What’s your favourite meal to eat?
The answer is Jiggs’ dinner.
Where did you have the best Jiggs’ dinner?
Well, my nan’s, of course (Celine Griffin).
Who do you look up to?
I look up to the guys who have been working with me for years and help make the restaurants run smoothly.
Is there any type of food or ingredient you’ve struggled with for cooking?
In my free time, I always like to try different types of food and different cooking, different cuisines. I have done a basic pastry course, but I’d say if there’s one thing I’m not that comfortable with, it’s making really intricate pastries and tempering-chocolate work. I just don’t have that natural pastry-chef touch. I’m more of a line cook.
If you could have anybody cook for you, who would it be and what would they make for you?
Do you know who Jacques Pépin is? He used to cook with Julia Child. He’s a pretty famous French chef. He’s one of my idols. He’s an old school guy, kind of a master of French cooking and techniques. I’ve always sort of idolized him. I’d say Jacques Pépin. He’d cook me a chicken ballotine.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I’ve always been a chef, so I don’t really give it much thought. The only other thing I’ve ever thought about doing was maybe teaching grade-school history or something to do with Earth sciences.
What’s your most treasured possession?
Probably my two restaurants. Yeah, definitely.
Where’s your favourite place to be in Newfoundland and Labrador?
Probably St. John’s. I do love going out around the bay. I like the downtown scene. I did spend a lot of time in Long Harbour as a kid ... fishing and fooling around in the woods.
What advice would you have for a chef who is just getting started in the restaurant business?
There’s a lot of people watching chefs on TV lately, and it doesn’t really paint a clear picture of how difficult it is to work in or run a restaurant. I think before someone really jumps into it, they need to understand how labour intensive it is and just be sure they have the passion and dedication it takes to pull it off. … It takes a long time to build your skills. … You really need to love food.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I’ve been playing drums most of my life. I got a new set of drums a few months ago, so I like to fool around every now and then when I get time.
If you could time travel, where and when would you go and why?
I’ve always sort of fantasized about going back in time to downtown St. John’s — just before the great fire — and maybe see what the streets used to look like before that.
What’s the best thing about your job?
Well, pretty much the whole job revolves around food. Cooking food and just being around food is one of my favourite things in the world.
If you could open another restaurant, what would you like to do with it?
I do have a vision for if I were to open another restaurant. I probably won’t want to give too much away. There are some ideas I have for a third place. But we’ll see how things go over the next couple of years.
What was the best year of your life?
Probably last year. A lot of good things happened. We got The Club opened. We got the publishing company behind us to write the cookbook. We got to do some really fun stuff over the summer. We cooked in Burlington with Shaun Majumder at The Gathering, and we cooked at Roots, Rants and Roars (in Elliston) with Todd Perrin and a bunch of really great chefs that I look up to from across Canada who came out. It was a pretty action-packed year.
If you could travel to anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I’d love to go to San Sebastián, Spain. They have amazing food there, traditional food and more-modern Spanish food as well. I think in San Sebastián, Spain, there is the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita. It’s one of those crazy food cities where everyone is obsessed with food and the quality of food there is unreal. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Other than that, probably Tokyo or somewhere where they have amazing street food and chicken satays. I haven’t travelled a whole lot. I have been across Canada. Montreal is probably my favourite food city in Canada. I always check out some really good restaurants there. Montreal and Vancouver are my two favourite food cities in Canada.