Stirring the Pot with Chef Chris McDonald

Christopher McDonald is one of Canada’s most respected chefs, known for a creative, first-principles approach to cooking, and an exceptional knowledge of the intricate relationships between food and wine.

Born in Toronto and growing up in New York and later Toronto, his childhood and early interest in food was conditioned by his mother Marion Grudeff’s career as a concert pianist and Broadway musical writer in New York. After returning to New York in 1979 to work in Dodin Bouffant, one of the city’s finest French restaurants, McDonald embarked on what would become a 15-year educational odyssey of learning both the spoken and culinary languages of the world’s great cuisines, studying at the famed La Varenne Cooking School, travelling to Verona, Italy, where he worked as the chef of La Bottega del Vino, and opening the kitchens of two world-famous luxury hotels in Mexico. His international travels also took him to San Francisco, where he cooked at both Stars and Chez Panisse, and to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he worked at the renowned Coyote Café for Mark Miller, for whom he developed the menu at Coyote Café’s Las Vegas incarnation.

In Canada, McDonald has been influential in bringing his experience to several acclaimed projects, acting as chef at the VIP lounge of the Ontario pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver; as chef de cuisine at Centro, a project that introduced the emerging California cuisine to Toronto; as opening chef at Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Toronto, a highly successful project showcasing his southwestern and Mexican culinary skills; and at Massimo Rosticceria in 1990, which drew on an intensely personal vision that grew out of his experience in Italy.

After spending 15 years refining his craft in the finest restaurants throughout the world, chef Christopher McDonald opened Avalon restaurant in Toronto in 1995. Avalon was McDonald’s 11-year project investigating the culinary boundaries of urban fine dining. Two years after Avalon’s daily a la carte menu opened to rave reviews in 1994, McDonald introduced an ambitious six-course gastronomic menu. Avalon continued to push culinary boundaries with the addition of the “Adventure Menu,” a perfectly orchestrated sequence of several small plates incorporating exceptional ingredients, each reflecting a different method of cooking and paired with wines that together created a symphonic progression of flavours. In 2004, Avalon introduced its own artisanal cured-meat program, a labour-intensive and delicious exploration that was expanded at Cava (1560 Yonge Street).

Cava, which opened in May 2006, grows out of McDonald’s desire to return to the exploration of more rustic culinary themes, and to establish a neighbourhood restaurant with a more casual tone.

What inspired you to become a chef?

I decided to learn to cook professionally after working part-time as a waiter and bartender though my final years of high school and university. I found restaurants far more interesting than academia and since I had always enjoyed cooking, thought that I should take it seriously.

What is your favourite dish at the restaurant where you cook and why?

At Cava we serve what we call “Rustic Modern” food in that the dishes come from a traditional core of Spanish/Latin “Cocina” but that we translate these dishes so that they are sensible and accessible for Toronto diners in the 21st Century.

My favourite dish is the one that I am cooking tonight just as your favourite piece of music is the one you are listening to right now. We have a very large menu for a restaurant that cooks everything to order but the seasonal dishes that find their way on the menu, albeit verbally, resonate the most for me.

Three ingredients you couldn’t live without and why?

Three ingredients, hmmm, salt, pepper and water – if you want a cheeky answer. How about garlic, pork and pulses? Good wine, good cheese and good bread?

On your day off – what are you cooking at home? If you’re eating out, where do you go?

Cooking at home for myself, I might make some pasta or roast a chicken, using what’s left for my own lunch throughout the days ahead. For company, the food will relate to the seasons and probably be more old school than inventive. In the winter I crave those meat-centric dishes of Europe, cassoulet, pot au feu and so on.

What’s coming up?

Promoting wild blues in August.