Does Chef Darren MacLean still need an introduction? His restaurant Shokunin, in Calgary, was named one of the 50 best in Canada and his appearance on Netflix’s The Final Table cemented his superstar status. But as the chef ‘’refuses to let his creativity have boundaries and become rusty’’ and won’t sit on this newly acquired fame, he will soon be opening a new restaurant (well, two, to be exact) in the Alt Hotel Calgary East Village. We met him a few weeks before the grand opening of his impressive project, for which he has a lot of ambition.
Talk to me about NUPO. What will it be like?
NUPO, which is an abbreviation of my mother’s surname, will serve fresh fish, sushi and plant-based dishes in a very sophisticated yet comfortable little space. We will have the first aging chamber for fish in Canada. People will be able to see whole tuna hanging in there through the window. In the back, there is a sushi bar with a counter made of smoked mirrors. Guests will eat directly on it, reaching out their chopsticks to eat their pieces of sushi.
And then, behind another door, separated from NUPO, there will be something called EIGHT. Something I am pretty excited about.
What is the concept of EIGHT?
As the name says, it’s 8 seats only. You’re seated at the bar and you can see the kitchen, the real energy of this restaurant. The concept is tasting menu only and I’ll cook everything. We’ll do wine, beer and sake pairings. It’s going to be fun, a real show. I want to be able to talk to you the whole night. I want to have a conversation. Can we start as strangers and end as friends?
How long have you been brewing this idea?
This idea for this restaurant came to me while on The Final’s Table. I realized, after the show, what a tremendous asset it is to be Canadian. I always thought it was my greatest disadvantage, but it’s actually my biggest advantage.
We are not old enough to have our own cuisine. It takes at least 250 years for a cuisine to develop. And our cuisine is based on immigrant cultures and that is something very interesting to me. In Calgary, we have a lot of Ukrainian, Finnish heritage. Huge Chinese and Vietnamese population, pretty big Korean population. What we do is we take these inspirations and we apply it to our food. That’s something I am passionate about.
This will be the place for me to hold the mirror and show to everybody that when eating one of my plates, you see a bit of yourself and of the Canada. A piece of fish will make you think of BC, or a piece of foie gras will make you think of Quebec.
What kind of cuisine will it be exactly? What will you cook?
This is not a Japanese restaurant. NUPO is sushi and vegetables with Asian flavours. This is Darren MacLean. It’s a reflection of my ‘’Canadianna’’, my cuisine, and it’s ethnically tinted. It’s all about our Canadian ingredients.
When we talk about terroir, we always think about the soil, but never the people. But it’s the people that drive me. That what this restaurant is about. You are going to be: this is not French, this is not Chinese. What is this? This is Canadian.
How would you describe your relation with Germain Hôtels?
I met Hugo almost two years ago to the day. He came to Shokunin and he loved it. The next morning, he came to see me, I didn’t know who he was.
The Germain family saw something in my food and they wanted it in their hotel. I said no a couple of times, but they persisted because they understood the food and my vision. I love the idea to be one of the best restaurants in the country being in one of their hotels. It’s really smart.
For me, I look at the Alt, and I really like the idea of affordable luxury. The rooms are fantastic. My restaurant will be unexpected; it is going to challenge your expectations. Just like the Alt.