Sean MacDonald: “As long as I’m cooking and food is a big part of my life, I’ll be happy”

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Sean MacDonald was named the best young chef in Canada region during the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2016 regional heat and he will now put his passion for cooking to the test at the Grand Finale in Milan under the guidance of mentor chef Normand Laprise.

We spoke to him about his preparations on how he turned a passion into a profession.

My dish is unique because…
My dish is unique because it comes from my gut. I developed this dish one component at a time, tasting each part individually and deciding what to add next. I didn’t use any recipes, each part of the dish I created from scratch using my knowledge of food and what flavour profiles I hoped to achieve.

What are the main influences in your signature dish?
The main influences on my signature dish are my favorite ingredients and my grandfather. My grandpa is important to me, so I wanted to create a dish inspired by him. For my whole life, he has kept candies in his pocket and will always offer them to me when we’re together. He usually has caramel and liquorish candies in his stash. I decided to create a dish based off of those flavour profiles. Duck is one of my favorite proteins and I love the flavor of a perfectly ripe, local carrot. I knew charring the carrots would create the caramel flavour I was looking for. I used fennel and star anise for the liquorish flavor. Another big influence on this dish would be Chef Daniel Humm. His Eleven Madison Park cookbook changed my whole perspective on food and really developed my passion for cooking. 

How are you collaborating with your S.Pellegrino Young Chef mentor in order to perfect your dish for the final?
Chef Normand Laprise is a chef who I have always very much respected. I am honoured to have him as my mentor for this competition. I traveled to his restaurant in Montreal and spent a few days with him and his team. I served them my signature dish and then we discussed how to tweak and refine it. We spent some time in the kitchen as well, cooking a few of the components together and figuring out how to improve them. We now talk from time to time about how to execute the dish in the best way possible, and how to make each bite a memorable one.

What led you to choosing a career in the kitchen?
My mother was a big part of why I chose a career in the kitchen. I spent a lot of time cooking at home and going out to eat at restaurants. After high school, I was unsure of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to become. I had never considered going into the food industry, but my mom encouraged me to go to culinary school. At first I was unsure, but then I really fell in love with it and I have been cooking everyday since.

Who has been a mentor to you throughout your career?
A mentor to me is someone you have worked for or developed your skills under for some time. When it is time to move on, you part ways with them and continue to stay in touch. They continue to have an impact on you and your career. Personally I have never had that with the chefs I have worked for. Chef Andrew Hewson is someone I have always considered to be a mentor. He was an instructor in one of my classes in culinary school. I learned a lot from his classes and immediately felt a positive bond. I have stayed in touch with him and continually use him as a resource for guidance. Another chef who has recently impacted my career is Chef Jefferson Alvarez. Since we’ve met, he has supported me and been a positive influence on my work.

What are your professional ambitions?
I’ve always been the type of person who strives to be the best. I’ll always push myself to be the best I can in every aspect of my life. Naturally, my professional ambitions are to open my own restaurant, to earn a Michelin Star and to make the World’s 50 Best list. I want to do what I love and what makes me happy. I would also love to open another, more casual restaurant. A place to come into work and cook whatever I feel like on that given day. As time passes, my ideas of my professional ambitions might change, and I’m ok with that. As long as I’m cooking and food is a big part of my life, I’ll be happy.

What’s the best dish you ever tasted? Where did you eat it and who cooked it?
I’ve had so many amazing meals and dishes in my life. It is tough to choose which one stands out above the rest. One of my favourties was a dish of 'scallop, kohlrabi, barley koji, beef fat and fermented leek juice', served at Actinolite Restaurant in Toronto by Chef Justin Cournoyer and Sous Chef Barbode Soudi. The second was a 'spaghetti Romano' dish I had in Rome, a couple of years ago. I can’t remember the name of the Chef or the restaurant we were at, but I remember meeting the chef and thinking how passionate and talented he was.

What is the most exciting/challenging element of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition for you?
The most exciting/challenging element for me is cooking for such esteemed and amazing chefs. To have some of the world’s best chefs eat and critique my food will be a big accomplishment for me. Being part of such an amazing competition and representing my country on the world stage is still unbelievable to me.

What will you do if you win the competition?
Honestly, I’m trying to focus on how to win and to not get too distracted about what happens after the competition. Ideally I would like to set up stages at the mentor chefs’ and judging chefs’ restaurants, and other amazing restaurants around the world. Hopefully this would open doors for me to continue to learn and eventually open my own restaurants.