Canadian Chef Darren MacLean on competing for a seat at Netflix’s The Final Table

On the new cooking competition show The Final Table (premiering this week on Netflix), Canadian chef and restaurateur Darren MacLean competes side by side against some of the best culinary artisans in the world in a bid to sit alongside a number of international fine dining luminaries. Although the hard working MacLean’s focus on sustainable and internationally flavoured cuisine has made a name for him at home and abroad, he’s also one of the least decorated and celebrated chefs selected for The Final Table, and one who comes from a rather unique background.

The Alberta native grew up in a virtually impoverished family. He was inspired by the creativity of his single mother to take up cooking as a profession. Although he started working in the industry at the age of thirteen as a dishwasher to help provide for his family and he eventually studied at the Stratford Chef’s School, it was tending bar as an adult that would ultimately lead him on a new culinary path. MacLean was introduced to the wonders of Japanese cuisine by popping into a sushi place across the street from the club he was working at. His interest piqued, and instead of training at any number of culinary institutions around the world that many chefs would see as a fast track to success in the industry, MacLean learned the intricacies, flavours, and history of Japanese cuisine from travelling and taking in every bit of information he could. While MacLean doesn’t have the Michelin Stars or James Beard Awards that many of his competitors on The Final Table have, his Calgary restaurant, Shokunin, consistently ranks as one of the best restaurants in Canada and one of the best Japanese fusion spots in the world.

The concept for The Final Table is pretty simple. It begins with twenty-four world renowned chefs paired up into teams of two. MacLean is the only Canadian, and he’s paired up with American chef Timothy Hollingsworth, a Californian with numerous accolades under his equally young belt, who specializes in French Cuisine and left a post at the inimitable French Laundry to open his own restaurant. They work well together despite their varied skill sets because both have an astute eye for detail and they come from similarly hardscrabble backgrounds.

In each episode, the teams will be asked to compose a famous dish from a specific country. Those dishes will be judged by a team of three judges – usually two celebrities and a food critic – and those whose dishes are deemed the tastiest, best presented, and most composed will move on to the next episode straightaway. Those who don’t make that cut will cook again for an award winning, game changing chef from the episode’s themed country, using an ingredient of their choosing. At the end of each episode, one pair of chefs will have cooked their final dish in the competition. After touring through the cuisine of nine different countries, only two teams will remain. At that point, the teams will split up and cook as individuals for a coveted spot at “the final table” alongside the chefs who judged the previous episodes.

We got a chance to chat with MacLean over the phone from Calgary on the day The Final Table premiered on Netflix to talk about the pressures of being in a cooking competition, tricks he picked up along the way, the importance of being detail oriented as a chef, and how the show functions in some ways as a reflection of his Canadian pride.

I’m sure that a chef like yourself that works at the level you work at and has achieved some degree of notoriety has been approached to be on any number of the many competition cooking shows that are on the air now. What was it about The Final Table that made you want to compete on it?

Darren MacLean: First of all, it’s from Netflix, which kind of makes it a bit more legit. Their programming to be has always been conventionally unconventional. They’re not worried about adhering to the status quo because they’re beholden to subscribers, not to advertisers. That was a pretty big thing for me.

The second part was the fact that The Final Table was a truly global culinary competition like nothing else before it. When I spoke to the producers at the beginning of the process, they were very clear that this was always going to be about food and culture, and that there weren’t going to be any hokey elements. If you look at most of the other cooking shows out there, you have to do something outlandish and unrealistic to gain an advantage. You might have to spin a wheel for ingredients, and then you’ll have to make something that includes both strawberries and pulled pork, or something like that. Or you have to climb a ladder to put a fire out every time you have to cross the kitchen. On this show, there’s no immunity. There’s no gimmicks. There’s just you, your teammate, a country’s dish, a really amazing pantry to work from, your wits, and that’s the end of the story.

I was really drawn to doing something like that. I think as chefs today, we all understand personality politics and the nature of that game when it comes to being a part of a television show, and that wasn’t at all a part of The Final Table experience. This wasn’t about outlandish sabotages designed to watch us get flustered. These were serious culinary challenges that showcased our actual talents. Not that there aren’t shows out there that don’t do that, and I’ve seen plenty of culinary professionals do really well on the kinds of shows that are more outlandish, but this show was so food driven and focused that I was more immediately drawn to it.

And that kind of untainted multi-cultural aspect of this was really important to me personally as a Canadian. I really believe that our own cultural mosaic is truly the hallmark of Canadian cuisine. The chance to see chefs from so many different countries and to compete on a level like this alongside each other was unbelievable to me. Then you find out who the judges are, and they’re all these celebrities, food critics, and top level chefs from around the world, and that only enhances the experience and the pressure. You have Michelin Star judges and contestants alike. You have food critics who aren’t a part of the Yelp elite telling you how good your work it. These are legitimate industry professionals who are always in the conversation for every “world’s 50 best” list out there. These are real people with real criticisms. I mean, you still have that celebrity element, which is fun and entertaining, but the drama is always in the creation of the dish and what it means to the culture we have to pay respect to in each step of the competition.

I did want to bring up the judging element of the competition, which is very different on this show and made me think a lot about how much harder this could be. In the first round, you and your fellow chefs are judged by three people, one of whom is a professional food critic and the other two are not. If you don’t get past that round, you have to cook again for a single world renowned chef. In some ways, I think it might be harder to please a team of three people where two aren’t industry professionals than it would be to please a single chef who might be able to see and appreciate what you were trying to do more than celebrity panelists. How did you feel about the judging of the dishes on The Final Table?

Darren MacLean: I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s easier if you have to cook in the second half of the show, because that’s where the real drama and intensity occurs, but you really hit the nail on the head there. When you watch the show, you can clearly see that if we’re asked to cook something like a paella, they just want a paella. Some people want higher elements. You really have to pay attention to the judges personalities, just like you have to in your restaurant.

And when it comes to how I felt, now that I think about it, I think you’re right. In many ways and in terms of the overall anxiety level, it was sometimes much more challenging to cook for the celebrity judges and ambassadors because they’re complete wild cards. But by that same token, I’m a chef-owner of a restaurant, so I’m already putting myself out there every day like that. One of the things that I really learned from the first half of every competition on the show was that eventually you have to stop cooking to only please the judges. You have to understand what you’re doing and cook the food in your style. Applying that to signature dishes is what great chefs do, and you always have to run that risk. You can play it safe, but that doesn’t always work, either. I’ve always been of the “go big or go home” mindset, and I was fortunate enough that my partner was the same way.

One thing that I love about the program and sometimes having to compete in the second half, elimination round of each show was that there was a bit more freedom to push the boundaries because the chef judging us would probably appreciate that. The validation that comes from it if you’re successful is unlike anything else, and sometimes because those rounds are based on ingredients, it just comes to you instantly. In the third episode, I had one of those moments.

It became more nerve wracking the more you feel like you’re getting murdered by these opening judges on the show for not doing anything traditional with the signature dishes we’re given, but the chefs in the second half of the show aren’t looking as much for tradition. The whole point of the competition is to showcase what makes us unique as chefs. If you don’t want us to cook something traditional – and I think the episode where we have to cook a breakfast is a good example of that because you see a lot of similar dishes – that’s just a challenge to become creatively engaged in the first place, and it sometimes requires a lot more thought than something complex.

Honestly, in many cases where we were in the bottom three, it was a lot more fun to participate, and it’s even just a lot more fun to watch. That’s where you see chefs with great ideas and imaginations thrive and excel. You look at chefs that I’m proud to now call friends like Charles (Michel) and Rodrigo (Pacheco) or Ash (Heeger) and Alex (Haupt). Whenever their backs look like they’re against the wall, they just kill it. They’re beasts, and they’re cooking for people who aren’t easy to please. I think that dynamic of how the show was structured was so unique and it really brought out the best in all of us.

Canadian chef Darren MacLean (right) with his teammate for The Final Table, American chef Timothy Hollingsworth

You have such a great dynamic with your teammate, Timothy Hollingsworth, because even though you come from different culinary backgrounds, you’re two of the most detail oriented chefs in the competition. It looks here like French and Japanese techniques together make for a great, unlikely combination.

Darren MacLean: I think that was definitely part of why we worked well together. I was actually initially trained in French techniques and American gastronomy before veering quickly into various sorts of Asian cuisines. When I reached out to Tim, I knew that his French background would compliment me and be really versatile.

We’re both really detail oriented, but our food philosophies are completely different in many ways. One of the reasons I think we worked so well – especially after the third episode, which I think is where our team solidified – was because we realized we could rely on each other’s individual skills and instincts to get through. If I knew, I led. If he knew, he led. We played sous chef to each other all the time, but in a really collaborative way where neither of our culinary voices were lost in the process. Whoever had the best idea, we ran with that and hammered it out together. We weren’t always trying to create something new in tandem, but we always went with what we knew would be the best dish.

You always have your own ego and your own ideas, and sometimes that can be really hard for a chef to put aside. What I think worked best between Tim and myself was that we were already hard fought chefs who scraped for everything we have in the industry. We both came from really crazy backgrounds. We had a certain personal kinship, and we wanted to see each other win at what we loved. I wanted to see Tim win Thanksgiving because it meant so much to him and his family growing up. He wanted me to win Japan because he knew how much that meant to me and how much of my life I’ve dedicated to that kind of cuisine. We wanted to win Italy because we both loved Italy (laughs). It was a really cool dynamic.

On this show there are so many exalted chefs – winners of James Beard Awards, people who have multiple Michelin star restaurants – and people like yourself who might not have any awards, but have made considerable names for themselves around the world. Many of the contestants have also gotten their culinary education  in sometimes less than traditional or hard fought ways. What was it like being a part of a show that showed the diversity among some of the best chefs in the world, and how they all took different paths?

Darren MacLean: I think it’s just like anything else and a part of life that we often take for granted when looking around us. You gotta remember that sometimes you might meet someone and not understand them immediately. You might meet them and think, “Wow, this guy’s a real jerk.” But you really don’t know anything about them, what they’ve been through, or even what happened before you met them that day. People are varied, and I think when some people talk about top tier chefs, they often think we’re all the same. Our races are varied. Our sexual orientations are varied. Our experiences, the way the world has treated us, and the way we see the world is varied. For me, personally, it’s not unremarkable that the selection of chefs on The Final Table reflects that because that’s normal to me. It’s just not what’s often seen or thought about whenever people think of the top chefs in the world. It’s not what immediately pops to mind.

One thing about the show is that most of us are generally in our thirties or just on either side of it. We can remember a time when cooking wasn’t a sexy profession. All of us can remember a time where we heard, “Oh, really? You want to be a chef?” And then, in spite of it, we persisted. There was a time in my younger days, believe it or not, where I hated cooking. It was just a means to an end. It wasn’t until I travelled and tasted different things when that changed.

I think being selected for The Final Table is a testament to the tenacity and talent of everyone on it. It’s a testament to the sheer force of will that it takes to do what some of these people do. People always ask how you succeed and move forward in this industry, and the answer is that you have to will it. Even when you’re dead, tired, and your legs feel broken, you do it. I often think of that Monty Python bit where the knight has no more arms and legs and he says that he’ll bite you to death. That’s what it takes to be a chef. Everyone on this show demonstrates that tenacity. They refuse to say no. They believe in who they are. They believe in their heritage. They believe in their cuisine. It takes a remarkable person to be a chef on the level of these guys.

I mean, I’m not from a hotbed of Canadian culinary culture like Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, either. I’m from Calgary, and I’m not even the only person in Calgary doing things that are dynamic or interesting or fun or boundary pushing. There’s a whole bunch of us here, and even just looking at the food scene here in Calgary, it’s astounding to think about the different backgrounds we all came from. And I think that this show is about the place where all of us can connect: around this Final Table.

And I think that with all of this polarization and in this political climate, it’s important to remember. We’re all just trying to make something happen, and that’s what I saw in each of these chefs. My story isn’t any more remarkable than anyone around me, and in many ways I think it’s less so. Just look at the things that Monique (Fiso) and Amninder (Sandhu) had to go through to get to where they are. Amninder is one of the best chefs in India. When I cooked in Mumbai, she was one of the people everyone always talked about as being one of the very best. To be a woman in that kind of position in India is huge, especially given that the culture still doesn’t openly welcome women in such roles. She’s excelling, and that’s inspiring. You look at one of our judges, Clayre Smith, who I think is phenomenal, and you see that she came up in one of the toughest kitchens in the world to get to where she is today near the top of the UK culinary scene.

What it all comes down to is that every chef on this program – contestant and judge – had to struggle to find their own voice and the place for their cuisine in the world. And I think we’re all still even figuring that out and refining it. I feel like I still have a lot to learn and a ways to go in life. I think I’m going to have a fun and exciting career ahead trying to figure out where this will all take me next. I’ve made lasting connections with people from this show that I still keep in contact with all the time, and I’m still learning from them, and I hope to keep doing so for the rest of my life. I think that kind of sums up my Final Table experience. It was so much more than trying to win something or gain some notoriety. It was about trying to find my place in the culinary world.

And as a Canadian, these kinds of experiences are important to me. This nation is so full of amazing produce, ingredients, chefs, and cultures. Our indigenous, Asian, and Islamic cultures have contributed so greatly to how we see food in this country today. We have so many different threads that contribute to this country that we call Canada. Saying that isn’t hokey to me, and it’s one of the things that makes me proud to be a Canadian. I think that The Final Table is a great way to reflect through its chefs the same pride I feel for my country, and what I love about it.

This show changed and saved my life. It validated everything I had been struggling to do in Calgary. It opened my eyes to new experiences. It introduced me to people I’ve forged strong friendships with. It’s a reflection of a lot of the values I hold dear to me as a chef and as a Canadian. And it showed me that I could compete on an international, Michelin Star level, which I wouldn’t get the chance to do otherwise because there’s no Michelin Star restaurants in Canada. I want to show the world that we deserve them.

All ten episodes of The Final Table are now available to stream on Netflix.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.