Neil McCue

Chef Q&A: Neil McCue, Whitehall Restaurant, Calgary

Education: Professional chefs diploma

Career path: Michelin-star establishments

Years of experience as a chef: 25

What are your earliest memories of cooking?

The smell of my mom chopping furry mint, which grew just outside the backdoor for roast lamb for Sunday lunch.

Why do you think you were drawn to a culinary career?

Both my parents worked when I was a kid, so I’ve had to cook for myself at a young age. That was probably the start of my interest in food.

How would you describe your restaurant?

I’d say it’s a reflection of my culinary past: a combination of my background, my travels and my experience in Europe and in Canada.

If you knew you were eating your last meal, what would you have?

It’d be something sweet, probably trifle. It has everything sweet that I like: cake, custard, jam and cream.

What is your philosophy about food?

Seasonality, for sure. Cooking seasonally is the foundation of my cooking philosophy. This is why you would never find peas and asparagus on my menu in the wintertime. I would love it if everyone cooked with seasonal vegetables and fruits and thought more about the selection in grocery stores, cutting down on their carbon footprint.

Where do you go to dine out?

Ideally, I’d get to try new restaurants all over the world, but when I’m in the city, I try to dine out at some of the new restaurants, and restaurants where I know the chefs are in the kitchen putting their heart into their work.

Neil McCue

What is your favourite ingredient?

Fat, all kinds of fat. I might seem unusual but that’s where the flavour is.

Who were your biggest influences and inspirations for becoming a chef?

There are a few people who have really influenced me: my grandmother, because she was always in the kitchen, cooking in her “pinny;” Marco Pierre White, because he’s just a naturally gifted and innovative chef, even when he was so young when he started his restaurant; and really, just anybody who is dedicated to the craft, putting in their heart and soul into cooking inspires me.

If you knew you were going to be exiled to a desert island, what three ingredients or food items would take with you?

I’d take a whole pig, cheese and HP sauce with me. I’d choose a whole pig because I can make something from any part of it: the fat, the bones, the organs, the skin, everything. Cheese, again, I’d bring because of the versatility and because I can survive on that before the rescue team finds me. I’d take HP sauce because I need something that reminds me of home and that stuff goes with everything. I can always forage for fruits, vegetables and herbs when I’m there. I might even be able to make some salt from seawater, depending on which island I’m on.

What do you think is the most overrated food trend right now?

I personally think chicken and waffles is overrated. A lot of people would probably disagree. Maybe it’s because it’s not a common thing in Europe or maybe because it’s always too sweet when I have it somewhere.

What do you think is the most underrated food trend?

I know this one is on a lot of menus but it’s really not as popular as it should be and has not taken off as much as I’d like: eating offal. When handled properly, any animal part can taste amazing. Things like liver, kidneys, heart, pig’s ears are all delicious if they’re cooked in the right manner.

Is there any type of cuisine that you would like to experiment more with?

Having cooked and eaten all through Europe, I’d like to work more with various Asian flavours and get to know the subtle differences between the different countries, areas and regions. Being classically French trained, I’d like to get to know more about Asian home cooking. Some of their techniques seem to go against what European chefs learned in school, but they work and the food turns out great.

Neil McCue

What are the essential ingredients for success in the foodservice industry today?

Perseverance. The industry can be tough but very fulfilling, and you have to be humble, willing to learn, and put up with the long hours. This goes for cooking as well as understanding the service or front-of-house side of the business. You can’t expect to be successful if you walk into work at noon and leave at 8 p.m.

Which cooking technique or tool is a favourite of yours right now, and why?

Nitrogen. The use of it is endless if you know how to use it. You can use it for more than just presentation, like for preservation and tenderizing. Or, you can use it as such a small component, as a finishing touch, and it can still make such a big difference in a dish.

What is your favourite food combination right now?

Right now, being that it’s winter, I’m really into pine and chocolate. I don’t like chocolate and mint but I think this is more herbaceous and I wanted to do a substitute.

Do you have any culinary guilty pleasures?

Instant coffee. I’m ashamed to admit this, and I probably will deny it if someone asks me about it again, but I need coffee in the morning and when I don’t have time to put a pot on, that’ll have to do.

What are some of the most interesting or unique challenges of being a chef?

Having to reinvent yourself. Having to reinvent your food and constantly adapt to evolving trends without compromise or blindly following them.

Talk a bit about the challenges of opening a restaurant and the Calgary foodservice scene.

The food scene here is growing and it’s great to see, but it definitely has its challenges. For me, the biggest have been the limited variety of produce and human resources. The food scene here is flourishing and that’s great, but the supply of people in the industry can’t keep up.

What advice would you have for aspiring new chefs as they enter the industry?

Read as many books as possible, familiarize yourself with food and ingredients, and importantly, before you go into culinary school, start at the bottom at a restaurant and see how they are run before committing.