There is no king or queen of urban agriculture in Calgary, but if there’s one guy who’s making waves, it’s Chef Darren McLean who recently converted a barren and life-less rooftop above his restaurant downtownfood into a full-blown permaculture ecosystem. The urbanag project, while not the first of it’s kind (Rouge has one), is intended to educate and start a conversation about our food systems.
I finally found some time to sit down with MacLean and dig a bit deeper into his story. Warning: MacLean is a fast-talking, passionate, no-holds barred kind of guy. He’s an interesting blend of humility, charisma, and the “let’s get shit done” attitude that Calgary is famous for.
I have tried to capture his essence as much as I can. So, if you are easily offended, then well, in MacLean’s own words, you can go fuck yourself.
Tell me a little bit about yourself
I am just a cook who’s trying get by (laughs).
I have been cooking professionally for about 7 years but started at Ricky’s when I was 13 as a line cook. I grew up in Calgary mainly but have always been around farms and rural cultures around Innisfail and Alberta.
I went to university for Finance, realized didn’t like too much, so switched my focus back to cooking.
What is your inspiration behind downtownfood?
We wanted to bring something new and exciting to the city. We keep our menu small and very interesting. There are no super-safe items. I try to bring out the natural flavours in the ingredients we use.
The vision behind downtownfood is that it is an amalgamation of food that occurs downtown. The heartbeat of any city is the food downtown – we are trying to encapsulate the essence or soul of what downtown food should be.
Our lunch menu is very street food-esque. For instance, our burger comes with a free strawberry milkshake – we don’t tell you it’s coming with one, we just surprise you with one. If you want chocolate or strawberry, then quite frankly, you can go fuck yourself cause it’s only strawberry for me.
What is your definition of “interesting”?
That’s a very interesting question. I want to do things that are new and different, something that you haven’t seen before. I like to challenge conventional notion of what certain foods are and get people talking about food in terms of where it came from, and so on.
Sounds like you are integrating a little bit of molecular gastronomy into your food.
We do. We cure our own bacon; we spherify and foam ingredients when it makes sense. Absolutely.
But technique for technique’s sake is a waste of time. If the technique works and adds to the plate, then I am all for it. But I don’t want to put a bunch of fucking spheres and foams on a plate just cause it’s cool to do.
If it doesn’t taste good, who cares what it looks like. It’s the flavours that preserve memories.
So you prefer the term “modernist cuisine” to “molecular gastronomy”?
Food should have soul. You have these chefs who are very technical and their dishes look beautiful. But if it tastes like a fucking paper bag, who cares? Molecular gastronomy has developed into modernist cuisine. Everybody can spherify – it’s not a secret – we can take it now and apply it to modern cuisine as it makes sense.
Modernist cuisine essentially is a portrait of the latest and greatest techniques of the 20th century. It is still rooted in classical cuisine and if you don’t understand the latter, then the modernist cuisine is a waste of time.
It’s cool. It’s really cool. But man, nature did it best. Why mess with it?
Give me a brief description of the urban agriculture project you started at downtownfood.
It’s a 2000 sq. ft. roof top space that we have converted into a permaculture ecosystem. We partnered up with REAP (Respect for Earth & All People), Greengate Garden Center & Alberta Beekeepers Association to create this ecosystem in a barren dead zone.
We have two beehives, solar drip irrigation, a rain catch and 36 pots amongst many other things. There are no artificial pesticides in use – it’s all natural compost.
This isn’t just a bunch of hippies getting together to plant some seeds and grow food. We have meticulously thought about it as a system all they way down to plant spacing and the plant arrangement.
That’s quite a massive undertaking. What inspired this?
You know, growing vegetables has become so foreign to us. Sixty years ago, there were no supermarkets. If you told someone you were growing veggies in your backyard, they would give you this wtf look. In a whole generation, we have managed to entirely disconnect ourselves from the food system. That’s not right.
I am an activist. I want to change the food system from the inside by leading the conversation and getting people to understand where our food comes from.
What kind of reactions have you gotten from people?
The groundswell of support has been amazing. I have random people living in skyscrapers above the garden who love seeing things grown in a barren dead space. Random people tweet me or drop off their plants for the rooftop garden.
Did you envision this as a community project from the start?
I am just an ideas guy who gets shit done. Quite frankly, I don’t understand the fundamentals of growing food. I just called up Greengate and started chatting with them. They got so excited, they donated everything.
People wanna eat real stuff man. Get a strawberry from Broxburn Farms and compare them with the California shit that is artificially ripened. You will know what real strawberries taste like.
How does one get started, especially if you live downtown and don’t have a backyard?
Get a planter, fill a box, and plant some shit.
If you get stuck, go to Greengate Garden Centers, tell them what you want, and they will know what to do. Start small with one thing at a time.
So what’s your long-term vision for this project?
I want to become a node in the community. My vision is to help people understand the culture of food and where food comes from.
In 6-7 years from now, I want to spearhead a food stop in the inner city. It’s essentially like a food bank, but instead of getting canned food, the needy get hot, freshly prepared meals from locally sourced ingredients.
I want to take half an acre out somewhere in the inner city and feed people. I grew up poor. My mother worked two jobs to support us. I ate a lot of canned food growing up.
Food is a fundamental human right.
MacLean was kind enough to provide me a sample of his watermelon salad. I am not going to into the details of what was in it – you can go to his restaurant and find out yourself – but suffice to say, I *got* his philosophy and passion. The entire dish tasted like watermelon – that was the singular focus of the dish and it was executed well.
Watermelon is so fucking delicious – why would you want to change it and make it taste like anything else?