Chef Sean MacDonald on edible shapes, collaborating with other chefs, and living in the present

Ever wonder how rising chefs stay on top of their game? Chef Sean MacDonald is known for creating stunning dishes that are just as much a treat for your eyes as they are your taste buds. We were lucky enough to sit down with him and learn more about his signature geometric plating style, the top lessons he’s learned throughout his career, and his exciting new concepts that are in-the-works.

Chef Works: How does it feel to be a young chef with early accolades who’s been well received and respected by your peers?

Sean MacDonald: I should spend more time looking at everything I’ve accomplished, but I’m always looking forward as opposed to looking back — that’s just the way that I think. I still have a lot of goals and ambitions that I want to live out. But I’ve also started to teach myself to live in the moment, to celebrate and enjoy life, and to be more present.

CW: You have a very designer-esque plating style — clean lines, geometry, and just a touch of curiosity built into the way you put a dish together. Is that natural or learned? Do you think this style defines you as a culinary artist?

SM: I think it does — I’ve been thinking about that lately. If I were an artist painting canvases, I’d still be leaning more towards shapes and geometry. Through my career, I found that to be my calling and something that really brings me enjoyment — something that, when I look at the final product, I’m really proud of and excited about.

But it’s definitely taken some time. If you look at the way I used to plate foods, you can see the refinement — I used to put a lot more on the plate, and now I like to keep it to three ingredients. I like to be very clean and to-the-point, otherwise a lot gets lost visually and taste-wise. 

CW: Picture this: you have all the time in the world, high-quality ingredients at your beckon, and a table full of people you’ve never met with one opportunity to make a dish that represents the chef you are today. What do you put in front of them?

SM: I love to have friends over, and that’s the way that I want my restaurants to be going forward. I want it to feel like a table full of friends having a dinner party. That’s the way I love to cook. I feel like you do it for the right reasons that way. It’s not ego cooking — it’s out of love and enjoyment.

What I’d put in front of people is an array of some of my favorite dishes that highlight different techniques. To start, I’d do some preserves, salads, and something light — maybe some cheese-forward dishes but also very artsy and minimalist with the plating. For a main course, I’d do my 72-hour beef short rib that’s brushed with a fish sauce caramel and charcoal-grilled. That’s one of my favorites — such a tasty, simple dish. It’s almost like a Vietnamese meets Korean barbecue meets French beef short rib kind of vibe! I’d do my shellfish bisque with a bunch of different seafoods and confit tomato and have it served with grilled crusty bread or maybe even one of my pizzas. And then maybe my gnocchi or a stuffed pasta. I love using banana in desserts, so I’d do some sort of banana dessert that’s cool to look at, tastes nice, and has great texture.

You know when you go to Korean barbecue, and they put out all the sides and the condiments? I just love the idea of putting an array of different dishes in front of people, watching them go ‘woah!’ and start digging in, getting completely involved in each flavor.

CW: As a traveling chef, what’s your experience traveling within your community and creating beautiful but temporary experiences with your culinary peers and friends? Have there been any obstacles?

SM: What I’ve learned is how to trust my palate, trusting I know what the best of each thing is, and going forward with it. And then, learning little tweaks to make recipes or ingredients work in my favor. It’s also taught me that nothing will go as planned, and I learned that the hard way!

When I did the San Pellegrino Young Chef competition in Milan, I represented Canada and was one of 20 young chefs in the world competing for the world title. My dish was a duck dish, and when I was relaying my information over to the people in Milan, I was telling them, “Hey, I need my duck breasts. I want it whole, on the crown. If you can dry age for two weeks beforehand, that’d be great, please.” And when I arrived in Milan, my duck breasts were already portioned and the skin was waterlogged because they were in Cryovac bags. When the air gets sucked out, all the juices and blood go into the skin. That’s why you want your ducks killed fresh, and then you want to hang dry and age them — so then the outside skin is super dry and you get the best product for crispy skin duck.

So I was scrambling the first day to use different kitchen tools, and I had a commis with a blow dryer, blow drying the duck skin the whole competition pretty much until I was about to cook it. I was able to complete the dish, but obviously it wasn’t my best foot forward. I’ve never really spoken about this, but I was disappointed because I was competing against the best young chefs and also having the best chefs in the world judge my dish. But it also taught me: Hey, nothing goes to plan. You always have to try to adapt and figure out the best way to work through a problem. And that’s the thing with restaurants — every single day there’ll be an issue, and it’s about being a problem solver and a leader and figuring out how to make the guests have the best experience.

CW: Three of your most recent dinners have a Japanese emphasis — what draws you to it?

SM: Japanese food is just so well balanced, simple, and tasty. It’s packed with flavor and the technique is so cool. I love garums and misos and all the fermentation. A lot of Japanese food involves developing flavors over time, and every single technique is so thought out and tested, and there’s so much attention to detail. It just envelopes your mouth with flavor. So, I love that Japanese cuisine allows me to test myself in the kitchen.

I like to cook anything — I’m up for the challenge in any way. Like after COVID, we reopened and we were collaborating with all types of chefs. And we’d do all sorts of different types of cuisines for different collaboration dinners. We really pushed ourselves to learn different cultures, techniques, and processes.

CW: Once the stage is set, whether you’re doing a competition or a pop-up, what are some of the benchmarks that you set for yourself and your team?

SM: Whenever I do a collaboration dinner with another chef, I want there to be enough time for us to plan it out and make it a really amazing experience for the guests. For the guests, it’s not like going out to eat on a normal day. It’s almost like a performance from the chefs. Chefs come out to the table, and a stage is shown. It’s a whole thing. So we make sure that the experience is top notch every single dinner.

I usually don’t make the same dish over and over again. But when I go in, I want to have a thought or concept of the dish locked in. We’ll always plan. With the chefs, we’ll be like, “Hey, what courses do you want to do? What are you happy and excited about cooking these days?” We’ll talk about the ingredients that are in season and the best things they can get in their area. 

And ultimately, I only do dinners with people when it’s going to be fun. We’re not doing it for any other reason than to enjoy each other’s company, learn from each other, and make really cool food together. So that’s the main benchmark.

CW: Can you describe your experience with mental health as a leader in the culinary industry?

SM: Mental health is a huge thing. It’s like what I was saying earlier about trying to live more in the moment. It’s almost like, as a chef, you’re everywhere but the moment. When you go in, you’re thinking: Here’s what I need to accomplish for the day. And then you’re also thinking about what happened in the past, like maybe last service didn’t go so well.

And as soon as you’re done with your prep, you’re cooking in the kitchen — sweaty and exhausted because you’ve already been working eight hours, and you still have another eight to go. And on top of that, people are critiquing every single little thing, and chefs don’t make a whole lot of money all the time. There are all these little things that are tough, and it’s hard to have work-life balance.

It’s hard to be in the present moment and ask, ‘Hey, what do I need right now?’ You forget to even drink water. But this is something that I kind of live by now: It’s best to wake up early, get some physical activity, and drink lots of water (which I’ve recently started doing). Get some sunshine, and stay off your phone. It’s so important to focus on you and your mental health.

CW: As a creative, entrepreneur, and as a chef, how has your vision changed since rooting yourself in the West Coast? Especially in LA, where many people go to follow their dreams?

SM: My vision definitely has changed. I want more of a work-life balance. I want to cook out of love, not because of ego. A lot of times as chefs, you get caught up in trying to be the best restaurant. And then you forget the reason you got into it. Maybe you like the service aspect of it, but for me personally, I love eating food and making food. So I’m definitely touching down to my roots and asking, “What do I love doing?” I love cooking for friends in an intimate setting, doing either really nicely plated dishes or just very simple tapas, and that’s what I’m doing here.

And I’m also creating a better work-life balance. In my restaurants, I like to create the atmosphere that I’d want to be in. I don’t want it to be toxic. People are always playing music. People are enjoying themselves. There’s always laughing coming from the kitchen. We’re focused, we work hard, and we’re professional — but at the same time, we’re enjoying what we do because we love cooking.

I finally feel like myself. I feel like I’m in the right place. It’s so great to be by the beach, in the sunshine, and around positive people who are also go-getters. That’s what’s great about LA — you’re in that atmosphere where everyone is working towards their goals. It’s easy to push yourself to be the best version of yourself every single day, and I love that!

CW: You’ve been working on something special. Can you tell us about your projects and your process of starting a new concept and architecting a new vision?

SM: Yeah, so I’ve been creating two concepts actually! One of them is going to be super fun, and I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be a tapas, pizzeria, and wine bar named Bar Monette after my wife — very simple, really tasty, elevated, and refined small plates and my Neapolitan-style pizza — here in Santa Monica. And the other one, well, I can’t share too much about it yet, but it’ll focus on elevated and unique dishes that people can share. I love the process of sharing small plates. I’ll do a tasting menu every now and then, but I kind of got it out of my system, and I lean more toward tapas-style food.

I’m so fortunate and blessed that I’m literally designing every single aspect of it. I’m working with a contractor to design the look, logo, chairs, tables, the plateware, everything. I’m working with some chefs to create the menu. But everything else, like where things are placed and the aesthetics, I’m designing from the ground up — it’s a dream come true. And it’s so fun because I love the whole concept of restaurant design. I really want to get into that and design restaurants in the future and almost be like an interior designer for restaurants. But food and concept and everything like that is how I’d want to eat if I went out to a restaurant. It’s almost like how I want to welcome people into my space. I want them to look at it and be like, “This is Sean.” I feel like maybe it hasn’t been that way with the past restaurants I’ve worked at or owned, and now I get to fully show my identity and creativity!

Like what Chef Sean’s rocking in his Sound Bites interview? Check in November for the launch of FLEX, a collection of four brand-new, ultra-flexible chef coats designed to move with you.

Follow Chef Sean MacDonald on Instagram at @seanymacd.

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