Cultural Chef Exchange is a five- week-long programme developed with one of Canada’s most acclaimed chefs, restaurateurs and environmental advocates, Chef Darren MacLean. The exchange seeks to actively promote Canada’s culinary background and cross-cultural character around the globe. Square sponsored the Cultural Chef Exchange and powered this mentorship series consisting of five topics, to share techniques, knowledge and encourage discussion of important issues the restaurant industry faces; from environmental stewardship to food waste and sustainability from successful chefs and restaurant owners from across the world.

The second year of Chef Darren MacLean’s Cultural Chef Exchange is underway in Calgary, AB, where MacLean recently met with visiting chef Andrew Clarke to fish, forage, and discuss how to create a restaurant brand that reflects your personality and values. Read on to learn more about their conversations, which have been edited for clarity.

When building your brand, take your time and do your homework first.

AC: If I could give advice to anyone launching a restaurant brand, it’s do your homework — research! Get a consultant you trust to give you their opinions. Don’t jump into something, and don’t always think that your idea is the best. Feel it out with other people and ask a lot of questions. Look at the market, look at the location where you want to do these things and consider the advice you’ve been given before you choose your path forward.

DM: Branding in my opinion, takes time. I think it’s important to have a vision, and then the branding follows, and then you change things and course correct as time goes on. Your own vision of what you want for yourself may change, or your clientele may change, and then you adapt as you grow.

For me, while opening multiple locations and launching different concepts, it’s very important to make sure that my brands don’t cannibalize one another. We define the brands individually first, but they all do fall into the scope of our quality and our vision for the food we want to serve. When I opened Eight, a restaurant that serves contemporary Canadian cuisine, I knew we couldn’t have a brand name that was too definitive, because we play around and change the menu frequently. I didn’t want it to sound Italian, and I didn’t want it to sound Japanese. We came up with the name because there are only eight seats at the restaurant, it’s very exclusive. The branding is very clear—Eight is a reflection of the fact that there’s eight seats, but it’s also a lucky number in a lot of Chinese or Asian cultures.

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To build a memorable brand, be authentic.

DM: When developing a brand in a restaurant, I think you have to focus on your personality first. You have to be very secure in what your vision is, but not so bullheaded that you ignore what the guests are enjoying in your restaurant. It’s really easy to get caught up in your ego and your personality and miss opportunities with your guests. But at the same token, if you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one.

In my work, I leverage my personal values across my brands in ways that are authentic to me. Firstly, I am known for my commitment to sustainable fish sourcing — at my restaurants we cannot source anything that’s not sustainable, or at least rated by the different sustainability brands. Secondly, it’s very important to me that my restaurants are open during certain times of the day. Shokunin is all about late night. We don’t open for lunch. We’re a late night restaurant. Thirdly, we cultivate a culture of performance at my restaurants. We’re very high performing restaurants, so we want our staff to be paid well, and we expect them to perform well. And so those values of high performance and high reward are really, really paramount to my brand.

AC: It’s important that my brand reflects my commitment to embracing the outdoors. I encourage cooking over fire, outdoors, all year round. To me, barbeque isn’t a season, it’s a method of cooking. The concept of Acme Fire Cult was very simple. My partner and I came up with it when we were bored during COVID lockdowns. When restaurants were allowed to open up again, you could only serve food outdoors, and it just so happened that there was a huge car park opposite where I lived. We got some old frames and barbecues out of storage, set them up, and then got loads of tables — it looked like a big beer garden. We cooked very simply, but we cooked from the heart. And the concept really took off. It’s so much fun. I think it’s what I was born to do, just being outside at one with nature and a nice big fire.

Embracing technology is key when it comes to understanding your customer.

DM: A hugely important factor in branding is knowing who your audience is. At my restaurants, I leverage technology to keep an eye on what my customers are after, so I can refocus my menus, if need be. I can look at my Square POS to see what’s selling. It’s a really powerful tool to have in-house, to help you understand your guests and what their needs are. If something’s off brand, you might see it in your sales mix, which is really interesting. So that’s a great way to use technology to strengthen your brand and give your customers what they want.

Leverage your brand to support initiatives that reflect your values.

AC: I suffered from depression in 2016, and I was very lucky to get myself through that with the help of friends, family, and a few other things. I wanted to share my story on social media, and I found that a lot of people were saying that I was saying what they couldn’t say. It seemed like someone needed to be a voice for it. I met another chef on a similar journey and we created Pilot Light, which is a campaign about raising awareness of mental health within the hospitality industry. I’m very glad that I can use my platform as a chef to shed light on this important issue.

About the Chefs

Andrew Clarke
Chef Andrew Clarke

Andrew is an award-winning chef, mental health advocate and live-fire veteran. With 25 years in hospitality as a chef and restaurateur, he is known for his previous restaurants; Brunswick House and St Leonards, as well as co-founding the mental health campaign, Pilot Light. In 2019, Andrew was honoured to receive the Innovation Award at the Craft Guild of Chef’s Awards and later that year he made his way onto the Evening Standard’s ‘Progress 1000’ list as one of the most influential people in London for 2019/20.

Chef Darren MacLean
One of Canada’s most acclaimed chefs, restaurateurs, and environmental advocates, Chef Darren MacLean was Canada’s sole contender and a finalist on Netflix’s global cooking competition ‘The Final Table.’ MacLean is passionate about sustainability and the food building community. While he regularly participates in events as an educator, speaker and culinary judge in Canada and abroad, he is happiest in his kitchens.