Dan McCarthy has travelled a long road to become one of Nova Scotia’s most creative chefs. A fan of cooking since childhood, his first culinary medium was dough. He worked as a pastry chef at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta and the Club Intrawest in Whistler, B.C., before taking a hiatus from the kitchen to work a few “odd jobs.” During his time away from restaurants, he travelled the country before returning to his homestead in the Maritimes to work in some of Halifax’s best restaurants. Now, the 36-year-old rock ‘n’ roller of a chef heads up the new La Trindade and The Listening Room, where he serves up “bad-ass” food, such as braised-pork-belly mac ‘n’ cheese.
How did you know you had the cooking bug?
I grew up pretty much swingin’ on mom’s apron strings. I used to help her a lot, but eventually got to a point where I was like, “Move aside, Mom, I can do this better.” She didn’t like that a whole lot, but she grew to like it because she reaped the benefits of it. From there, I experimented a lot. And, of course, being a kid, I had a few botched dishes that my parents had to suffer through.
Tell me about one of those botched meals.
I remember one that my Dad had to choke down. It was a hamburger dish and I remember it being obscenely over-seasoned with garlic and Montreal-style steak spice and whatever herbs we had in the cupboard at the time. There was definitely a learning curve, but I realize now that it’s the mistakes where we learn the most.
Prior to learning pastry-making in college, did you bake a lot?
Oh yeah, I found it really relaxing. I was always baking bread. I also loved to bake family staples, like brownies, chocolate cake – chocolate being a predominant ingredient.
Did you have a non-chocolate favourite food as a kid?
I remember being very young, like Grade 1 or Grade 2, and Mom would make these Swedish meatballs that I loved. They must have been a pain for Mom because they were hand-rolled, so definitely an afternoon’s worth of work. But I loved everything about them: the flavour, the texture. I loved the smell of them braising and how it filled the whole house. I’d be downstairs playing with Lego or something, and that smell would waft in and I’d be like, “Oh, are we having Swedish meatballs for supper? Awesome!”
What’s your guilty pleasure now, when it comes to food? I assume it’s no longer Swedish meatballs.
I have a lot of guilty pleasures. I absolutely love foie gras. I love it, I can’t get enough of it. Scallops – I love them. But it really does depend on the day. Some days I want haute cuisine, but other days I just want a big, fat, greasy cheeseburger.
You’ve said that art, architecture and music have inspired your culinary pursuits, but how would you describe your cooking style?
I like playing with different savoury components and taking pastry and dessert techniques and throwing them into the savoury world. Like right now I’m doing a short rib that I braise with red wine and cocoa nibs. And as a garnish, I’ll use dehydrated beet chips. I find chocolate and beet is something not a lot of people would think of pairing, but a good bittersweet chocolate really matches with the earthiness of the beets if it’s in the proper ratio.
At home, in your fridge, is there something you always have stocked?
Typically, soda, limes and a bottle of gin. In terms of everything else, I’ve got some lemongrass, a little red curry, some black bean purée. It’s kind of all over the place. I don’t cook at home a whole lot, but I do some testing there.
What’s a typical breakfast for you?
My preferred breakfast is definitely a good old-fashioned oatmeal: a little milk, a little brown sugar, some cinnamon, maybe some almonds. That’s a good solid start to the day. Other days, depending on the night before, maybe it’s a slice of cold pizza. It’s pretty varied.
Are there any foods you don’t like?
I do have a particular disdain for walnuts in brownies. I mean, I like walnuts. I like candied walnut with a beef carpaccio, that’s fantastic. Or hazelnuts and chocolate, well that’s divine. Really it’s all about the pairing for me.
Drink of choice right now?
Last night, one of our bartenders got me to try a cocktail she’s come up with: amaretto, vanilla vodka, rim rubbed with torched orange zest. It was phenomenal.
Would you rather: Street meat or burrito?
Sweet or spicy?
Depends on the day. I still have multiple sweet teeth, but I have penchant for Sriracha.
Zagat-rated restaurant or greasy spoon?
This interview has been edited and condensed.