Chef Sean McKay blends classic cuisine with modern tastes and flair
By Joelle Kidd
In a thin prep kitchen tucked behind The Mitchell Block’s second floor lounge, chef Sean McKay emerges from a creaky shoebox of a wooden elevator – one of the quirks of doing business in a building constructed in 1887. He gamely brandishes a container of glowing orange egg yolks set in a bed of kosher salt.
In a few days, these curing yolks will be dehydrated and shaved over plates, imparting a buttery, saline richness. It is just one of the many culinary concoctions that chef Sean is cooking up inside his Exchange District enclave.
The Mitchell Block is a young restaurant, only 2 years old, but McKay’s love of finding new tastes and ingredients stretches back to his youth. Growing up in a military family that moved often, he first discovered his skills in the kitchen as a teenager living in Belgium.
While the rest of his family left for work or school, Sean would jump on his motorbike, skip class, and ride around the Belgian countryside. As he recalls the story with a grin in the elegant dining room of The Mitchell Block, it’s hard to believe this affable chef ever had a rebellious streak.
Sean had a plan to redirect his parents’ suspicions about his activities, however. His daily rides brought him past country markets, and the budding gourmand would pick out beautiful, fresh ingredients to turn into the evening meal. Dazzling with delicious dinners, as it turned out, became an effective way to distract mom and dad from the missed classes.
Still, cooking remained a hobby until McKay moved back to Winnipeg, where his family had lived during his junior high years. A plan to enroll in carpentry school was sidetracked when he began working in kitchens to save up the money, and followed his love of cooking to culinary school instead. After graduation, he built experience in a range of restaurants, from corporate chains to family owned spots.
Kitchens can be tough environments, but for this chef, tattoos and knife skills work in tandem with gentleness and humility. McKay is all skill and no swagger, refreshingly warm and soft spoken. (Never once during visits with Ciao! was the censor button needed.)
However, beneath the laid back exterior is rock solid ambition, proof that nice guys don’t finish last. After all, it was this drive to make his mark on the city’s dining scene that led Sean to make the transition from head chef in someone else’s kitchen to owner of his own business.
“When I heard that Tre Visi was being sold, I jumped in without thinking too much,” he recalls. “I just knew this was an opportunity.”
Tre Visi, a small Italian restaurant settled into a tight line of heritage buildings in the east Exchange District, had been in place for twenty years when the keys were handed over, and had a loyal following. McKay knew he needed to build relationships with this clientele and time to design a menu that made sense for the space.
“It’s one thing to put an all-new menu down on paper, but I wanted to make sure it could be well executed,” he explains. “In the theatre district you not only have to create exceptional food, you have to make sure every customer can get to their show on time.”
These considerations led McKay to continue to run the space under the Tre Visi name for a year before relaunching as The Mitchell Block. During this time he found a groove for smooth service in the kitchen, and honed in on what he really wanted to serve.
“When we first took over, an old school Italian place wasn’t at all what I had in mind,” McKay recalls. But he has been won over by the process of classic cooking techniques, and handmade pasta now plays a starring role on the menu.
Like its name, pulled from building’s original title, the food at The Mitchell Block carries a sense of history and place. Ingredients are rooted in local tastes that change with the season. McKay puts his considerable culinary prowess to bear in scratch-made components that light up dishes. Charcuterie boards are loaded with meats, mousses, pâtés, and terrines made and cured in house.
During the photoshoot with Ciao!, the lounge’s wine cooler was festooned with ropes of fresh sausage links.
Play pervades, and ingredients are the inspiration. “I like to ask my supplier, ‘what’s new?’ and build dishes around that,” McKay says. His excitement grows when he talks kitchen gadgets – “toys”, as he calls them. In the basement, an indoor gardening rig, with professional grow lights and drainage system, has become Sean’s pet project for procuring fresh basil and pea tendrils.
While his original menu included many “fussier” dishes, replete with foams, froths, and sauces, McKay has found a balance that prizes keeping it simple while still offering bursts of gastronomic ingenuity.
“I’m still young in the game, and I want to make a name for myself,” he muses. “I had to learn that simplicity is important in business.”
It seems a perfect twist of fate that this dedicated chef would have turned teenage rebellion into a career of culinary creativity, and the motorbike perched in The Mitchell Block’s dining room window is a fitting reminder of his roots.