Canada's Chefs: Nathan McLaughlin, Edmonton AB

by Krlmagi

Chef Nathan McLaughlin practices the art of smoke cooking at Meat in Edmonton.

Chef Nathan McLaughlin’s passion for food started in childhood. He explains, “I was raised by a single mother and she did all of the cooking. Even when we went out, we didn’t go to the fast food chains, we went to little hole-in-the-wall restaurants that were Korean or Ethiopian. We were always trying new places and that started my passion for food.”

McLaughlin entered the world of professional cooking at a young age. He was thirteen years old and looking for a summer job, so he went to work at a corporate chain restaurant. He says, “I worked at the corporate chain restaurants until I was about twenty-one. I woke up one morning and realized I needed to do something with my life, so I thought about what I knew how to do. Basically my passion was for cooking and I decided I wanted to go to culinary school.”

He continues, “I left the chain restaurants and went to a place called the Union Bank Inn off of Jasper Avenue. I talked to the chef there, Bryan Ledbetter, and I said I’d stay with him for three years if he’d apprentice me, but after that I wanted to do other things. At the time, I wanted to do fine dining. I think that’s what most cooks want to do at that age.”

Chef Nathan McLaughlin
Chef Nathan McLaughlin

After McLaughlin finished getting his Red Seal, he opened another restaurant with Chef Ledbetter from Union Bank Inn before moving on to work in a hotel. From there, McLaughlin went to work in the oilfield camps in Saskatchewan and Northern Alberta. Four years ago, he decided to open a pub in Edmonton called the Next Act with two good friends. This ultimately led to the opening of Meat.


When it comes to cooking, McLaughlin says, “My approach is to keep it simple. I’ve always been the kind of chef that doesn’t use a million ingredients. I feel that people mess up a lot of recipes by trying to add too many ingredients, whereas I just stick to the basics. I look for high-quality ingredients and we make everything ourselves in house.”


Meat takes a traditional approach to barbecue and the chef explains that he was inspired by a book about a family who’d done barbecue for generations. He says, “All they did was use a salt and pepper rub on the meat, but their idea was to let people taste the meat and the smoke.”


Smoke cooking is an art form according to McLaughlin. He says that he started with cherry wood because he could source it readily but after trying hickory with the cherry wood he really liked the smoke because it was a little strong but also a little sweet.

He adds, “I probably put my foot in my mouth because I’m paying out of this world prices to get the hickory from the ‘States. At the same time, we have a unique smoke and that’s why we kept it, no matter what the price.”

Meat's barbecue
Meat's barbecue

Unlike many barbecue restaurants, McLaughlin explains that he puts his sauces on the side because he wants the smoke flavour of the meat to predominate. He’s created a few signature sauces and he says that customers enjoy adding their own sauce to taste.


When it comes to sourcing ingredients, the chef says that he'd like to say that he gets everything from small Edmonton-area farms but he doesn't. He explains, "If I did, I’d be charging twenty dollars for a burger. I tried to get a brisket from a smaller farm but I was going through so much brisket that the farm couldn’t keep up."


He points out that he uses locally sourced products where he can but there has to be a balance. He says, "A lot of the fine dining places will charge more for their products but they’ll pay their cooks less. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.”


McLaughlin talks about the traits that he wants as a chef. He says, “I like to have fun but, at the same time, my staff has to know when to get serious, so when shit hits the fan, they know that they have to focus.”


When it comes to his kitchen team, the chef says, “I’m looking for people with a positive attitude. You have to make sure that you have fun and keep things positive. I tell my staff that no matter what’s going on at home in your personal life, you can’t bring that to work because everybody else is going to feel that negativity.”


Finding motivation can be a challenge in the hectic world of professional cooking. McLaughlin says that he finds his motivation in several different ways. He points out,”I find a lot of my motivation through my sous chefs. It makes me want to be a better chef in general. I’ve been cooking for twenty-three years now and there are times when I’ve felt like I lost my motivation. There are days where you think you’re too old for the business, but having young cooks around helps.”

He continues, “I also find motivation through reading books like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Its like my go-to book, so if I’m having a bad day I’ll open it up and read a chapter. He doesn’t claim that he’s the best chef, he’s just a cook who wants to talk about his life.”

A selection of Chef McLaughlin's creations at Meat.
A selection of Chef McLaughlin's creations at Meat.
Updated: 01/24/2015, Krlmagi
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