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On Redefining Success: A Post-Workout “Chin Wag” with Chef Daniel McGee

Jumping jacks buds, Rhys Amber and Chef Daniel McGee

In the restaurant industry, positive feedback is the general barometer of success. Locally, nationally or globally, someone else is deciding (and publicly declaring) whether the culmination of your life’s greatest efforts are “hot garbage” or “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. We learn to measure ourselves by this externally concocted scoring system. Registering on the chart is what we are taught to aspire to.

Let me present a case for an alternative: What if we put aside some amount of our desire for external validation to make room to value “balance”? What if we also aspire to that? Our heroes would include, not only award-winning chefs, but also people who work to better themselves and who contribute to the dialogue on what a healthy relationship with work can be like for future generations. Contributions such as these move beyond what individuals present on a plate, however delicious it may be. It’s important that we distinguish and reward those who exhibit the virtues we collectively know we need to adopt. Today I’d like to do just that.

Daniel McGee is not Canada’s newest ‘Top Chef’ or the recipient of a Michelin Star – but you could argue that his recent achievements in the Vancouver hospitality industry are worthy of a respect equivalent to both of those accolades combined.

A mainstay of Vancouver’s upscale dining scene, Dan spent the better part of the last decade in the kitchen at Au Comptoir. He recently left to join Chef Bobby Milheron at the Wentworth Hospitality Group (Homer St. Cafe, Maxine’s, and Tableau). His work ethic is notorious (in this trade, that’s saying something), but unfortunately, hard work takes its toll…Dan is the first to admit that concessions were made in the name of ‘getting the job done’ – number one being his physical health, an often overlooked aspect of industry wear-and-tear. There’s an old chef’s adage that once you get into the trade, you either lose a ton of weight or pack it on. With Dan, it was the latter.

A little over a year ago, as the dust of the pandemic was beginning to settle, Dan’s doctor recommended he make some lifestyle changes and drop some weight. Being the guy he is, he interpreted that as a challenge and decided to apply his relentless work ethic to controlling his health. 150 lbs later, and the results of those efforts have been life-altering. His outlook on life, both professionally and personally, is rejuvenated. He’s discovered the importance of balance. His actions are a bold statement about its attainability and benefits, and how the future can be much brighter when keeping it in mind.

The pictures above and below are self-deprecating and cheeky, but the truth is: I’m in awe of Dan’s resolve and appreciate the example he sets. It had been a while since we last sat down for a chin wag, and I was keen to catch up and hear all about what he’s been up to. This is what he had to say:

Chef Daniel McGee gives Rhys Amber a few workout tips at Empire Field

It’s been a crazy couple of years! How are you feeling?

It sure has been; I took all the downtime to really look inward and re-evaluate my goals. I’m in a very good place mentally now.

How has your life changed since the pandemic?

Since the pandemic, I have essentially changed everything about my life. I got married to my wonderful wife, Ayano; we bought our first home together, and just welcomed our first child, Jordan (born on February 1st, 2023). With all of this planned, I decided to take charge of my body and health, as well. This past September I also left my position at Au Comptoir, after eight amazing years.

What are your thoughts on the circumstances that led you to make these changes? How much do you think your career affected the lifestyle choices you made up until that point?

Making a commitment to myself and really focussing on personal health wasn’t always my priority, but it had to become one. For years, I think my career was an easy excuse for me to use as to why I could never make a change. I really leaned into the ‘hard working cook’ personae, drinking beers after work and living off of little sleep. Lots of cooks do. In reality, it’s a vicious cycle that is tough to break.

Given the demands (and temptations) of restaurant work, how did you change your day-to-day in order to get on the right track?

Once I had mentally decided to make the change, there was no grey area, I made a wholesale change. I meal-prepped and brought packed meals to work to avoid the constant snacking and calorie dense options. I hired a personal trainer, Christian Knill, and worked out with him five-days-a-week in the early mornings before work. All of a sudden, when you have a 7am commitment to fitness, those after-work beers look less appealing than a good night’s sleep. I created a new cycle of fitness, clean eating and rest. Not only has it been amazing for my body, but my mind has seen a huge benefit, too.

“Every small change will make a difference, and all of a sudden you’ve changed it all.”

Were there any key people who helped you stay motivated and committed to your goals?

My wife, Ayano, is incredible, always supportive and motivating. I have a good group of friends I have known since we were kids who were always cheering me on, as well. My trainer, Christian, motivated and supported me the entire time. Insecurities around entering a gym as an outsider can be overwhelming, and he always made me feel comfortable.

How has the restructuring of your priorities affected your life, both in and out of the kitchen?

If anything, it has made me more efficient and focussed, and helped ease any anxiety I would normally have had. Insecurities I may have carried regarding my weight have been replaced by genuine confidence. All of this combined allows me to be more present in whatever situation I am in.

Do you think there’s incentive for employers to promote healthier living among their staff? What can they offer and what do they stand to gain?

I think there’s a lot to be gained from an employer who can promote some form of healthy living – both mental and physical. It’s easier said than done in an industry that spends dollars to earn pennies, but it can be small things like ensuring a well-rounded staff meal is prepared and that they have time to enjoy it. It would be amazing if every restaurant had a gym for their staff to use, but that’s not a reality. Everyone will find an hour to mindlessly scroll Instagram, but it seems harder to find an hour to focus on yourself, which is unfortunate.

Rhys and Dan consider the taste profile of their post-workout low-carb beer

As attitudes toward some of the more antiquated aspects of being a chef are shifting, what excites you about the future of this profession?

I think it’s still the same thing that excited me when I was a 15-year-old dishwasher, entering this industry: an amazing team atmosphere, and the fact that no two days are alike. As we progress as an industry, the opportunities broaden, and hopefully we can attract a larger demographic.

Where is there still room for improvement?

I think that no matter what this industry looks like there will always be room for improvement. We need to continue to acknowledge the faults from within, and progress. Obviously, one glaring problem is work-life balance, which is not as simple as hours worked. It comes down to how people are inspired, respected and treated within our restaurants.

Do you have advice for anyone out there who may be looking to make some changes in their own life?

Start small and slow. You don’t need to change everything immediately and at once (even though that’s how I did it). Start by taking an hour walk before or after work; drink more water instead of soda; cook for yourself and avoid take-out. Every small change will make a difference, and all of a sudden you’ve changed it all.

Feeling inspired? As an added bonus to this interview, Dan shares his workout playlist:

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