McDonald, 49, worked in a handful of countries including Italy, the United States and Mexico, as well as more than a dozen Toronto restaurants during his career but Avalon's perfectionist cuisine made it a tough act to follow.
So when he opened a casual tapas-style restaurant called Cava, after the Catalonian sparkling wine, critics were pleasantly surprised.
Named best new restaurant of 2007 by Toronto Life magazine, the menu was a stark contrast to Avalon's serious staples of Moulard duck and salmon sous-vide, with its playful dishes such as caramel-chipotle popcorn, sardines two ways and adventurous delicacies.
Q: Do you think dishes such as beef cheeks, tripe and sweetbreads appeal to most diners?
A: "I cook the stuff I want to eat... Once you start worrying about being popular with everyone you're not a special restaurant because your dishes become closer to a boneless skinless chicken breast."
Q: Why the shift from fine dining?
A: "It can be a little bit thankless and very exasperating to try to get it right all the time and you're kind of doing it for yourself because 'Mr. and Mrs. Saturday night for an anniversary' might not understand what you're doing."
Q: What inspired you to become a chef?
A: "I grew up single-parent, only-child of my mother who was not much of a cook because she was a child prodigy. Her parents never taught her any household stuff because from the age of three she was practicing the piano all the time, so she never really learned how to cook. So in order to eat nicely I had to make my own stuff, otherwise it was going to be a very small range of dishes and a lot of TV dinners. So I started messing around in the kitchen from a very young age."
Q: Any tips for preparing a tapas party spread at home?
A: "There's a lot of food that tastes really good at room temperature. Especially when you're talking about cured meats, cheeses, olives and anchovies and the things that make up the larder that would be Spanish food. Room temperature is very hard in restaurants because it's kind of against health code."
Q: You just got back from a trip to Spain. Any new ideas?
A: "I found all the newer pastry shops and candy stores were all kind of whimsical which I felt was fun and so I'm trying to come up with whimsical ideas for the candy store we're opening up next door. There's a dessert restaurant in Barcelona called Espai Sucre which I went to on the last night and I had some astounding desserts. You can go there and have a seven-course dessert menu."