Education: Bachelor of Commerce in Hotel and Tourism Management, University of Guelph
Career Path: George, Lucien, Didier, Via Mercanti, Stagiaire at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.
Years of Experience as a Chef: 12 years
What are your earliest memories of cooking?
I have really vivid memories of my Nonna making gnocchi in her home in Toronto. She had an incredible garden in her backyard with figs, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. She made gnocchi every week, which were probably my favourite, and straciatella soup. On my mom’s side, our family farm was on an acre of land where the Lowville Golf Course is now. My grandma would take me out to pick wild blueberries, blackberries and raspberries to make preserves and jams. My mom would pickle vegetables during harvest time at the farm too.
Why do you think you were drawn to a culinary career?
My mom went to culinary school in Thailand and starting taking me there when I was six years old. She didn’t hold back on exposing my palate to bold flavours. Growing up near farms and animals really connected me to the earth and evolved my beliefs around food being respected, raised and grown versus “bought.” I started taking a serious interest in cooking professionally in my early 20’s. I watched Iron Chef Japan late at night and I loved it! I wanted to emulate Iron Chef Morimoto because he was innovative but refined at the same time. It was an amazing honour to cook for Chef Morimoto while I was on Top Chef Canada and a full-circle career moment. Being around food has always felt very natural. I never tire of it.
How would you describe your restaurants?
The vision for The Good Son in Toronto was to create a vibe that would be like walking into someone’s fancy house in the early 1900’s with all the rooms combined into one space. Warm, eclectic and welcoming. Antique clocks, books and vintage plates adorn the walls and the bar is well stocked with a wide variety of unique spirits and barrel-aged cocktails. The layout is unique; there are nooks and crannies around the perimeter that allow for intimate dinners with friends or dates. The middle is more open and has a more communal energy. In Hamilton, Born and Raised is really a mashup of old and new. We wanted it to represent Hamilton’s evolution from a hard-working steel town to an arts-and-culture hub that’s being driven by creativity and a vibrant, youthful energy. There are replicas of old pictures my grandma donated to the local Historical Society and antiques throughout the space we now proudly display alongside local art which is a nod to Hamilton’s exciting arts, music and cultural scene. At both properties, the service is casual and attentive. We hire front-of-house staff that are seasoned and professional. My teams in both kitchens take a lot of pride in preparing housemade breads and pastas, while our bars are focused on craft cocktails and again, I’m a fan of old world cooking techniques so the wood-fire ovens from Bologna in both of my restaurants are focal points.
What is your philosophy about food?
My philosophy is creating well balanced, flavourful global dishes utilizing fresh, seasonal local ingredients. I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing extensive travel since I was a child and was able to taste dishes in the countries they originated. Learning traditional cooking techniques from locals has been pivotal in what I create and serve at my restaurants each day.
What is your favourite ingredient?
My dad travels to Abruzzo each year to help friends and family harvest olives in Sylvi Paese. Using the ancient traditional method of stone grinding then cold pressing olives, “Olio Vittorio” is produced and shipped to Toronto for me to use at my restaurants. This amazing olive oil is in every dish I make and it’s a way for me to honour tradition, food and family each day.
Who were your biggest influences for becoming a chef?
My parents loved to entertain. At our house or at the family farm, there were always people gathered to eat and drink with us. My mom makes amazing pastries and desserts, while dad brought back unique and exotic ingredients from all over the world. We seemed to be celebrating something all the time and I love that energy. My dear friend Ana in Rome makes an incredible bucatini all’amatriciana and it taught me the elegance of simplicity and fresh ingredients. My cousin Joe Brancatella owns the Grazie Ristorante locations in Toronto and Vaughan. Joe showed me consistency and well-made products will lead to success. My cousins Michael and Shelley Grudgeon own Il Tettrazzo in Victoria, B.C. and they taught me how a career in hospitality is a lot of hard work but is very rewarding.
If you knew you were going to be exiled to a desert island, what three ingredients or food items would take with you?
Organic garlic, oyster mushrooms, De Cecco spaghetti. (I’d make my own salt from the ocean!)
Is there any type of cuisine that you would like to experiment more with?
I’m intrigued by the complexity of Mexican cuisine. The ingredients, flavour balance, traditional preparations and regional influences combined with such a rich history is enticing.
What are the essential ingredients for success in the foodservice industry today?
A strong focus on the financial side of operating a restaurant is so important (and I’m happy to admit that I’ve learned this the hard way). Being transparent and honest about costs, wages, inflation and progression should be a top priority. As a chef and leader, having respect for employees, vendors and suppliers is also key. Building relationships with farmers and the local food community is important to staying connected with peers and finding opportunities for collaboration.
What are some of the most interesting or unique challenges of being a chef?
Finding a balance between work and personal time is often challenging. Relationships haven’t been easy over the years. Finding the necessary time to be innovative while maintaining high standards for service is also a constant challenge. Being a chef is often perceived as a glamorous profession but it’s a very strenuous job that requires a lot of hours. I spend a lot of late nights at the restaurant and early mornings at the market, but I live for it.
How did your experience on Top Chef Canada affect your career as a chef and what did you learn?
The experience gave me the opportunity to cook for highly opinionated culinary stars and experts who provided constructive feedback I could learn from and become better with. Getting as far as I did was really validating for me as a chef. From a business perspective, the show gave me the opportunity to find great business partners to open a beautiful restaurant.
Talk a bit about the challenges of opening your new restaurant and returning to your roots in Hamilton.
Opening new restaurants is always challenging but build out was expensive and took a lot longer than anticipated because we restored a very old building on historic James St. North. Integrating ourselves into the growing culinary community is high on our list of priorities. I am humbled by the positive response towards our team and what we’re doing at Born and Raised and want my fellow chefs/restaurateurs who have paved the way in Hamilton to know we will support food community in every way we can.
What advice would you have for aspiring new chefs as they enter the industry?
There’s no job beneath you. If you’re being asked to do a task that seems mundane, it’s to teach you skill and commitment to the craft. Before you can be a great chef you’ve got to be an exceptional cook, so get ready to work. There is so much that can be gained through being a chef and working in the hospitality industry. Cooking is one of the only artistic expressions that captures all of the five senses so creating a brand of hospitality or a style that becomes synonymous with your cooking can be very fulfilling. Once you embrace the reality of committing to a very laborious profession, if you really have a passion for it – it doesn’t feel like work. It is truly the best job in the world.