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Massimo Capra: A Produce Aficionado

he Toronto food scene has changed in leaps and bounds since I first joined in on the game. From 1980 until now, it seems like every ten years there is a massive shift in what our inspirations are,” Chef Massimo Capra explains to me about the city where he found culinary fame. “California-based chefs like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck—these are the people that reinvented modern Italian and Mediterranean-style cooking from San Francisco. We all wanted to emulate it, but when I first moved to Toronto it was impossible to get ingredients that were a quality that matched.”

In an era where consumers fill their list of demands with terms like “local,” “peak season,” “year-round,” and “cutting-edge,” chefs have found themselves in an interesting predicament. At least that’s how Italian chef, Canadian food television star, and mustachioed charmer, Massimo Capra, explains it to me. How can culinary artists like Massimo create something that tastes and looks amazing, which was also grown around the corner? The answer? Well, we’re still looking for one, quite frankly, but a temporary remedy can certainly be developing a close relationship with produce suppliers.

“Produce companies have had to evolve into something beyond just the people who bring in your iceberg lettuce and strawberries for you,” Massimo explains to me as I ask him how the role of fresh produce has changed in the restaurant industry over the years. “It’s become a delicate balance. The public now wants local and organic at all times of the year—but of course they have to come from somewhere. There’s restraints on quality, variety, consistency—all these magical things—in order to keep people satisfied.”

Green AlmondsBecause local year-round produce is not always easy to come by in Ontario, a chef must import produce while navigating international regulations and restrictions—something that’s hard to find time to do when you’re a chef who has four restaurants, appears on four television shows, has authored two books, and is food editor for a Canadian home magazine—like Massimo. As a result, produce sourcing, Massimo says, has become an integral part of his job as a chef. Knowing where his food comes from and how it is grown is something he says is imperative. 

“With 10,000 restaurants looking for local and fresh, it's a harsh reality that restaurant-goers can't always get consistency and quality. That’s where produce suppliers come in,” Massimo laughs. “I’m in charge of having to keep several Italian food menus interesting. Without worldwide produce suppliers, it would be impossible for me to make the quality and quantity of food that consumers are demanding.”

Green ChickpeasAnd Massimo is no stranger to knowing the importance of having first-hand knowledge of where his food is sourced. In what sounds like a fairytale retelling of what you might think would be the background of an Italian Chef, Massimo grew up on a small farm in the Northern Italian city of Cremona—near the home of such strong flavors as Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano.

“It's just plain smart to eat seasonally. It tastes so much better, and it has to be more nutritious,” Massimo asserts as we talk about what he learned growing up in one of the richest local food cultures in the world. “I saw this up close when I was farming as a child—always being surrounded by fields of fruit, vegetables, cows—it all tastes differently according to the season. Everything I ate was from my hometown of 2,000 people because that's where the flavors were the deepest.”

Those flavors, however, weren’t exactly the reason Massimo took up the career that would one day become his legacy. His motivations were perhaps a little more devilish.

“It's just plain smart to eat seasonally. It tastes so much better, and it has to be more nutritious..."

- Massimo Capra

“I was always drawn to the kitchen, but it was never the romantic tale of learning from your grandmother that most chefs will tell you,” Massimo tells me with a grin. “There was a family restaurant in my town with a few beautiful daughters. I’d always find reasons to come visit and go into the kitchen to help out the mother. Turns out I was actually good!” 

So how did Massimo go from flirting with the daughters of restauranteurs to taking the Toronto food scene by storm? Reconnecting with a long lost cousin who happened to have a restaurant of his own in Toronto, he decided to leave the harsh climate of the 1970s Italian economy and head to North America without knowing a single word of English.

Massimo (far left) in his teen yearsSoon working under Michael Carlevale at glittering Toronto hotspot, Prego della Piazza, Massimo developed his craft for the next ten years before leaving to open his own restaurant landmark, Mistura. Carlevale, who Massimo describes as “a superstar, enormously intelligent, and eccentric to the max,” was someone deeply ingrained in the restaurant business in Toronto, essentially inventing Italian cuisine in the city, and leading his young prodigy through a restaurant scene still trying to find its footing.

Massimo recalls the days where he and fellow foodie friends would make the drive all the way down the coast to Berkeley to dine at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse or Napa Valley for Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry—just to see a glimpse of what was on the cutting-edge of food culture. This was before the days of household name chefs and Food Network culture, and before consumers knew what buzzwords to demand from the people creating their meal experiences.

"I think you lose some of the soul of the food when you try too hard to position food as art—it needs to have soul."

- Massimo Capra

“Right now is a very interesting time to be a chef. The trends we used to roll our eyes at are now what you can charge customers double for, but I’ve always remained close to my classic Italian roots,” Massimo assures me as he delves into his explanation on modern food culture. “There are too many people with tweezers spending time perfectly balancing a microgreen on top of an already fantastic dish. I think you lose some of the soul of the food when you try too hard to position food as art—it needs to have soul.”

On cooking competition show Chopped: Canada, where Massimo has served as a judge since early 2015, he constantly sees chefs miss the mark here—ignoring the development of flavors and ingredients in favor of style.

At Lunenburg, Nova Scotia“On Chopped, I’m seeing people make these mistakes all the time. They are trying so hard to dazzle us, that of course they’re going to fail. Just focus on cultivating a beautiful sauce. When you see how popular things like food trucks have become now, you can see the evidence that it’s all about using strong ingredients like salt and fat. It takes big flavors and a more down-to-earth technique to really connect with people,” says the chef who takes “down-to-earth” to heart while he performs his routine of cooking to the psychedelic musical stylings of Pink Floyd.

It’s that emotional connection to flavors and ingredients that Massimo keeps harkening back to during our conversation. Even as I try to goad the world traveling chef into revealing his favorite city he’s visited, or what his final meal would be in an end-of-days-type situation, he continues to insist that it’s the flavors of his past that resonate the most.

“Listen,” he says to me assuredly. “I’ve been away from my home in Italy for forty years now, but what am I still trying to make in my restaurants? My mother’s ravioli with spinach, Swiss chard, ricotta, and Parmigiano. I, for the life of me, cannot duplicate it no matter what ingredient or technique I try. Now I’m in a place in my career where I can go eat anything I want whenever I want to, but I believe I, and all of us, will always be chasing time back to those flavors we were raised on.”

And those flavors, Massimo wisely smiles—whether they be a freshly-picked strawberry from California, a chef-cultivated Mediterranean meal in a trendy Toronto restaurant, or your mother’s handcrafted ravioli—remain part of your personal experience throughout your life.