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A Toronto Tour de Force: A Q&A with Chef Massimo Capra

A Toronto Tour de Force: A Q&A with Chef Massimo Capra

Whether you believe art imitates life or life imitates art, there are those in the world who see art as life. Take Chef Massimo Capra, for example, whose vision, energy, inspiring passion, and a knack for articulating a story through the ingredients and artistry in a dish make the food he creates an extension of his heart and his soul. A chef like this can make a writer such as myself wax poetic until I have run out of words to fit on these pages. I thought we might sit with the international chef, phenom, and virtuoso for a moment as he locates his art and palate in time—especially during these rather rare and unknown moments in recent history.

To paint the picture on this chef’s canvas, I thought we could start at the beginning, where Massimo began to build his palette of colors. An Italy-born food lover, the chef we know today kicked off his training in Salsomaggiore, Parma. Intrigued by the stories food could tell early on in his youth, Massimo’s route was far from unplanned. The chef started his culinary journey at the famous Trattoria dall’Amelia in Mestre near Venice before expanding his artistry and stretching his culinary legs.

Massimo gleaned his expertise and polished his palate at high-caliber locales from Hotel Royal in Courmayeur, Val d’Aosta, and Hotel Savoy and Drei Tannen restaurant in San Martino di Castrozzato to Prego della Piazza, where he remained for nine years. He landed firmly in Toronto in 1982, where he felt his true culinary home could take root.

Massimo, along with Paolo Paolini, opened Mistura Restaurant in 1997 and Sopra Upper Lounge in 2006. In 2010, Massimo licensed his name to the famous restaurant Rainbow Room in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Niagara Falls and had become Chef Brand-Owner of Boccone Trattoria Veloce and Boccone Pronto at Pearson Airport in Toronto and Soprafino Restaurant at Hamad International Airport in Doha Qatar.

As he continued to differentiate his vision and create his own path, Massimo founded and opened his Capra’s Kitchen venture in 2016, and the concept has taken flight. Having gone from the chef’s dream to reality while cultivating dishes around pasta, pizza, and antipasto, the sky has become less of a limit and more of a landmark to surpass.

With this picture of the culinary genius painted, let’s now take a seat with the man himself and see how the fall and winter are taking shape.

Jordan Okumura: Massimo, I have always loved how you move past limitations to find opportunities, and I imagine that today’s challenges caused by COVID-19 could become roadblocks for some. But, let me ask you this: What are some of the fresh produce ingredients that are inspiring your dishes and your palate these days, and how have the lifestyle changes we have experienced this past year created advantages for your culinary growth?

Massimo Capra: My palate is very interesting when it comes to what I enjoy. To be honest, I do not have favorites. Some days, I want Mapo tofu, Indian curry, pad thai, or falafel, and on other days I’ll feel the desire for a plate of pasta, which will satisfy me immensely.

I eat very little meat these days, but vegetables of all kinds are a staple in my fridge. Despite the quarantine and the slow recovery of the economy and social normalcy, I find myself cooking at home with various different foods from Italian to Middle Eastern to Chinese. I spend my free time reading books and watching videos to stay ahead of the game.

We are making a lot of stuffed pasta for the restaurant, which makes my guests incredibly happy. I have the opportunity to enhance the textures and flavors of people’s lives, and that is a gift during times like these.

JO: I love the way you see food as connection and elevation. As we move into the holiday push, what dishes and flavors do you love during the fall, and how can fresh produce suppliers help connect to the diner and fulfill the menu needs of foodservice providers and at-home cooks?

MC: Some of my favorite ingredients for the fall season are squash, leeks, chestnuts, apples, and grapes.

Locally, we can find a lot of produce and fruit, but we rely on imported products as the season comes to an end. Although I wish we had table grapes from Ontario to snack on, the variety has been getting better on all items which makes all cooks happy. There is a lot of room for suppliers to introduce new offerings and to inspire menus as growing locations taper off and come on. These are all great opportunities.

JO: How have you personally found resiliency and a silver lining during these quarantine and shelter-in-place times?

MC: The restaurant had to make some serious changes to survive, from selling our sauces to strategizing take-out options, and creating a shorter menu with more duplications to facilitate the workload.

We reduced the hours of operation to capture as much business as possible and were able to keep the costs down to a manageable rate. We negotiated with the landlord for a patio expansion and took full advantage of the government’s subsidies. The industry has always asked us chefs and foodservice operators to be nimble—we are in a dynamic and temperamental business—and 2020 has definitely been a test of our strengths. It has also sharpened and honed those strengths as well.

JO: What message and advice do you have for our industry—from foodservice to fresh produce suppliers—on how to seize opportunities even in the face of challenges? What moments of clarity have been revealed to you?

MC: I do not know what advice I can offer because I feel that every restaurant is in a different position, neighborhood, demographic, and style of operation. I would encourage others to find the sweet spot and not be afraid to try new things—but with care and concern. This is not the time to develop new systems and test the market. Now is the time to go back to what is tried and true and listen, somewhat, to the requests of the clientele without getting suckered into crazy ideas.

One has to know how to run their business to make it work; otherwise, now may be the wrong time to find out just how resilient your business is. We are on the cusp of great change, as we have already experienced. Hold tight, and let’s ride it out together.

2020 has definitely thrown a few new colors, textures, and techniques onto our canvas and into our bag of tricks. The beauty of being a great artist is that even a mistake, a mismatched color, an ingredient misplaced or accidentally introduced, can be grounds for inspiration. And Massimo Capra is using all the tools on his table and in his kitchen. 

A Toronto Tour de Force: A Q&A with Chef Massimo Capra