Malcolm Jolley: Canada’s culinary scene is going to be just fine

The future of the food industry is in good hands
George Brown College culinary students are photographed during a Michelin star ceremony in Toronto on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. Alex Lupul/The Canadian Press.

Andrew Coyne calls George Brown the forgotten man of Canadian history. Considering what happened to the reputation of his contemporary, and fellow reformer, Egerton Ryerson, being forgotten might be something of a blessing these days. In any event, the name of the man lives on among Toronto epicures since the largest culinary school in Canada is housed at the college that bears it.

I found myself at the doors of the George Brown College Hospitality and Tourism Campus in downtown Toronto recently for the first time in a long time. The building at 300 Adelaide East was built in the 1980s but was rehabbed and renovated about ten years ago into a state-of-the-art facility. From the street you can see students, wearing whites and toques, cooking in the kitchens that look like science labs, but with stove tops and exhaust hoods instead of bunsen burners and beakers.

In the door into a bustling and busy atrium, I walked past the classrooms with rows of stoves to the demonstration theatres. The one I found myself in resembled a set for a TV cooking show. And indeed the counter was televised with two remote-controlled cameras, and filmed by another held by someone on foot. At centre stage, as it were, was Michelin-starred Chef Ernesto Iaccarino.

A dashing man somewhere in his 50s, Chef Iaccarino hails from the hotel and restaurant Don Alfonso 1890 near Sorrento, where the Bay of Naples turns into the Amalfi Coast. He also hails, since 2018, from the Don Alfonso restaurant in Toronto, one of a number of extensions of the brand the Iaccarino family has established around the world.

If the Don Alfonso name sounds familiar to readers of this column, it may be because I wrote about the Toronto restaurant and its Canadian partners and patrons, Nick and Nadia Di Donato of the Liberty Entertainment Group, a couple of years ago. The restaurant was then in the second of what would turn out to be three locations, and in February 2022 was coming out of the trials of the COVID lockdowns with a full service and a prestigious award.

As I reported, Toronto Executive Chef Daniele Corona would consult with Chef Iaccarino, in Italy, before every service via the internet. At the time, it seemed like a fine-dining version of all the Zoom meetings we had learned to attend during the previous two years. Now, another two years later, it was good to see Iaccorino in the room with the dozen-odd students who would plate a version of the tuna dish that was going to be demonstrated.

The George Brown students whites assisting the demonstration had just returned from the Advanced Italian Culinary Arts program at the ALMA cooking school near Parma, Italy. In fact, this marks the twentieth anniversary of the exchange program. Chef Iaccarino is a big backer of the exchange and the school, not just because it’s his alma mater, but because he depends on highly trained young cooks with Italian experience to work in the Canadian kitchen.

The theatre was packed; standing room only with mostly curious students (I think) on their lunch break. Before Chef Iaccarino began assembling the dish, he spoke about the importance of the quality of ingredients, in particular to the Mediterranean dishes that are served at the Don Alfonso restaurants. Though we would see sophisticated techniques, everything was meant to bring out the essential flavour of the constituent foods.

The first step in deciding to open a Don Alfonso restaurant, he explained, was to investigate what ingredients could be found on the ground. Later, when he took questions from the audience, a young would-be chef asked how he came up with new dishes. He said, “I don’t want to use my mind,” meaning, he explained, that the ingredient must present itself first, and then the dish might evolve from that.

Chef Ernesto Iaccarino preparing food. Photo credit: Malcolm Jolley.

The tuna dish comprised six different steps, each (except for maybe one) pulling from a simple Mediterranean food. A brining preparation of a filet of yellowfin tuna which was torched to be seared. A fava bean spread that was cooked like a risotto. A mayonnaise with citrus. A herb oil with basil, parsley, and tarragon. A crispy fried piece of pickled ginger. A reconstituted “fake” green olive for a garnish. Put together, and eaten together, the flavours were complex, but each resonant in its own right.

There was another demonstration, this time of a vegetarian dish made with dried, hard durum pasta, the staple of Southern Italy. Featuring eggplant “meatballs”, tomato sauce, and mozzarella, it gets confected into a miniature model of Mount Vesuvius. We didn’t try it, but I remember having a version of it at the restaurant and enjoying it thoroughly.

Chef Iaccarino was perhaps most animated when the floor opened up to questions and he addressed the students on their chosen vocation. When he began to cook, he said, his goal was to elevate the simple foods of Southern Italy to haute cuisine. At the time he didn’t realize that since he fed people he had a responsibility to feed them well with food that was good for them and, now increasingly, good for the planet. “Your job,” he said, “is very serious.”

I wrote recently that you cannot taste wine through a screen. You can’t cook for people through a screen either. Nor, I think, really learn. The real charm of the event was its absolute situation in real life.

It’s good to see people showing up for class again. Battered and bruised from four years of turmoil, the hospitality industry, like its cousin the wine business, survives in no small part because of its commitment to education and hands-on instruction. There’s no choice, and the leaders in the sector understand it and invest in their future employees because they realize that their own future employment rests on it.

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