Editor's note: We loved the authenticity of Chef Capra's recipes, and had heard of the high esteem in which his restaurants are held, so we asked if we could interview him. Kindly, he agreed. We would like to introduce him and ask a few question so we ourselves may be more authentic in our Italian cooking.
IMK: Chef Capra, your Italian background is quite varied and extensive. You have studied at prestigious schools, cooked at equally prestigious restaurants, and are now the owner of highly praised restaurants of your own. Yet, in your book, you say that your childhood was spent with country food. How has that affected your work as a chef?
CHEF CAPRA: To answer the question is not that I spent a lot of time with country food, it is that in Italy, the cuisine is always about simplicity. It's about well chosen, great-tasting ingredients, in the right season and region. Country food is everywhere! If you want to taste Italian foods best, my opinion is that you should go trattorias, where food is prepared from within the area it is grown and raised. Trattorias are where local farmers provide the ingredients for all the meals made, and food is treated on a seasonal basis only. For instance, what you eat in February may be quite different from what you ate on January. That's a problem when I go to the markets and see something different, I go crazy! I would love to have a restaurant where there was no menu and the food served was prepared daily based on what was available. Some people have tried and all have failed because we deal with a customer driven market
IMK: You mention memories of both your mother and your father in the kitchen. Were both eager cooks?
CHEF CAPRA: Absolutely. Both my mother and my father were very eager cooks. They constantly searched for the best way to grow vegetables and raise animals in order to achieve the greatest or newest taste. They were always refining the way the cooked meals, almost to the point of being ridiculous.
IMK: Any food lover who has visited Italy wants to reproduce the luscious taste of the food. It is not always possible because there are ingredients that we can't get outside of Italy. There is no substitute for many Italian ingredients, such as the magnificent cured meats. They announce their presence proudly and shun disguise. This may frustrate a food lover and make a purist tear out hair, but it could be disaster for a chef. Yet your recipes ring with authenticity. Could you give us some advice about adapting foods?
CHEF CAPRA: That is a very valid question. I have been struggling for very many years with some of the products that arrive in Canada, and I can tell you that I'm not always happy. On the other hand, there is that great saying that "god gives you lemons, make lemonade". That's why I always try to avoid products that don't taste like they should. Since you mentioned cured meats, that is one of the main thorns in my side, so I try to avoid them or use only the ones that taste as if they should. Even then, we're always quite far away from the taste I remember.
IMK: The prefaces to your recipes are so enjoyable that we read through them one by one, as if reading a novel. You talk frequently about seasonal cooking - the memories of hunting season, of a summer salad that is different from an autumn salad. Today we have foodstuffs flying around the world at any season, but you speak of seasons. Do you try to follow seasonal cooking?
CHEF CAPRA: When I started writing the book, I thought of a way of making the connections between the recipes and my memories of them. Every time I do something, whether it be cooking or writing, it triggers a memory. I like going back and talking about my past because to me it was very colorful, if I could emulate that excitement of my memories in my writing and cooking, I can keep it interesting and personal. That's why it's very important to me.
I have, in my palate, the taste of the foods from each season. They are ingrained in my memory and even when I go to Italy, I sometimes have a hard time adapting because the seasonal food has changed since I lived there, and my tongue still remembers the food from the past. I try to remain as seasonal as possible, but at the end of the day, if my client wants asparagus in January when they're only available in June, I have to figure out some way to give it to them.
IMK: We'd be hard pressed to find a 'favorite' recipe in your book, but the risotto recipes jump out. We can feel your exuberance. Can you give us any tips on cooking risotto?
CHEF CAPRA: Never forget that risotto is not fancy food, it is the porridge of poor people in northern Italy. The best way that I can describe it to you is, think of a farm house in northern Italy with a copper pot over an open fire with a grandma stirring the risotto within the pot, then you'll understand where risotto comes from. Understanding the history and roots of anything can help you understand how to handle it. Risotto is the ultimate in one-pot cooking, so that's probably why that pulsate with exuberance in my book. I grew up eating it, and I still treat it somewhat as soul food.
IMK: You credit Michael Carlevale with inspiring you by saying, "My customers are my guests, and this restaurant is my living room." We hear the wide-open welcome that Italians give to everyone in that statement, but perhaps there is a drive to perfection in there as well, since we all do our best for our friends. Can you tell us how that statement has influenced you?
CHEF CAPRA: Michael Carlevale is an incredible individual who has changed my view on many points of the restaurant business. He has been an inspiration, not only to me, but to many in the restaurant business here in Toronto. You're right though, that is a very Italian thing to do but perhaps anybody who is in the restaurant business knows you have to be welcoming to everyone. This is becoming a difficult time for chefs and restaurateurs because there is such a wide variety of food preparation methods, dietary restrictions and allergies that need to be adhered to. It's very difficult to please the customers of a restaurant with all those restrictions anymore but I really look at it as a challenge and a great way to learn about new cultures.
IMK: The voyage from Italy to Canada is a long one. What attracted you to Toronto?
CHEF CAPRA: Originally, I came to Toronto because I had a relative here and I wanted to learn to speak english, but then I decided to stay because I saw a wonderful place, in the process of development, with a great multicultural base and it felt very comfortable I met a few great people that convinced me it was the right thing to do and I was very young and careless . The rest is history!