IN BED WITH: Chef Vittorio
Currently leading the dynamic, diverse and innovative teams at Hamilton's Born & Raised, Shaolin Underground, Taqueria Marina and Toronto's The Good Son on Queen West and Assembly Chef's Hall - Chef/Owner Vittorio Colacitti has worked for some of Toronto’s best restaurants including George, Lucien, Didier and Via Mercanti, staged in various Italian regions and worked as a stagiaire at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.
He received a Hotel and Food Administration B Comm. degree from the University of Guelph and a culinary diploma from the Thai and International Food Academy in Bangkok and credits his passion and undying pride for sourcing and growing local ingredients from time spent time on his grandfather's farm in Southern Ontario as a child.
We chatted with Chef Vittorio about his love of culinary arts, late-night snacks and cooking tips:
1. We got to know you first in the second season of Top Chef Canada six years ago and, since then, have watched your career absolutely explode. If leading the culinary teams of three major, successful restaurants in Toronto and Hamilton wasn't keeping you busy enough, we learned you have just opened two more restaurants in the Hamilton area: Shaolin Underground, an Asian-fusion place with street-food inspired snacks, and Taqueria Marina that specializes in tacos and tequila. Your passion for culinary arts is apparent; what drew you into the industry initially? What do you love about being a chef?
Hospitality has always been in my blood because my family is so passionate about food. Big gatherings with friends and family always revolved around food and entertaining. A lot of my relatives are restaurant/bar owners or work in the food and beverage industry, so I’ve always been around people who take hospitality very seriously. When I was a year into university, I made a big decision to change majors from economics to hotel and food administration. I knew I made the right choice in my first food chemistry class. I was really into it and it lit me up and got me excited to learn.
As a chef and restauranteur, I love the challenge of providing guests with a great experience from start to finish and creating the anticipation of their next visit before they even leave. Having the opportunity to stimulate all of the five senses in a dining experience makes the restaurant business a very unique art form; no two days are alike.
2. The Good Son and Born & Raised are different in location and decor but similar in overall vibe and menu in-that both locations have pizza that is to die for and a raw bar as well as a menu filled with new age versions of great Italian food. What inspired you to try Asian Fusion and Mexican?
I've always loved Asian food! True Asian technique and flavours achieve a balance on the palate that is unparalleled. The first big trip (other than Italy when I was a toddler) I was taken on was to Thailand with my Mom when I was six years old. I was instantly infatuated with the flavours and passion that the Thai people had for hospitality. I remember it being exotic and foreign but also comfortable and welcoming. Even in poverty, food and family is a priority in their culture and meals were prepared with so much pride while guests were treated like royalty. This really stayed with me.
Although I haven’t travelled through Mexico, I've always been a huge fan of tacos and I love how versatile a great tortilla is. After tasting Sebastian's version (Chef/partner at Marina) I knew that we had to open a taqueria! The flavours are so bright and balanced and handmade tortillas are so satisfying. I also love tequila, so I think I was destined to open a taco shop.
Taqueria Marina: Al pastor taco with pork cheek and roasted pineapple
Shaolin: Matcha Creme Brûlée
3. As a chef formally specializing in Italian cuisine and coming from an Italian background, was cooking a big part of your childhood? What are some of the challenges you are facing now learning about different styles of cooking?
My Italian Nonno, Grandpa on my Dad’s side, was a chef and my Welsh grandparents on Mom’s side had a farm where I spent summers, so I was raised eating incredibly fresh, organic food. Cooking was always a huge part of my upbringing so I think the biggest challenge as a chef is finding the right ingredients and replicating the authentic flavour of dishes/foods' origin. I am lucky to get to work with farmers and producers who grow and make products for us for my restaurants so that really helps us offer consistency.
4. If you could share one piece of expert advice with those of us who really enjoy cooking but lack experience in the kitchen, what would it be?
Don't be afraid of making mistakes. Some of the best dishes I've come up with have been through accidents or experimentation. Also, taste and season throughout the cooking process -- not just at the end. Great flavours are about layering.
5. Within the culinary community, which chef are you most inspired by today? What would you cook for them if you had the opportunity?
I’m inspired by David Chang and his professional approach to hospitality. He pushes the boundaries in every aspect of his restaurants (design, menu, experience) and has been successful in creating Asian fine dining and elevating street food while keeping it approachable. I’d cook David Chang whatever he wants to eat…
6. Which late-night snack do you most enjoy making for yourself at home?
I usually go for a run after work and rarely cook at home so my late-night snack is usually almond butter with bananas and maple syrup. My guilty pleasure snack is Saint Agur Blue Cheese from France and Kettle Honey Dijon potato chips.
7. You have had such a busy and exciting career so far. What's next for you?
I plan to open a small market focused on traditional Italian fare while showcasing Ontario grown/raised products. As you know, Italians are really passionate about breads and coffee so expect to find excellent espresso, pastries and bread program coming out of this spot. As much as I love hosting and cooking for guests at my restaurants – I’m excited to create a fun environment for people to pick up simple, fresh and unique ingredients (and maybe take a class or two) to make and eat at home. It’s how I was raised…
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ABOUT SHAOLIN UNDERGROUND
Shaolin Underground is an Asian restaurant, located in Hamilton, ON, featuring live music, street-food, cocktails, beer, sake, soju, and more.
ABOUT TAQUERIA MARINA
Taqueria Marina specializes in tequila, mezcal and tacos. Located in Hamilton, ON, above Shaolin Underground in Hamilton, ON.
ABOUT BORN & RAISED
Born & Raised is a vibrant eatery owned by a Top Chef Canada alumni with artisan pizza & other Italian & Canadian fare. Located in Hamilton, ON.
ABOUT THE GOOD SON
The Good Son's motto is 'home is where the heart is' and is apparent in the decor, warm serving staff and exceptional menu. It's a neighbourhood restaurant and bar that embraces its local Queen West culture. The menu is a reflection of the melting pot of cultures that has gentrified the Queen West neighbourhood in Toronto. With a focus on local and seasonal organic produce, hormone free and free range proteins, the menu has been designed for guests to share plates, in an effort to create a convivial and social dining experience.