Tag Archives: event

Toronto Taste Preview with Chef Chris Zielinski

17 Apr

Chef Chris Zielinski MLSE e11even Toronto

Toronto Taste is coming. On Sunday, May 27, more than 60 of Toronto’s best chefs and 30 wine, beer and other beverage producers will gather at the Royal Ontario Museum to serve Toronto food lovers in support of Second Harvest.

To help draw attention to one of Toronto’s best food events and most important fundraisers, we’re going to be chatting with some of the participating chefs over the next few weeks. Up first is Chris Zielinski, executive chef at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. With MLSE, Chris is part of the team that oversees game day food at the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field, as well as e11even and Real Sports Bar & Grill at Maple Leaf Square.

A big part of your job at MLSE is creating food that can be eaten while walking around or sitting in a seat. What are the keys to doing this successfully?
At the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field, we are constantly charged with reinventing hand-held cuisine. It has been proven over and over that fans prefer to avoid utensils whenever possible. The keys to success for hand-held foods are not at all unlike the keys to any great dish. The combination of quality ingredients, likeable and recognizable flavours and a variety of interesting textures are the true barometer of any great dish. The other very important piece is to practice it over and over and to make sure that you test it out for other people, not just chefs.

What are you planning for Toronto Taste? What are important things for participating chefs to consider in creating successful dishes?
This year, we will be serving up E11even’s famous Nova Scotia lobster roll. I think, after participating in and attending Toronto Taste so many times, the most memorable moments have come in the form of two bites. Guests have a great deal of food to get through and, unlike a restaurant, you don’t want to have someone hand you a plateful of food, no matter how it tasty it might be. Two memorable bites with layered flavours and contrasting textures always wins!

What do you enjoy most about participating in Toronto Taste?
I have participated at least 10 times, and have attended other years. Toronto Taste continues to be Toronto’s premier culinary event.  As exciting as it is to taste all the great food, my favorite part of the event is the sense of community that comes from getting all the chefs under one roof/tent. As most chefs can attest, we rarely step outside our kitchen and communicate with our peers, and stand beside our city’s top restaurant supporters, the customers!

What drives you to participate in Toronto Taste?
It’s hard to imagine our city without the profoundly important work that Second Harvest does day in and day out. We should be proud that our citizens have taken these matters into their own hands to help the people who need it the most. We should never take their work for granted. There will always be a need for this type of program and hunger will always be an issue. As the chef of one of the largest food outlets in our city, I feel that it’s my civic duty and responsibility to not be wasteful. I would hope all chefs would share that sentiment.

How do the tastes and desires of Leafs, Raptors, Toronto Rock and Toronto FC fans differ in terms of gameday food?
Leafs fans are very tried and true. There is a great mix of business and pleasure, and they love their red meat. The Raptors draw a very multicultural crowd that likes to test the nether regions of our menus. They also seem to be more in tune with some of our healthier options. The Rock crowd is all about family fun. If it’s TFC, it has to go great with beer. The Triple Threat says it all; BBQ pulled pork, smoked beef brisket and grilled peameal bacon all peacefully co-existing on one bun!

What was the draw for you in coming to MLSE?
Over the past 25 years working in fine dining restaurants, I had the opportunity to work with and manage people from all walks of life. It has always been my personal challenge to “make all the pieces fit”. Opportunities to execute that on this scale are few and far between. I’ve always been a fan of the teams, so this was a no brainer. After touring many other sporting facilities, I’ve grown to realize that what we do here, doesn’t really exist anywhere else, and it is a true testament to Richard Peddie’s DIY vision and all the ground work laid out by my predecessors, Brad Long and Robert Bartley.

What have been the biggest influences on your cooking?
Having the chance to work with Susur Lee, back in the day, was a truly eye opening experience. His perspective on food offered a completely different construct that you could never learn from a cooking school. It also was a window on Asian food as a whole. I love the simple magic of Japanese food. So many of my most memorable meals have been based around exceptional pieces of raw fish. Really, any meal that was made with love, from Jose Andre’s insane Bazaar in Beverly Hills, to my Italian mother-in-law’s dinner table in Toronto, are inspiring in their own ways. More than anything, I love to eat!

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Viva Italia! Cucina Gala Showcases Toronto’s Italian Delights

3 Mar

Buca at George Brown

Being half Italian, I’ve had the pleasure of eating great Italian food my entire life. I grew up eating the simple dishes my dad made that he remembered from his childhood, the complex pastas that my mom (not Italian, but an amateur gourmet chef) loved to experiment with, and the lasagnas, slow-cooked sauces and great grilled meats made by my Italian aunts and uncles that I’ve tried to duplicate the taste of ever since I started messing around in the kitchen.

While I love eating the familiar flavours I grew up on, I also get excited about being able to sample new takes on Italian dishes prepared by great professional chefs. Jenny and I were recently at an event that let us do just that. The George Brown College Chef School’s Viva Italia! Cucina event is a week-long celebration of the food and culture of Italy. For the past three years, the event has allowed diners the opportunity to eat lunches and dinners prepared by the college’s talented students, and to enjoy movies and other Italian cultural offerings. Proceeds from the events go toward scholarships for George Brown culinary students.

The Viva Italia event we attended was the gala tasting reception, which brought together some of Toronto’s best chefs, along with food and wine producers, for an evening of eating, drinking and enjoying Italian culture.

Buca sign

Jenny and I agreed that one of the best samples we had at the gala was Buca chef Rob Gentile’s dish of rare beef heart served with grilled radicchio Treviso, taleggio cheese from Montforte Dairy, Cookstown Greens cippolini onion, preserved figs and concorde grape mosto cotto. The flavours worked beautifully together in this dish, with sweet, sour and bitter elements paired well with the rich, earthy taste of the beef heart.

Of course, Toronto is a city full of great Italian restaurants, so many of the dishes we tasted were amazing. Here are some of the highlights:

Pingue prosciuttoMario Pingue of Niagara’s Pingue Prosciutto was on hand to sample his product, slicing the prosciutto fresh for eaters over the course of the evening. Pingue’s is the prosciutto of choice for many Ontario restaurants, and it’s not hard to see why, as the taste and texture is very close to the authentic stuff that gets imported from Parma.

Local Kitchen TorontoChef Fabio Bondi from Local Kitchen was serving crostini topped with thinly sliced potato, braised octopus and a hint of citrus. A delicious bite of food.

risottoStaff from Toronto fine food grocer Pusateri’s was preparing chicken and spinach risotto. While I rarely order risotto in a restaurant and only occasionally make it at home, I have a soft spot for it as an Italian comfort food, so I was happy to see it being prepared fresh for diners at the Viva Italia! Cucina gala.

Zucca Trattoria TorontoChef Andrew Milne-Allan of popular Toronto restaurant Zucca Trattoria prepared a canape of farro, cooked risotto-style and mixed with shrimp, lemon, celery and onion, and served on an endive leaf. The endive is a great vessel for serving something like this, as it’s strong enough to hold the food well while also adding a nice hit of bitter to the dish. And it was nice to see farro being used, as it’s a grain I’m still not very familiar with but have really enjoyed the few times I’ve eaten it.

Peroni cheese and beer

While the food was great, Jenny and I really enjoyed the chance to interact with many of the chefs and food representatives on hand, to discover new ideas and stories. Representatives from Peroni, one of Italy’s most popular beers, were there to educate attendees about how well their beer pairs with one of Italy’s most popular cheeses, asiago. While the idea of pairing cheese and beer isn’t necessarily new – a dark Belgian ale is a great match for cheese fondue, for instance – consumption of beer is still low in Italy and it’s not a common pairing for cheese in the cuisine.

As we tasted, the Peroni reps explained that beer and cheese naturally complement one another, as the cows that produce the milk used in the cheese consume some of the same grains used in the production of the beer. The Peroni was definitely a great match with the sharp asiago, as both have an inherent creamy mouth feel, and the sweet hoppy taste of the beer helps to mellow out the cheese’s strong bite.

Torito pasta

We also really loved chatting with chef Luis Valenzuela of Torito Tapas Bar. While both the restaurant and the chef are Spanish, it was Valenzuela who made one of the best Italian dishes of the night. He blanched homemade tagliatelle noodles in water for one minute, then placed the noodles in a mold along with chunks of braised wild boar guanciale and amatriciana (spicy tomato) sauce. The molds were placed in the oven to cook, so that the end result was a sort of cross between a plate of pasta and a layered lasagna. Chef Valenzuela topped each dish with a disc of deliciously salty, thinly sliced Pingue’s pancetta. He was also serving a dish of raw spaghetti squash and thinly julienned zucchini tossed with a peanut and almond sauce that tasted very Spanish inspired.

The fact that Chef Valenzuela’s guanciale amatriciana pasta was clearly one of the night’s most popular dishes – he told us he made more than 100 servings and he was down to about 20 left just an hour into the evening, and there were constantly lineups at his booth – is proof positive that you don’t have to be Italian to cook amazing Italian food; you just need passion for both the food and the people eating it.

Torito Toronto

Valenzuela spoke to us with passion about the time he spent studying at George Brown College’s culinary school. He said he started in the program shortly after moving from his native Mexico, and George Brown allowed him to explore a number of different cuisines, cook with and learn from chefs who’d worked all over the world (including one who had cooked for the queen), and make important industry connections. He said he still feels strong ties to the school, which is why he comes back to volunteer his time and skills to events such as the Viva Italia week.

This was our first exposure to the Viva Italia! Cucina event at George Brown College’s Chef School, but judging by the size of the crowd and the great chefs who attended, it’s clearly developed a strong following. We’ll definitely go back to the gala next year – and hopefully enjoy one of the lunches or dinners during the week, as well.

The crowd enjoying dessert at the Viva Italia! Cucina gala at George Brown College.
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