Grace Di Fede, 31-year-old Chef de Cuisine, Azure Restaurant & Bar at Intercontinental Toronto Centre, just steps away from Toronto's new Ripley's Aquarium, shares her cooking philosophy and some favourite dishes.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
A: I started cooking around the age of 10. Food has always been a big part of my large Italian family. I was originally studying fine arts at OCAD. One day I was watching the new Food Network channel, back in 2000 when Emeril Lagasse was the hit show. A culinary career seemed like so much fun and it is also a career where you can use creativity and artistic skills. It was then that I was inspired to enrol in culinary school.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration from? What inspires your dishes?
A: My grandparents were a big inspiration for my culinary career. From a very young age I have learned to make fresh homemade foods that were grown in the garden. With such simple ingredients you can make a feast. Cooking should be simple, fresh and tasty. When I create my menus using Canadian seasonal and local ingredients, I try to visualize eating each dish the way I would make it for myself, and incorporate my classical French training and Mediterranean roots.
Q: You've worked internationally. Can you describe a few favourite dishes and/or pastries you've created?
A: Working overseas is by far the greatest opportunity ever!! I have worked and lived in Italy and the Netherlands and I would have to say it’s one of the best life experiences a chef could ever have; you're learning a new cuisine, a new language, and a new culture.
The Netherlands has the best french fries with mayo I have ever had! They have special french fry shops and all sorts of sauces to choose from. I would treat myself once a week. A favourite dutch dessert is Stroop waffles!! Two thin waffles sandwiched with a layer of caramel sauce. Dutch Gouda cheese...smoked gouda would be my favourite.
One of my favourite things to make is fresh ravioli. When I was working in Italy for six months, an entire month was spent training with a pasta chef making ravioli. They also had a fried ravioli dessert filled with sweet ricotta and tossed in cinnamon sugar. So delicious. That experience has inspired me to put them on all my special menus. They are labour intensive but so well worth it.
The Azure menu always has a bison dish. I love buffalo meat. It's very lean. On the lunch menu there is a bison burger with chipotle aioli, grilled red onion, tomato, lettuce and Canadian white cheddar. And for dinner there is bison ribeye steak with celeriac, candy cane beets, double smoked bacon and a niagara gamay noir jus.
New Year's Eve Menu (five-course prix fixe menu - $95)
A few dishes on the menu include:
Soup: Nova Scotia Lobster Cappuccino with Canadian caviar and a tomato biscotti
Appetizer: Scallop Carpaccio with maple lime cream, pink peppercorns, crystal sea salt and micro greens
Ravioli dish creation: Porcini Ravioli with truffle spinach, goat cheese and candied squash
Dessert: Champagne pomegranate panna cotta with balsamic fig compote, micro mint and a poppy seed tuile
Bon Appétit and Happy New Year!