With over a lifetime dedicated to the culinary arts, Chef Tony de Luca has progressed from a 12-year-old rolling noodles in his mother’s restaurant to a chef/owner of two restaurants in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a respected cookbook author and an acknowledged architect of the development of Niagara cuisine. Tony is one of the founding members of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Farmers’ Market. Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation staff interviewed Tony at his restaurant (The Old Winery) in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
GB: Tell me a bit about your background - you were born in Italy - how did you end up here in Niagara-on-the-Lake?
Tony: Boy, that’s a long journey. I emigrated from Italy in 1970 when I was five years old. We settled north of Toronto. My parents opened a restaurant in a town called
Oak Ridges which is nestled between Richmond Hill and Aurora. And that’s really where I had my first taste of the restaurant business - at my mom’s side. My mother still comes down in the fall and we make tomato sauce together. We made 6 bushels last year - probably about 80 jars of tomato sauce.
GB: And you don’t use that at either of your restaurants?
Tony: No, it’s for home but the ironic thing is that I really don’t like pasta - kind of blasphemous for an Italian chef to say that. But I’ve had so much pasta in my life that I don’t really enjoy it anymore but it gives my mom satisfaction to know that I’m covered for the winter hibernation.
GB: Is it hard to cook for your mom today?
Tony: No, we cook all the time. Now, she’s almost 65 so when I go there I just naturally assume the stove. We did Easter at her house last year - she had stuff going and I finished it.
GB: So what was the first thing you remember making and for whom?
Tony: I’m sure it was a family celebration of some sort and I’m sure it was pasta. I was probably around 11 years old.
GB: So, you were interested in cooking from a very early age.
Tony: I don’t think I was interested in it in the sense of it being a profession. I think I was interested in it because I loved to eat. I don’t think I considered it as a profession until after I did my one year at York University because even though I had all this experience in my mom’s kitchen and working at the pub, I still didn’t think it was going to be a career. But when I got to York University, it was a joke. I’m sitting there listening to this “blah, blah, blah.” “What am I doing here?” I did discover I have a love of reading. I took an English literature course. We had to read about 30 novels which I read by Christmas. I discovered a huge appetite for reading which I still have. But I wanted to do something - I wanted to work with my hands and move and be in an engaging environment so I took a part-time job in King City at a corporate centre and the souse-chef there put me in touch with the Windsor Arms. I remember the first job I did at the Windsor Arms. I nearly walked off the job my first day. So I’m in my chef whites and my apron and I’m all smart and I say to the souse-chef, Keith “What can I do for you?” “I need you to pick the watercress.” So, I get through it in 30 minutes - about 10 cases. I couldn’t believe they were making me do this stuff. I thought I was above it. Turns out, I didn’t even do it right. They wanted all the leaves off the stem. It literally took me 8 hours - my entire shift was spent picking watercress. It was definitely an initiation but at the end of the day, those jobs need to be done.
GB: So tell me how the new farmers’ market in Niagara-on-the-Lake and access to local food has changed in the past year for chefs wanting to prepare food using local ingredients?
Tony: That’s easy. We’ve gone from picking up the phone and calling some faceless person who brings you tasteless products to a place where you can go to smell and touch things. You know, in my whole time in Niagara-on-the-Lake, it always amazed me that there was no farmers’ market because why shouldn’t a very vibrant, food-oriented place like Niagara-on-the-Lake have a farmers’ market? Why do we have to drive down to Lakeshore to get Quiet Acres or out to Ridgeway to get the lamb? It was a no-brainer. We don’t like to talk about convenience but actually a farmers’ market is a great, convenient place for chefs to go and get what they want, make the contacts and do the networking. Because half the time you’re going to meet someone new or somebody you’ve forgotten about. I discovered a guy that makes his own gourmet granola and I have breakfast to serve at the Oban (Inn) so I’m always looking for something to improve it and add interest - his product is fantastic - 20 different flavours. This is why the market is absolutely vital for chefs. The farmers’ market gives chefs a focal point, a contact area, a place to network, a place to pick up the local products. Before the market opened we got by - we still shopped locally, but it took a lot more time and it’s harder. Farmers aren’t in the business of delivering vegetables. There are a couple of challenges. First of all, the chefs don’t walk around with thousands of dollars so to get the farmer to invoice and give you terms was very challenging - we weren’t successful with all of them. Some of them are just too small and they can’t do it. Others that are bigger, they don’t mind. So you work with them and find out how it can work best. Secondly, they don’t deliver - they’re not in the vegetable delivery business. So you literally need to go to them and that’s maybe a small price to pay but at least it’s one spot.
GB: What is the Niagara cuisine all about - you’ve been instrumental in developing it - what does it mean?
Tony: I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that - being instrumental. The Niagara cuisine is simply what we’ve been talking about - a respect for your terroir. Look, the wineries here are making as good a wine as they’ve ever made before. The reason for that is the VQA rules and the standards. This wine is going to be VQA if you follow these rules. Well, why can’t cuisine be like that - why can’t we do VQA cuisine? Let’s look at our surroundings, the people, the place and the things and make a cuisine out of that. When I’m thinking about a menu, first of all, beyond anything else, I’m thinking about the season. I’m not going to be writing a menu for July in January. Even within the season, things can change so quickly. For example, weather - something like hail - can affect a lot. It’s beautiful and it’s ugly at the same time. It’s reacting to the market and celebrating the market - the food market, that is. As far as Niagara cuisine stylistically, every chef has their own way of representing what they do.
GB: Tell me about your signature dish - what does a Tony de Luca signature dish look like?
Tony: Well, for me I was trained at the Windsor Arms. I always go back to that. People have told me that things are clean - presentation- wise - nothing’s cluttered - you’re not trying to put 20 things on the plate. You’re trying to celebrate one or two items, maybe with a little supporting cast. Uncluttered, clean, fresh, visually interesting - I think any chef could really say things like that but in my case I think about those things a lot.
GB: You said you don’t eat very much pasta - so what is your favourite thing to eat?
Tony: Well, my customers like it but I love any kind of fish and shellfish and now that we’re into fall I’m thinking duck and pheasant. I think tonight we’re going to do duck at home. Those are the things I’m thinking about - very seasonal eating. It’s engrained in me now. I think about “is it a cold day outside? Is the snow falling?” Then I want something warm, fulfilling and hearty. In the springtime when things are at their freshest, you want something lighter, cleaner and crisper and maybe you’re not eating as much because it’s hotter.
GB: As soon as there’s a nip in the air, I start thinking soup.
Tony: Soups - I love making stews, actually - very comforting - a quick meal. I love soup - I was just thinking butternut squash - we’re using a lot more celery root and rutabaga - beets are as strong as ever, wild mushrooms, chestnuts, gamemeats - big, hearty lettuces like escarole and rapini, rosemary, sage - durable herbs. Not chervil, not chives. Things that are warm, maybe a little bit spicy.
GB: What did you learn at Hillebrand [Winery Restaurant] about food and wine pairings?
Tony: Well, Hillebrand brought it all together for me - being an Italian I’ve been around food and wine my entire life. I was drinking wine when I was 11 years old, mixed with a little ginger ale, like the Italians do it. Wine never was, and maybe even a little bit to this day, never an intellectual pursuit - it’s always been a part of the table and a part of complimenting and enjoying the experience that you’re having. It’s funny that the meals you remember most - maybe 80% of it - is not so much the food or wine but the company. Now, if you’re having a great meal and you’re enjoying the company but maybe you’re not having the right wine for that particular food, does that mean your experience is ruined? Of course not. It’s a small part of the whole package. So, when I got to Hillebrand, that’s how it felt for me. Wine was a part of the table, part of an enjoyable moment with the people you like. But Hillebrand caused me to think about it more. Thinking about acidity, thinking about oak, flavour profiles, the weight of wine, the weight of the food. Hillebrand was fantastic that way. Their cupboards were always open for me. I’ll give you an example - we started the ice wine festival that happens in Niagara-on-the-Lake every year - that actually started at Hillebrand - the first couple of years it was exclusively a Hillebrand event. I give credit to Greg Brady who is the GM of Hillebrand - he’s a visionary for the area - he’s fantastic - it was his idea. So, I had this idea for a dish where I was going to take these veal tenderloins and I was going to roast them and baste them with ice wine. So I asked my boss for a couple of cases of ice wine - the value on that would have been incredible - $1,000 or more - and the next day, in the kitchen, were two cases of ice wine. Those were the kind of things that I was able to do at Hillebrand that separated me from the regular, free-standing restaurants. I also got to work with the winemaker J. L. Grew - he’s now with Stratus - JL has the most acute palate I’ve ever known. - I would work with JL on things like, you know the lees in wine when wine separates from the sludge? Well, I would get the lees and use it in the kitchen. We’d experiment. The most successful thing I ever did was cure meat in the lees - I would submerge whole beef tenderloins in the lees - it sounds disgusting but after a couple of days the acidity from the lees would penetrate the meat - the lees would permeate the meat and was fantastic - it was off the wall - I got the idea from France because the winemakers would poach eggs in the lees. I love France. Deep down, I’m probably a Francophile. There are those that hunger for more and you have to meet and go beyond their expectations. I employ a Sommelier at the Oban because that’s an environment that demands it, but I still think of myself as a peasant, I was born on a farm, my parents are farmers, I found this wonderful, crazy business but at heart, I’m really a peasant, you know, being of the earth. That’s where I derive my joy from…