The Environmentally-Conscious, Creative Cook
When asked what he’d be if he were any dish or ingredient in the world, chef Jon Vettraino once chose braised beef cheeks. “Before you try them, you can’t imagine they’d be any good, but then you try them and they’re nothing like you expected.” We don’t know what he’s talking about. Based on the hype around his restaurant, The Commodore, we’d expect his cheeks to be good—very good. The restaurant’s tastefully nautical interior blended with expert-crafted cocktails complement Vettraino’s innovative and thoughtful dishes. We spoke to him about ingredients, the Toronto food scene, and the importance of ethical restaurant practices.
What are some of the most underrated dishes and/or ingredients?
Offal still seems to be over looked. The average North American diner has come a long way in the last 10 years, but compared to the rest of the world, we’re soft. In France or Italy they sell chickens with their feet, heads and maybe a few feathers intact, not only because they don’t want to waste what’s perfectly good to eat, but to remind you that you are, in fact, eating an animal. A manicured, boneless skinless package of meat from the supermarket is so far removed from where it came from.
What kinds of recipes are you experimenting with right now or excited to try out for the menu?
Lately I’ve been focused on spring ingredients/dishes. I found a recipe for a Hokkaido milk bun, which, it turns out, is one of the best buns I’ve ever made. They’re ultra fluffy and perfect for the fried softshell crab sandwich we’re doing. I made a big batch of ramp kimchi that’s getting a big response from the staff and the few customers we’ve given it to. I think we’ll be doing an octopus carpaccio next week. It’s really cool, you roll up a few of them nice and tight and their own gelatin content keeps the tentacles bound together once they’ve cooled, so that you can get a cross section of thinly sliced octopus on a plate.
What’s unique about the food scene in Toronto?
I think the best thing about Toronto’s food scene is what’s best about Toronto in general. The cultural diversity here makes for such a wide array of dining options. I lived in Italy off and on in my 20s and as much as I love Italian food, after months of pasta, pizza, and polenta, I was like, What’s a guy gotta do to get a bowl of Pho in this town?! I love that I can eat GOOD authentic food from a different country every day of the week if I want to.
You’re a big promoter of ethically raised meats and sustainable fishing practices. Could you speak a little bit about why these concerns are important for today’s chefs?
I admittedly deal with a lot of inner turmoil regarding the consumption of meat and being a procurer of animal products. Factory-farmed meat is pure evil. It’s not only despicably inhuman and unsafe, it’s an inferior product. I think the very least you can do as a chef is support small farms that still believe in the idea of good husbandry. Providing their animals with a good life for the very short lives they live. As chefs we have a massive influence on the food industry because restaurants purchase so much of the meat that’s for sale. I think if we all decided to give a shit about where our meat products were coming from and what happened to it before it got to us, the industry would have to change to supply the demand.
Sustainable fishing is equally important. We’re going to overfish and/or destroy the habitats of the seafood we eat which could have disastrous results. There are also human rights issues to consider when purchasing seafood. The exposé a few months ago about peeled shrimp from Thailand was horrifying. Enslaving (actually) pregnant women and children to peel shrimp isn’t something I want to support. I’m willing to pay more for a product and have slightly higher prices if it means we can all sleep a little easier at night.
What’s your advice for aspiring chefs, both those trying to break into the restaurant world and those just trying to improve skills in their own kitchens?
Trying to get into the restaurant business is easy enough if you’re not afraid to pay dues. I never went to culinary school. I washed dishes and bussed tables and eventually someone gave me a prep cook position that led to a job on the cold line, which led to the hot line, and so on. I read something the other day that is the kind of advice I wish I’d received (though probably wouldn’t have listened to) when I was starting out. It was a list of things anyone can do to become better at their job that require zero talent.
Being on time
There are very few naturally talented chefs out there. For the most part the great ones embody all of these characteristics. Combined with years of experience under chefs with the same list of attributes, one becomes talented.
The kitchen can be an intense place. What do you like to do around Toronto to unwind?
My favorite thing to do is eat out with friends and family. Bar Isabel is my go to restaurant. It’s close to my place and the food and service are always 100%. I’m also really feeling the craft beer scene lately. Burdock which is also very close to me is brewing some really tasty, interesting beer. Track and Field, which is owned by three of the best people you could ever hope to meet, is another great new addition to the west end.