Torontonians know Michael Bonacini as one of the partners behind the Oliver & Bonacini portfolio of restaurants and event venues that includes the much-lauded Canoe, Luma, Jump, and Auberge du Pommier. To the wider public, he’s Chef Michael, one of three judges on CTV’s MasterChef Canada series.
He’s also the main man on the newer 24 Hours of Food with Michael Bonacini, a four-part series that sees him rolling into four Canadian cities and grabbing a bite to eat at four restaurants in each. For Season 2, Bonacini visits St. John’s, Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto, eating a breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a late-night snack in each city.
The series, which will air on Fibe TV in Spring 2017, showcases the food scenes in these cities while also giving viewers real insight into the personalities of their top chefs as Bonacini goes behind the scenes to film in their kitchens, chatting them up while taste-testing their signature dishes.
After hitting up St. John’s, the busy chef set out on a four-day swing through Ottawa this week, where he descended on Edgar, Atelier, Fairouz, and Bar Laurel. City Bites caught up Bonacini at Atelier as he finished a super-glam quince and pomegranate dessert (complete with a pink ice “balloon” frozen in dry ice).
Crazy schedule! What’s your day — and week — look like?
I’ve already been to St. John’s. I’m in Ottawa till Thursday then head out to Montreal until Sunday, then back to Toronto.
Yesterday we started at 9 a.m. and will wrap things up at about 6:30 p.m. We finish filming the kitchen segments with Marc [Lepine] by 3:30 p.m. Now I’ll do a few outdoor shots and a behind-the-scenes talk with my thoughts on the food and the restaurant. It’s not a terribly long day compared to MasterChef Canada, when I’m up at 5 a.m., on set for 6 a.m., and don’t get home till 9 or 10 p.m.
How did you choose the four Ottawa restaurants you’re visiting?
It is actually done primarily by the network, which does the research and sends me the list of ideas. I check them out and decide if I’m on-board with them. So far we’ve been to Edgar for breakfast and Atelier for dinner. I’m eating in the wrong order!
Who chooses the dish?
The chef. We typically ask them to make one signature dish, but because Marc [Lepine] does a nightly 12-course dinner menu [at Atelier], we said “Why don’t you showcase three dishes that tell the story of you as a chef and the style of cuisine and your philosophy.” So Marc did three rather than his usual 12 dishes — if he did all 12 that would be a long day!
What did Marysol [Foucault, of Edgar] make you for breakfast?
The Dutch baby. It was heavenly! It was sublime!
Do you know what you’re having for lunch tomorrow?
Not exactly. We’re at Fairouz. They said they might be making a dish that is a typical Egyptian lunchtime meal with a preserved egg and some kind of a flatbread. I’m excited. Middle Eastern cuisine is making big inroads in fine dining these days. It puts your taste buds into a head spin with the spices and flavours!
And late night is at Bar Laurel?
Yes, and I’m guessing I’ll get tapas. I hope I also get to taste some Ibérico ham. I was lucky enough to go to Ibérico several years ago, so to have a ration of Ibérico ham is always a treat.
Any surprises from your visits to Edgar and Atelier?
At Edgar I was surprised at how small it was and how many people Marysol can put through there in a day. It’s astonishing that 160 guests might visit on a busy summer day. She does a lot of takeout. I like Marysol — she’s a chef with a vision and an idea. She’s a mover and a shaker who’s not afraid of hard work.
Does she remind you of some of the contestants you’ve met on your other show, Masterchef Canada? That she’s self-taught and was first known as a food blogger?
She’s amazing. To be self-taught and win Gold Medal Plates in 2013 … Four of my chefs have entered this in the past — it is a tough and gruelling culinary competition with standards that are sky-high. That was a great surprise!
And what surprised you about Atelier?
When we drove up I didn’t know what to expect. Atelier doesn’t look like a restaurant. No sign. Nothing. But once I met Marc, I realized it fits with his modernist — borderline minimalist — aesthetic.
The techniques he uses in his dishes feel right and balanced. I don’t go out of my way to find molecular gastronomy — sometime chefs try to hard to impress with smoke and mirrors — but Marc’s dishes are solid and grounded. He’s intelligent and fun. There’s a rollercoaster ride of flavours and textures when you come to Atelier.
Do you have to adjust quickly when you’re working with very different personalities each day?
I do, which is fun. It takes me a few minutes, but my personality will change based on the chef I’m interviewing. If I’m with someone particularly effervescent and bubbly I am happy to let them carry the conversation and inject questions as needed.
With someone who needs a little bit more coaxing, I’ll work a little harder to ask more questions. Sometimes you have to bring a chef out of his shell — we chefs are notorious for not being the most chatty. We’re more action-driven.
Do you wish chefs got out of the kitchen more?
Our business is about being hospitable. It means so much to guests when a chef comes out to chat. The energy level is so different when a chef comes out and a lot of young chefs don’t realize how powerful that is. There’s social media and then there are social graces.
Will we see you back here in 2017?
Great question! Those decisions are well above my pay grade, but I really hope so. I enjoy doing this show. It allows me to see different restaurants in different cities and allows people to see me in a different light.
I still believe the restaurant business is one of the best businesses in the world, and if I’m connected to it through cooking, through designing a restaurant, eating in a restaurant, or creating a TV show about a restaurant, I’ll be happy.
How much time do you spend in the kitchen these days?
Not too much, truthfully. I get involved with designing, construction, menu direction, and tastings. I get involved in the hiring of key culinary positions. I’m lucky enough to have young bucks behind me who can do it quicker, faster, and better than I can.
Onwards! Have fun at Fairouz and Bar Laurel.
Thank you. I intend to.