Eating & Drinking

“Very little cooking gets done on the set” — behind the scenes at Gusto TV

For every episode of Bonacini’s Italy, there’s a team of researchers, writers, and chefs who immerse themselves in Italian gastronomy to reveal the backstories of such elements as béchamel sauce and pancetta. Italian history and geography are woven through each episode as chef Michael Bonacini cooks his way through the country’s various — and varied — regions.

Of course, little cooking actually happens on set. Much of the magic is behind the scenes: writers who exhaustively, and creatively, develop recipes that exemplify a region and are doable for the at-home cook, as well as a kitchen team that tests, tweaks, and perfects every step. We talk to CEO Chris Knight, head writer Ashley Anderson, and head chef Nathan Bernier-Colborne about Bonacini’s Italy and the making of one very decadent lasagna.

Chris Knight, Ashley Anderson, and Nathan Bernier-Colborne of Gusto TV hang out in the Gusto kitchen. Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen

Ashley: We wanted something that represented the [Le Marche] region and the dish but also something that people were going to really love. We developed the recipe on paper and then took it to Nathan, who looked at it and considered what might be added — without deviating from what’s traditional to that region.

Nathan: Then we took a stab at it. Sometimes we have a perfect recipe right off the bat. And often it’s very small changes. With this one, we only needed two takes.

Ashley: There was one thing we changed — I think it came up because of research we had done about Cantonese cooking. When we rehydrated the mushrooms, we saved some of the mushroom liquid to be used later. This was a pretty unique thing I hadn’t seen in Italian cooking before.

Nathan: On one layer, you have the mushrooms and cured meat and vegetables. Without adding some butter and some of that mushroom stock, that layer of the lasagna was a little dry. We used the mushroom stock with the butter to create a second sauce.

Ashley: It adds a luxuriousness to that layer.

The recipe for this Marche-style lasagna, also known as vincigrassi, was developed in the Gusto kitchen. Photo courtesy Gusto TV

Chris: This is one of four recipes in that episode, and there are 15 episodes. That’s 60 different recipes representing 15 regions of Italy. Most people don’t realize that Italy was made up of feudal states and city states. And that’s why every city and every valley has a different pasta shape and a different cheese and a different wine — in developing the recipes, Ashley and her team infuse the scripts with some of that knowledge.

Ashley: I write out the script, line by line, and then Chris adds to the dialogue. In writing, we have to bear in mind that what we’re making is entertainment.

Chris: It’s not the linear assembly of the ingredients — this is about the flavours, the memories, about making emotional connections with viewers.

Nathan: To finalize a dish, we all have to be in agreement. We all taste it. Once it’s plated, we’ll gather up the team — some writers, producers, Chris — and we’ll all try it and decide if it still needs something.

Chris: People hover around the kitchen on recipe development days. Everybody is looking, waiting for a taste. And everybody’s opinion matters.

Nathan: Once we have a perfect recipe, we have to figure out a way to produce four dishes in a 10- or 11-hour day. So we have swaps: we will get the recipe ready for [a step in the recipe] and swap it out with whatever the host is doing at that moment. Even if it’s just cooking down onions for one or two minutes — it seems like nothing, but we will have that same pan with those same onions.

Chris: It’s just to accelerate time. Part of the irony is, unless it’s a dish that’s à la minute, very little cooking gets done on the set of a cooking show.

Bonacini’s Italy airs Mondays at 10:30 p.m. on Gusto TV. All recipes are available on GustoTV.com