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Saturday, December 27, 2014

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Chef brings a touch of Tuscany to Toronto

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Chef Alida Solomon in her restaurant [Rob Howard photo]

For chef and restaurant owner Alida Solomon, the experience of eating should not be a quick one.

People who go out to eat should be rewarded with a memorable and lasting experience. That’s something that she and her staff have placed emphasis on at their restaurant Tutti Matti.

Located in the heart of downtown Toronto at 64 Adelaide St. W., the Tuscan-style restaurant prides itself on the wholesomeness of its Italian peasant cooking, and using the simplest fresh, seasonal ingredients.

Solomon says it became evident that she wanted to become a chef when she was 16 years old and living in Israel on a kibbutz in Ashkelon.

 “I was doing a two-month trip, and being a young kid, I didn’t really want to be up at two in the morning picking cotton. So I asked them if I could anything else, and the lady who was in charge of the kitchen at the kibbutz said come work with me,” she says. “The experience of being in the kitchen and serving 400 people was so communal and wonderful that it stuck with me.”

It was one of those times when seeing people come together for one common purpose became a thing of beauty for her, she says.

She wanted to find a way to translate the communal experience of sitting down to a delicious meal into Canadian culture. That, she says, is what is different about the North American culture of eating compared to that of Italian cuisine.

“I think Italian cooking is more than just about eating,” Solomon says. “It’s about the conversation. The most important part of the day is when the family sits down together and shares the events of the day.”

She says the length of time that Italians spent at the table fascinated her.

“In Toronto, you sit down for 20 minutes, if you have the time, and then get on with your day, but there the families are closer and the relationships are different,” she says. “You’re not just feeding yourself, you’re eating, and there’s a huge difference. I think that the Europeans are much better at conversation and enjoying what they’re eating.”

Interestingly, for Solomon and her staff, esthetic appeal and ambience were not priorities for them when the restaurant was founded in 2002. It was more about bringing the ingredients true to Tuscany and the ways of the Italian culture to Toronto.

“People are coming for the food. Keeping the menu traditional is most important,” she says. “I wanted to give people a meal that they would have in Italy in December, in December.”

The name of the restaurant, Tutti Matti, translates into “everyone’s crazy,” which she says means something evocative to her – that everyone’s crazy about what they do in Italy.

“Everything they do is mostly based on passion,” Solomon says. People working in the culinary industry create with passion, too, she adds.

She says she feels rewarded when cooking for her peers, although she mentioned that there is great pressure that comes with doing so. Recently, she and her staff prepared the specialty dishes of Tuscan peasant cooking for her peers who came from Italy.

She recalls the time a group of hunters came in and asked her to prepare the game that they captured, and she spoke of the honour she felt when asked to do something that demanded so much attention and skill.

The most important part of the preparation of the food is to do justice to the ingredient, Solomon says.

She became emotional when discussing Tutti Matti’s recent 10-year anniversary last month, which she’s very proud of. “For the first time as a chef and restaurant owner in Toronto, I feel that I’ve accomplished what I wanted.”

Solomon says sometimes customers come in and ask her to make changes to a recipe, and she has to tell them that certain ingredients don’t belong together.

“It’s like going to surgeon and asking him to do something to you that you don’t really need to have done. As a chef, we have a responsibility to our profession and to the ingredient. If we buy a chestnut and it’s the centre and focus of the dish, it’s important to taste the actual chestnut and not soy sauce masking the flavour,” she says.

Her job is complete once she has given people “a great meal, a great conversation, a great bottle of wine and some laughter.”

Not only is it a huge challenge and thrill to find ways to innovate upon simple, wholesome ingredients, but also with the recent increase in food allergies and sensitivities, chefs must exercise diligence to bring the best to customers while remaining attune to dietary concerns, Solomon says.

She says she believes the increase in food allergies may stem from feed that is given to livestock. While she notes that Tutti Matti is not a kosher restaurant, nor does it provide many vegetarian options, she speaks of the accommodations that her staff is willing make.

After all, it isn’t for no reason, Solomon says, that a friend of hers from Tuscany calls her “the architect and engineer of flavour.”

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