Chef professor Tony de Luca is stirring up memories.
In preparation for his April 4 dinner event part of the Canadian Food and Wine Institute’s sold-out Signature Series de Luca has selected some of his favourite dishes that he has prepared in fine dining establishments around the world during his 30-year career.
The result: de Luca’s ‘Gastronimica Della Mia Vita.’
“All the dishes have meaning to me” says de Luca.
His amuse bouche was inspired by his memories of working with Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.
The Whole Roasted Vanilla Foie Gras that will be carved tableside by culinary students is from his memories of the Chewton Glen Country House Hotel.
His Potato crusted Pacific Halibut – a dish learned from chef Patrick O’Connel and one that has become his personal favourite – was taken from his memories of The Inn at Little Washington.
The main course is a Tour of Niagara – a dish that originated in Niagara-on-the-Lake. During de Luca’s time at Hillebrand’s Vineyard Café the dish of three proteins was meant to playfully interact with three different wines became wildly popular. To re-create the experience De Luca plans to serve a Pancetta-wrapped bison fillet/ lamb chatelaine/Pan Seared Sea Scallop and Braised Pork Belly with Southbrook Vineyards Poetica Cabernet Merlot 2007 Hidden Bench Tete de Cuvee Chardonnay 2009 and Rosewood Estate Reserve Natural Fermentation Pinot Noir 2009.
“This was probably the most successful dish I’ve ever done” says de Luca.
Dessert chocolate caramel tart is his memory of Langdon Hall Country House Hotel in Cambridge.
While the dishes he is presenting are a tribute to his past they also celebrate his signature style marked by his support for the farming community and celebration of Canadian producers. His Signature Series dinner incorporates both local ingredients and products from across Canada including a Dragon’s Breath Cheese course he names Memories from Upper Economy after a town in Nova Scotia where That Dutchman’s Cheese farm is located.
“We have so many amazing producers in Canada and products that are unique to the world – like icewine” he says. “Our foie gras is exceptional – as good as any I’ve had in France.”
Tied in with his relationship with producers is a respect for the integrity of the ingredients. Munching veggies straight from the garden is de Luca’s version of ‘fast food.’
“Really our jobs as chefs is not to reinvent the wheel but to highlight what is already good” he says. “Often the less we do to food the better it is … if you’ve ever experienced the satisfaction of a juicy ripe peach what could you do to improve it?”
De Luca notes that his strong support for the farming community stems back to his exposure to his father’s family’s agricultural background. He was exposed to its importance early in life long before the ‘farm-to-table’ movement and it’s something he values to this day.
“I have a sticker on my car that says ‘farmers feed cities’ he points out. “I think it’s very important.”
De Luca looks forward to working with a team of students both in preparation for and at the event. He takes pleasure in teaching them to prepare the very same dishes that he once prepared in prominent restaurants around the word.
“It’s cool how it goes full circle and funny to think that I was preparing these dishes before some of my students were even born” he notes with a chuckle.
While teaching is a new chapter in de Luca’s career that he started two years ago when he joined Niagara College he finds it rewarding to work with the College’s culinary students.
“The best part is when you see a light go off and you just know that cooking has gone from just something they wanted to try to something that really gets into their blood and becomes a passion for them” he says. “I see myself in them in many cases.”
He also values the collaboration with other prominent chefs at the College – many whom he already knew before he began teaching here – including Michael Olson Mark Picone Osvaldo Avila and Avi Hollo who are also part of the CFWI’s Chef Signature Series.
“It’s like an incubator of inspiration being around so much talent every day” says de Luca. “It’s also very humbling.”
De Luca’s passion for cooking runs through his veins. Long before he became a chef cooking has been a part of de Luca’s life. His mother’s family has been in the restaurant industry for generations and his parents opened a restaurant in 1978. The family’s Trattoria was where de Luca got his start preparing heritage dishes by his mother’s side.
Eager to branch out de Luca’s career took him around the world to fine dining establishments in the United States France England Germany and Italy before arriving in Niagara as Hillebrand Estates’ opening chef. He later opened de Luca’s Cheesemarket and Deli and deLuca’s Wine Country Restaurant and The Old Winery Restaurant before becoming a chef professor at NC.
As a chef professor he remains strongly connected to the industry and will be spending the summer working CedarCreek Estate Winery in the Okanagan Valley.
In addition to cooking de Luca has published two cookbooks: Recipes from Wine Country (2005) and Simply in Season (2009) and has had numerous chef appearances on Christine Cushing’s Food Net shows.
De Luca is now turning his ‘Gastronomica Della Mia Vita’ menu into a recipe book. This one however will be shared with guests of his Signature Series Dinner.
“They’re all dishes that are personal to me” he says. “It’s something my guests will be able to take home and enjoy.”