Craig Harding channels Neptune with a one-off seafood feast

On Wednesday, eat like the god of the sea at Ufficio

at Ufficio. (1214 Dundas W) as part of U-Feast. May 4, 2016. Tickets: $70, available here. See listing.

Prepare to feast like Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, with Chef Craig Harding this week at U-Feast’s one-off event at Ufficio. Along with drink pairings for each dish, the menu offers giant Portuguese squid with crispy and salty arancini, peppery arugula sauce, and feisty chili. Then, dive into tender, grilled swordfish with Manila clams, floral saffron and artichokes.

It’s the Campagnolo owner and chef’s second U-Feast collab, this time at the nearby fish-loving Ufficio where he consults on the menu. We caught up with Harding to find out more about the theme, his guilty pleasures and the bromance he shares with fellow Bestellen’s Rob Rossi.

You attribute a lot of your cooking experience to working with your nonna. What can you tell me about her and what did she first teach you to make?

Her name is Maria Baratto, and she’s originally from north eastern Italy, a town called Veneto, just outside Venice. The first thing she taught me was how to make pasta: gnocchi, spaghetti. From there, it was learning about how to make a good risotto. Then about proper broth, soups, and sauces. We’d cook different types of meats. Every fall, we would harvest tomatoes, too. Essentially, we learned about basic philosophies: cooking, eating, storing and saving food.

How are you modeling or crafting your dishes to fit the theme of Neptune’s seafood feast?

I’m trying to keep dishes seasonal, ones that are light and delicate to reflect the spring season – but also showcasing products from the ocean that not everyone has had a chance to try. One of them is the squid: it has a thick meaty texture and the sweetness of a scallop. It’s a seafood focused menu with a bit of pasta, which ties in well with the concept that Ufficio offers – a pescetarian-focused restaurant. It took me about one-and-a-half hours to plan and research everything for this specialty menu.

Where are you sourcing your ingredients from?

Taro’s Fish, a sushi shop I source from in North York. The chef and owner does a bit of wholesale but mainly restaurant and retail. But he can source great product – it’s why we choose to get our seafood from him. For instance, some of the best clams I’ve ever had has come from him. He has connections to great, fresh squid. We also use Daily Seafood. The owner curates a small and specific list of quality ingredients.  

From an aesthetics standpoint, it is interesting that you’re opting for black pepper as opposed to the white pepper in your panna cotta. You don’t mind the speckled look?

No, I don’t. This is intentional. I’m trying to mimic the visuals vanilla bean has (which I’m also adding). But mainly I’m using the black pepper for the flavour. It’s not heat per se, that I’m adding. It’s that exotic element in terms of smells on the nose and taste on the palate. The sweetness is tempered with this savoury component.

How has your time in television on Chef’s Bar, Opening Argentina, Chef in your Ear –hosting documentaries, cooking shows and competing – affected you as a chef and how you work or see food?

All those shows are so different. Chef’s Bar is about family and cooking with friends. We cooked our food and what we grew up on. That was an organic experience. Our restaurants are modelled after one big chef’s bar, essentially. You see our approach to hospitality and entertainment.  

The travelling show, they are more exploratory, being open to new experiences, meeting people who saw food in their own unique way and in cooking, such as over an open flame. Those types of things have made me want to cook more rustically, not just at the restaurant but in my personal life at home.  

As for the Food Network, Chef in Your Ear allows us to work with people who are clueless about food. They’re not diners and they have the worst eating habits, so it made me want to democratize food and present it in a way to make it more accessible to people. Clearly, we have a long way to go in terms of getting people to not only enjoy healthy and real food but get them to start cooking in their own homes. The simple necessity of making yourself a home cooked meal is dying out. And as chefs, we need to keep encouraging people to cook for themselves – not just dining at our restaurants.


What’s the deal with you and Rob Rossi? You collaborate so often, it’s like a chef bromance — can you speak to that?

We grew up together and met when we were at Canoe. We were both on the vegetable station just peeling different produce for years… we’re both half-Italian, so we share the same appreciation for our backgrounds. We also share the same sense of humour.  

So our frequent collaborations all started when we were approached to do the Opening Series (Opening Bestellen, Opening Campagnolo) shot one year after another. And we just developed on-camera chemistry that works. We plan to keep that going with more travel shows in the future.

What’s the most outrageous or interesting food/ dish/ingredient you’ve ever tried?

Bulls Testicles at Torito. It was very tough to swallow it’s chewy with a spongy quality to it.

Finish this sentence: “In another life I would have been  a _________”

Musician. I’ve actually been in bands in the past. When I was in high school, I was in a band called Yesterday’s Trip. We played shows downtown, at the El Mocambo, the Big Bop. We did Battle of the Bands. That was the big thing back then.

What famous or notable person (dead or alive) would you want to cook with and what dish would it be?

My grandfather, who I never had a chance to meet. He was a hunter. I would love to go hunting with him and cook what we caught together. He also made wines at home. It would be really great to do that with him as well.

You mention you love drinking coffee. What’s the best place for coffee in the city?

I really like Ezra’s Pound. There used to be one in my neighbourhood, but they moved. I also enjoy coffee from Ella’s Uncle.

Find out more about U-Feast’s series of one-off food events here. | @LeighTiffany

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