The ViaVai chef on how one crafts a menu inspired by ingredients available in Egypt in 305 BC that will please current day palates
ALEXANDRIA at ViaVai Pizzeria and Wine Bar. (832 Bay) as part of U-Feast. April 27, 2016. Tickets: $70, available here. See listing.
Later this month, ViaVai’s executive chef Joe Friday will transport you to a decadent journey down the river Nile to 305 BC and the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Hellenistic period in Egypt. Feast upon delicacies such as creamy celeriac sumac gnocchi, house-smoked duck and spot prawn sashimi with crispy sunchoke – all inspired by the period, when Mediterranean ingredients and wine became a part of local cuisine.
The globe-trotting chef has amassed a world of experiences due to his culinary stints abroad, influences from his mother and grandfather as well as growing up in Japan. NOW had the opportunity to ask Friday about this one-off themed menu, his love for ancient Egypt and making Toronto home for his flagship restaurant.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I was born in South Carolina but raised in Okinawa, Japan and lived there until I was 13. We travelled throughout southeast Asia because my father was in the military and we moved around frequently. I went to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America. I didn’t graduate though because I received an internship with Walt Disney World. I was there for three years and focused on pastries and breads (which I still make our restaurant) but moved to working on the line. Savories is what I started to do and excelled at. I worked abroad shortly after, all around Europe for five years. Then I got a job working at Hilton Hawaii and stayed for a year.
What brought you to Toronto?
It’s a bit clichéd but I met a girl in Hawaii and she was Canadian, so I moved to Toronto to be with her. Then I found opportunities working in the culinary industry here, specifically with Luma and worked under Chef Jason Bangerter. He was a great mentor and it was great to learn about what Canadian cuisine was all about in terms of its culture and signature ingredients. I stayed at Luma for about a year. Afterwards, I worked in smaller kitchens in and around the city and acted as either head or sous chef (including the now shuttered Alimento). Currently, I’m owner and Chef at ViaVai. I’m also creator of The Underground Chef Co. – a platform that spotlights up-and-coming talent in the city.
What are some of your hallmark cooking styles/ food items we can look forward to seeing in your U-Feast menu?
I did some research on the theme prior to crafting this menu. I read into the proteins and grains that they ate at that time, and I decided to transform these elements to fit my style of cooking (but remembering to respect the ingredients that they used). Persimmons were very popular during that era, as well as pine nuts and fenugreek, so I’ll be incorporating that into the menu. Personally, my style of cooking highlights fresh seafood, due to my working at Nobu in the past where I’ve used a lot of fish. So for instance, I’ll be making an olive jam and pairing it with spot prawn sashimi (that are from British Columbia).
Essentially, I’ll be blending elements of my background in seafood and Italian dishes with the ingredients and foods that Egyptian royalty indulged in.
Another good example is the celeriac sumac gnocchi, which I’m really excited about. I’m envisioning it as a layered dish where you get varying textures and tastes from the pasta, grilled apples, fresh grated cheese and ricotta.
How long did it take you to plan and craft this menu with U-Feast?
I had to consider many elements in planning this menu: my cooking style, respecting ingredients and dishes from Alexandria, and being cognizant of what’s in season right now. I’ve never done something like this before – it was very fun to be expressive and creative. It took about three days to plan all the components out.
How much do you know about Cleopatra and the Ptolemaic dynasty in terms of the kinds of food they ate?
I grew up watching movies that glamorized pharaohs with their royal platters filled with meats and cheeses. So it already gave me a general idea of how everything was stylized. As well, I love history, so I would read into the background and day-to-day lifestyles of these rulers.
Can you tell me about the sourcing of the ingredients? I know you like to go foraging. Can you speak to this?
I go to the Bluffs to forage or Hamilton (Dundas, specifically) for morels, fiddleheads, wild leeks. As well, I found a lot of great items in Don Valley Parkway. It’s been through a restoration process for numerous years. In fact, I spoke with the wildlife director and he explained to me the process of eliminating contaminants from 20-30 years ago. You can go down there now and see an abundance of life: rabbits, flowers.
As for sourcing of ingredients, I go through Blue Goose. They raise organic chicken, beef and they also work with farmers around Canada.
Do you have a favourite item on this menu?
The goat milk cheesecake. I’m intrigued and excited for everyone to try the flavour combination.
If you were not a chef, what would be your other dream occupation?
I love reading about history and learning about the past, so if I was not a chef, I’d definitely want to be a history professor.
Favourite food film?
Favourite homemade dish growing up?
My mother’s chicken and dumplings. It’s comfort food like no other.
Famous or notable person you’d most like to cook with (dead or alive).
Einstein. We’d cook vegan/ vegetarian dishes. And I’d pick his brain and ask everything about his life.
Find out more about U-Feast here.
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