by Malcolm Jolley

A tall, dark and handsome chef dressed in whites, but with no toque steps behind the counter into set kitchen and welcomes an assembled group of journalists and VIP’s to very special lunch he will begin cooking for them in an instant. But first, the pop of corks as a tall, dark and handsome sommelier pours sparkling wine into flutes and distributes them with a smile and nod of the head to the diners.

Chef, then introduces himself: “I’m Chef Cory Vitiello and this is sommelier Anton Potvin: I’m fire and he’s spice.” Both bend over in a fit of giggles and are joined by general mirth in the room. Lunch has begun.

Full disclousre: Cory Vitiello and Anton Potvin are friends of mine, especially Potvin who I’ve known for many years. So, I was looking forward to seeing them both as I walked a few blocks from my house to the big LCBO store at Summerhill to watch them do this “Fire & Spice” demo out of curiosity more than anything else. The purpose of the event seems to be two fold: 1) to get the word out on the series of classes Vitiello will at the Summerhill LCBO in May (click here for the details) and 2) to showcase a fancy Thermador heat induction stovetop (click here for the tech specs, etc.). Thermador is investing in Vitiello, making him a focal point of their communications. And this lunch would be a first publlic display of the relationship. And interestingly, this wasn’t a typical food or wine crowd.

Food writers, however noble their calling, do not (I surmise) help sell a lot of major appliances. This may have something to do with our general rate of remuneration, which more often results in a literal translation of cucina povera and means we make do with what we have. Besides, we tend to blow whatever cash we do have on expensive ingredients and wines. So, the Thermador people wisely stacked the room with designers, who might advise a client to buy something and writers for magazines my wife affectionately calls ‘house porn’. My only serious food writing colleague there, Cynthia Wine and I decided to sit back relax and take in the show (and, of course, eat).

Potvin, who is playing a supporting role, as well as a bit of a straight man, makes his living welcoming people into his restaurant, The Niagara Street Café, nearly every night. I assume he will be generally at ease and comfortable in front of the room. The assumption is correct, and Anton’s role as sommelier goes smoothly, without incident as he pours a series of wines to match the courses including Henry of Pelham’s Cuvee Catharine, a stunning Alsatian from Marcel Deiss and a light fruity Brachetto, a low-alcohol, sweet red wine with a gentle sparkle from Piedmont.

It’s Vitiello, Chef at The Harbord Room, who will do the heavy lifting today. Ably assisted by Harbord Room cook Ryan Tsui, Vitiello must cook us two, rather complicated, recipes, while demonstrating the technical prowess of the induction cooktop, all the while diligently keeping the crowd from getting bored. We expect to be entertained, informed and well fed. This is as hard as it sounds, but has become the great test of the would be top chef. In the post-Food Network world big chefs are expected to come out from the back of the house and perform for the punters. Even the recalcitrant Thomas Keller appears on TV and maintains a pubic profile. In fact, the most famous chefs of them all likely spend more time performing than actually cooking.

The master communicator and demonstrator is Jamie Oliver. He cooked lunch for me, and a handful of food writers, about a year and a half ago on promotional tour stop-over in Toronto. The man talked non-stop, explaining exactly what he was doing while also fielding questions, covering topics near and dear to his heart, like weaning kids off of junk food, cracking jokes and telling revealing anecdotes from his family life. He cooked us a steak and fall vegetable salad by himself the whole time, that he served in front of us: cut up and plated it as he waxed gastronomic. It was delicious and we were put into a sort of reverie. He is a natural, but he’s also had a lot of practice.

Vitiello has not had a lot of practice. But he has a lot going for him, too. He’s handsome and, more importantly, he does not take himself too seriously. It was smart of him to ask Potvin along, since they could banter back and forth when there was a lull in the cooking action – while the scallops were sautéing or the broth was bubbling. And it helped the two were friends and comfortable enough to tease each other relentlessly. It was abit like dropping by the kitchen of some old friends – I suppose it was.

Before my account of the ultimate performance, I should say this induction stovetop thingy is pretty cool. I had a chance to corner Vitiello and grill him on what it could do outside of a fancy demo and it sounds impressive. The magnetic mechanism gets things super hot fast and keeps them there, so a pot of boiling water will not stop boiling when you add your ingredient. And temperatures can be controlled, as in sous vide, so a drawn butter could be kept at a constant level heat all day without ever burning. Plus it looks really cool and it cools off the minute you turn an ‘element’ off, so you can wipe up any spillage. This last feature was to prove important.

Things did not go without a hitch. In particular when Vitiello added a bunch of shallots that had been marinating in vinegar into the buttery base of sea urchin roe sauce, it bubbled up like nobody’s business, hence the unintentional wipe-down demo. And the food, while absolutely delicious, was definitely chef’s fare. Both savoury courses had more than two dozen ingredients and several steps. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a little intimidating. As was the three pounds or so of butter Vitiello added to his silky mussel broth. This sort of things scares civilians. We hear about all the butter and salt in kitchens, but I’m not sure we’re quite ready to see it. Finally, on that note, the man has asbestos hands, and would do hardened Anthony Bourdain-like moves on hot pans without spatulas and manipulating things as they cooked. But, of course, all of this was quite entertaining.

And entertainment, in the end, is what matters. I don’t mean that lightly. If so much of the good food movement hinges on getting people back into the kitchen, it had better look as much fun as it is. Vitiello and Potvin had fun, and we got a great show and a great meal: Qualicum Beach Scallops with Sea Urchin Roe, Spice Crusted Sashimi Grade Tuna with Mussels, Saffron, Kaffir Lime Leaf, Thai Basil, Bird’s Eye Chili, Cilantro and Soked Sea Salt and Pana Cotta With Ginger and Rhubarb Compote. I suspect we will be seing more of Cory Vitiello in the next few years.

Malcolm Jolley is the editor of Good Food Revolution. Follow him at