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Q & A with Chef Joe Friday of Via Vai

Joe Friday is the chef behind Via Vai, a new Italian restaurant set in the podium of Lanterra’s Burano condominium. From his beginnings as one of the youngest chefs at Walt Disney World, Friday trained all over the world, picking up techniques from his stints in Japan, Europe and Hawaii. Friday is a part owner and manager of the restaurant, and hopes to win people over with his authentic take on Italian.

We sat down to chat with him in between a busy lunch and dinner, opposite the sprawling, colourful murals by artist, Sandro Martini.

Lanterra: What made you decide to become a chef?

Joe Friday: My grandfather was a chef, he went to Italy, came back and opened the first Italian restaurant in my hometown, which is in North Carolina. I always watched him as a chef. He passed away when I was really young, but I always had that memory of cooking with him and watching him cook, and seeing how happy he was. I went to school, and a baseball team picked me up, but it didn’t work out. I broke an ankle before I even got to play. Then, I was figuring out what to do with my career and cooking just came natural. So I went to cooking school.

L: Did your hometown in North Carolina influence your food?

JF: It does still, even with the Italian cuisine because there’s a lot of similarities between Italian and Southern, cornmeal application, the way they cook pork. So many different cooking techniques but they’re all kind of the same.

L: How has your experience been here at Via Vai?

JF: It’s been amazing. I’m not just a chef here. I’m the general manager and I’m a part owner. So, the cooking part of it’s always been fun, but the other part of it has been stressful, there’s just so many things going on trying to launch a new restaurant, manage a lot of stuff. It’s interesting, you want to concentrate on one thing, which for me, it’s the food. But then I also want to make sure I give everybody else the proper attention. So, each day I’m pulled so many different ways. There’s 8 meetings within an hour!

L: Can you tell me a bit about the menu at Via Vai?

JF: The menu here at Via Vai is a traditional approach cuisine in Italy but a modern take on it. I do a lot of research on old-style Italian cuisine, but I also use modern techniques to deliver the food. I think the food here is really authentic there’s no glitz, there’s no glam. I would describe the food as elegant simplicity, just really good food. My philosophy in cooking is not to overthink an ingredient, if you have good ingredients, it’s easy to be a chef.

L: From the simplicity in your food, do you think you were inspired by the space here?

JF: I used to sleep on the floor here when we were under construction. I would bring lunch and dinner and I would sleep here all day. Those would be days when the contractors wouldn’t come in, and I’d stare at the painting on the wall, and use that every day to inspire. So every night I would wake up and would look up to the streetlights over here, all you can do is see out, and sometimes I would see a shooting star. It was interesting, we’re in the middle of the city and it’s almost impossible to see anything in the sky, I thought it was a good luck thing. And what drew more inspiration was the décor. The different colours, and to approach the menu with a reckless abandonment, but also with control. Because that art piece is very controlled, it looks very reckless, but the artist [Sandro Martini], says that was his plan, this controlled chaos. So I try to implement that in some of the plates.

L: How important do you think atmosphere is to a restaurant?

JF: I think atmosphere plays a huge part. People want to be in a location where it’s vibrant and fun and you can obviously have an amazing meal at home but it doesn’t have the atmosphere that a restaurant would have. I think we have a beautiful atmosphere; post-modern, concrete floors, the wine rack is like a spine of wine. The art on the wall, the picture is from a movie, The Great Beauty, it’s a recent film in Italy, and it’s just a beautiful film. I think the atmosphere plays a big part in the dining experience.

L: You’ve cooked and trained all over the world, is Italian food your favourite?

JF: I would say Italian food is one of my top 3 favourites. I do love Japanese food, I lived in japan for 10 years, so that plays a big part of my cuisine, but I do love what I grew up eating. I will say that I am a master of Japanese and Italian, everything else I’m really good at. I can cook Greek to French to Indonesian, all types of food, but Italian would be my favourite.

L: Do you think your diverse background helps you focus on one style?

JF: When you cook in so many different styles, you learn cooking techniques. It’s not per se the ingredients. You can research the ingredient, buy the ingredient and cook the ingredient, but learning how to cook different techniques in different parts of the world, it makes you, in my opinion, a better chef. I’ve cooked around the world and I cook things in different ways that I don’t think I would have done unless I traveled.

L: You sometimes forage for ingredients, could you tell us a bit more about that?

JF: Toronto is interesting, it’s a very beautiful city, and a lot of people don’t realize what they have right in their backyard. Toronto has a restoration process of taking the valley and restoring it over the last 20 years, this has been a long-term project, and a lot of people mistreat the forest and mistreat right behind them. I wanted to show people that it’s safe and okay. As long as you understand what you’re picking and understand the agriculture and what’s happening in the area. By any means, I would never tell anyone to just forage, because you never know what’s been in the soil, so you have to do your research before you start foraging because it’s important. I forage in the Don Valley. It’s interesting down there there’s so much life and it’s so beautiful. I wanted to go forage in my backyard and I found some amazing things. Chanterelles, mushrooms, fiddleheads, so much stuff going on. You can even forage in the fall and in the winter.

L: What do you think of the Toronto food scene?

JF: It’s amazing. I’ve cooked around the world and that plays a part of what I think of Toronto. I think Toronto’s really young in the culinary scene. Toronto has three or four figureheads as chefs that people look up to, that understand cuisine. You have Oliver and Bonacini, Michael Bonacini is the chef there and he’s the one of the real fathers of Toronto cuisine, and you have Paul Boehmer, you have Susur Lee and Mark McEwan, those chefs are respected, and that’s it. New York and France has a longer lineage. I think it’s a younger scene here but there’s so much room to grow and so many ideas. Chefs are always leaving and coming back, with new technologies and new ways to cook things and it’s just amazing. I think Toronto has a good food scene but still has room to grow, and I’m pretty excited to be a part of that.

Chef Joe Friday also runs the Underground Chef Cartel, which hosts food battles once a month in Toronto, where two chefs go head to head in a competition. He also started a charity called Chef for Change and is involved with Project Phoenix.

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