Chef Massimo Capra is famous for his hearty Italian food which has been inspired by a rural Italian upbringing and exemplary culinary training. Attending Qatar International Food Festival 2015 he is no stranger to Doha with a successful Italian trattoria, Soprafino, located at Hamad International Airport. The restaurant offers traditional Italian dishes with a twist including risotto and tiramisu.
At QIFF 2015 he is doing live cooking shows cooking up his famous beet risotto on the main stage. He has also cooked with famous teenage entrepreneur Ghanim Mohammed Al Muftah, the founder of local brand Gharissa Icecream.
Qatar Eating interviewed Chef Capra – the man who brings heaps of enthusiasm, and his trademark moustache, with him wherever he goes!
Chef Massimo Capra at Qatar Food Festival
Massimo, can you tell us about your childhood?
I am actually a product of Italy! I grew up in the area known as Cremona, South East of Milan. I grew up in a farmland, my parents worked for a big landowner and my father was the head of the farm. My father could have done anything but after the war he decided you know that he had enough of people and he would live on a farm and tend his animals – he was a true animal whisperer. My mother would tend to a flock of birds…we had everything from ducks, geese, turkeys, guinea fowl, chickens, pigeons. Every Saturday my mother would prepare dinner with chicken, a duck, or a goose, all depending on what was available.
What food memories do you have from when you were young?
I have lots of positive memories, I mean rushing home to have the bowl of broth with lots of Parmigiano Reggiano in it. And having chicken feet, the ovaries, the neck of the chicken just with salt and bread – that was my breakfast.
An even better memory is with my dad – we would go in the garden and pick carrot or pepper, some radishes. With fresh bread, olive oil and salt we would eat the fresh vegetables from the garden. Those vegetables, that flavour, you can never find anywhere. And the best fruit is always the one that you take as kid from your neighbour’s garden…I used to eat handfuls of sour cherries.
Can you tell us more about your journey towards becoming a Chef?
When I was 14 years old I had to pick a school that would put me towards the profession that I wanted to be. Because I wanted to leave my hometown and see the world I picked the profession of cooking. After my first year my chef in school said to me you know you have to get serious because you play around way too much. You have a good palate, you have a good understanding, you learn recipes quick and you learn how to work very well but you need to smarten up. So he sent me to work the summer at a beautiful trattoria in Mestre, Venice.
It was the best restaurant in Italy in the seventies, but it was very tough. I worked 7 days a week from nine in the morning until one o’clock at night every day – at 15 years old I was making 100 dollars a month which is about 300 riyals. When I went back to school my chef was very happy with me and he bought me with him to a six star hotel in Italy and I worked with him for 6 years. He was my first mentor, and it was wonderful.
In 1982 my mother’s cousin who lived in Canada said why don’t you come to work here, and cook and learn something different and that’s the beginning of the story! I happened to strike a friendship with an incredible who was a restaurateur in Toronto and I worked for him for ten years. He treated me like his own brother and even now, after ten years of that restaurant being closed, people still refer to it as my restaurant because he gave me the freedom to be and to create.
It was the time that Italian cooking was getting noticed by the world, and I became an extremely famous chef while working in that restaurant – I did strictly Italian with an accent of Bostonian because the owner was from Boston. Then later I opened my own restaurant which has been open for 17 years now.
Do you have any signature dishes?
Yes, many dishes. I have a stuffed cornish hen wrapped with pancetta, I have balsamic vinegar glazed ribs, beet risotto. I was the one who created the pistachio crusted swordfish. I did the mustard crusted chilean sea bass. I brought the squash ravioli to Toronto, before me there was no squash ravioli in Toronto, and 20 years later squash ravioli is everywhere. Those are recipes that were really strong in my vocabularly that everybody always wanted.
Right now we have wild boar agnolotti that I cannot touch. We re-invented the pizza back in the nineties in Toronto, and the carpaccio. For desserts there is a a recipe from my hometown – meringue with cream, candied chestnuts and chocolate. And tiramisu is another thing that comes from my area as well, because we are a dairy area and produce fresh mascarpone. So tiramisu is natural for me, I grew up with it just like risotto. Here in Soprafino the risotto with seafood is spectacular.
What is the concept behind Soprafino, your restaurant in Hamad Airport?
Soprafino is an Italian restaurant and it’s a trattoria concept. Most of the ingredients here come directly from Italy. We have pizzas, pasta, sandwiches, salads, appetisers, main courses, and lots of dessert too. We try to make authentic Italian-style pasta. We have a variety of panini flavours from smoked salmon to vegetables. I turned some meat-eaters into vegetarians with that vegetable sandwich!
Have you tried Middle Eastern food?
It’s spectacular…I have the kind of palate that really enjoys that. I’m not your typical Italian which is very afraid of tasting different spices and herbs and flavours…I really actually enjoy all of the flavours.
It is an eye-opening experience coming here…every time I come I learn few things, a few desserts, a few main courses, combinations of spices, I mean it’s quite spectacular. I was at the Family Food Centre here in Qatar and the vegetables were like super stocked especially the Indian products…oh my so many…I don’t know what to do with 90% of the stuff.
Do you have any favourite spices?
I like any combination of cardamom, cumin, turmeric, ginger, garlic. I love fresh coriander, it freshens up the dish beautifully – I always use the leaves and the stems. You can pick up a lot in cookbooks and learn about the spice and flavour profile for a cuisine. In the Middle East you have sumac, za’atar, cumin…in Italy it’s all about rosemary and sage, oregano, thyme, garlic and tomatoes. Then you move out to India and you have all the cardamom and all the other aromatics. And you can learn what operates together. I am a firm believer in understanding flavours. If you go back in history, in Italy especially with the spice trade, those Asian spices were always there but they were used mainly in pastry and candies.
Have you tried any interesting or crazy food?
I am not really that adventuurous. I have had crispy crickets, I have had ant ant eggs sautéed in butter, I had no problem with that, it’s fine. When it comes down to animal innards it is a little bit more difficult, there are some things that I don;t really care to eat. I like offal, liver, brains, cow lung. But it is not as wow as everyone makes it out to be, it is a necessity because you don’t want to throw it away.
You are famous for being a TV Chef in your home country of Canada. Do you get recognised a lot?
Sometimes it can be an issue because sometimes I’m out doing my own things and I don’t want to be bothered. Interest in my personal life is not warranted, I mean we are not celebrities, we are not stars. It is not about the fanfare; actually I am very reluctant on all that. When I started being on television it was just a matter of TV people like to call who they know and who works well with them. The only thing you have to do is shut up and do your job on TV, because you have sound technicians, you have light people, you have directors…you don’t do what you want, you have to do what they tell you to do because it is a TV show, it’s not a cooking show.
You are a judge on popular show Chopped Canada (where professional chefs are challenged to turn a mystery box of ingredients into three course meals). Is the time limit strictly enforced?
Yeah the chefs are really under the gun…people are always wondering how it is possible. I guarantee you there is a box full of ingredients, you have 20 minutes…they open the box and they get maybe three minutes for repositioning of the cameras and then they go for 20 minutes. It is very strenuous, and at the 20 minute mark if you’re not done, you’re not done, it’s your problem. Generally the chef with the most knowledge is the one that fails the most because they’re overthinking it…you know they want to make ice cream and they want to make soufflé because they want to impress the judges. But you can’t do that in 20 minutes, it’s impossible.
What advice would you give to a home cook?
The reality is on TV land we are not teaching how to be professional chefs, we are teaching how to be good home cooks. We are actually giving you an avenue to actually explore new foods and new ways of doing things. You take what you see on TV, you read up on a book and then you start practicing and then you combine all of the knowledge and you make it your own. I wrote two cookbooks that were geared to the homemaker and those are very good because they are very simple, some recipes you need to be a chef, some recipes you just need to be cooking…it’s very easy.
A home cook has to have a minimum of knowledge or at least you have to be savvy enough to make a mistake once and try to figure out hmm why didn’t that work. I mean wait a minute I put spaghetti down in one block in the water and they’re all stuck together, well of course! They’re spaghetti, they’re very straight and smooth, when you put them in water they’re going to glue right away, so you have to fan them out and then you wait for when they’re soft, and then you start stirring them, and you don’t even have to put oil.
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring Chefs?
Yes, one massive tip. It would be very easy to dismiss what I am about to say as to the fact that I’m just an old guy, but the reality is that way too many cooks these days they all want to be superstars on TV. Cooking is not really about being superstars; cooking is a combination of a good palate, good work ethics, and a lot of hard work. There is a lot of dedication in cooking that needs to be implemented before you get the opportunity and the chance to be on TV. If you want to be on TV that badly then become an actor and cook as a hobby.
All of us cooks on TV have paid our dues massively, cooking for hours and hours on end, burning ourselves, cutting ourselves. Not that you should cut or burn yourself, but you know it was part of the job. The chef would not leave you alone if you weren’t putting your hand close to the fire because you had to get used to it. You had to also build discipline by doing the same thing over and over again.
So you have to have passion, and work hard to be a good chef, and you have to have leadership qualities, particularly the higher up you go in the kitchen.