Lauded Toronto chef turns up the heat in home entertaining

Shinan Govani plucks the juicy bits from Toronto chef Cory Vitiello, of now-shuttered Harbour Room fame, who has been fast expanding his new chicken boutique chain Flock. He has also focusing on his home entertaining business — and making a delicious mess in other people’s kitchens. (Photo by Eric Moran)

He makes house calls.

After calling it curtains at his beloved Harbord Room last fall and focusing these days on his fast-expanding couture chicken brand, Flock (chimichurri, anyone?), Cory Vitiello is also quietly focused, of late, on the home-entertaining front.

“It’s such a special thing — to cook for people in their own space. It takes me back to the heart of why I do what I do,” the famously affable chef told me.

Known for his unique combination of “swagger and substance” (as one longtime patron summed up for me once), the 36-year-old Canadian is also know, perhaps, as much for his chops in the kitchen as his hold-the-presses soap operatic love life. (His most recent ex, actress Meghan Markle, is now ensconced in a relationship with Prince Harry — possibly you’ve heard of him?) And, well, if there was ever a time for comfort food, this may just be it.

When I sat down with Vitiello, the conversation veered easily from a trip planned soon to India (he has a bunch of gigs lined up on the sub-continent, including cooking at a fashion event) to the iconically pink walls at the now-shuttered Harbord Room (the specific hue was called Erasure Pink), to his customized catering in some of the better homes in Toronto.

Take the party held at the home of power duo Mark and Suzanne Cohon a few weeks back in Rosedale: it was Vitiello whom they rang up, and it was Vitiello who came bearing a menu of Hushpuppies with summer squash and lemon relish with Romesco sauce, a dry-aged steak tartare with BBQ-spiced taro chip and cured egg, and crispy nori wafer with Matsutake mushrooms, avocado, shiro miso and yuzu and more.

That nori wafer, he tells me, is consistently a greatest hit. “Super light, super vegan,” says the Brantford, Ontario-raised chef, who once asked for an “Easy-Bake Oven” for Christmas and later went on to study cooking at the Stratford Chefs School.

That party at the Cohons — which drew a healthy smattering of the smart social set — was doubling as a celebration of the One&Only Ocean Club in the Bahamas, the James Bond-friendly hotel featured in Casino Royale. This bash required the chef to take inspiration from some of the island fare available at the property, exactly the type of challenge he likes in these housebound affairs.

It’s a puzzle, and “you have to adapt to the atmosphere … to a new kitchen … really get close to the people you’re cooking for.”

As for tips he’s keen to share about home entertaining, particularly for the starter-cook, Vitiello suggests going with something casual and one that lends itself to socializing. “Mexican-themed menus always work well — tacos, chips and guacamole; grilled corn, ceviche, tamales, tequila and mezcal cocktails.”

“These dishes can all be prepped ahead of time for the most part. Whatever you choose to serve, work within your limits — don’t be a hero and spend the entire day cooking,” he says.

Another tip: “People always hang out in the kitchen so put them to work — either that or they’ll be in your way. Set up a make-your-own cocktail/drink station, preferably outside of the kitchen. If you start serving your guests drinks, you’ll be doing just that for the whole night. Guests are looking for something to keep them busy and active, as well. Especially if they are new to the crowd — let them experiment with different cocktail creations and serve each other.”

Not everyone has a Vitiello on hand, after all.

Working these days in concert with the catering group 10tation and in other smaller settings on his own, the dude is clearly himself at home with the smart set, having filled a role in this town for some time. After all, when fashion impresario Joe Mimran wanted a restaurant to entertain the legendary Patti Smith, when she was in town in 2013 he took her to Harbord Room. Similarly, when Jimmy Choo, the luxury fashion brand, was launching in Canada, they snagged the storybook stud to cook the dinner.

Any chance of a new fine restaurant from him sometime soon? There have been whispers, and Vitiello is clearly in never-say-never mode. In the meantime, he’s readying to open the fifth and sixth locations of his cheap-and-cheerful poulet eatery, Flock; one at the MaRS building on College and another at St. Clair and Rushton.

As for those epic Harbord Room burgers — a whopping 55 per cent of the orders they used to do were for those much-touted patties — Vitiello tells me he’s weaned off of them. “For now,” he footnotes. Like an artist who’s perhaps not interested in repeating his tricks too often, he’s clearly choosing to focus in other directions. (For the record: the secret to those burgers — it was all about the bun.)

Meanwhile, a-catering he will go. Having been voted “best new chef” in 2009 by enRoute magazine and having even dabbled on TV (including The Today Show), he is still, at heart, the guy who started a catering company out of his parents’ kitchen, at all of 15 years old, for neighbours and parents’ friends alike — including one woman who, as the story goes, approached him to cater her wedding.

Once a chef, always a chef … no?

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