Canadian Chef Profiles: Jon Vettraino, The Commodore Bar, Toronto ON

by Krlmagi

Chef Jon Vettraino cooks his own unique takes on seasonally available, ethically sourced ingredients at The Commodore Bar in Toronto.

The enjoyment that Jon Vettraino got from cooking for his family as a child was the catalyst for his future career as a chef. He explains, “There was always a pay off at the end of it. If you made something and it worked out, there was a sense of accomplishment there. That’s how I got started thinking about it.”

The first job that Vettraino had in a professional kitchen was washing dishes. He always looked enviously at the line cooks because it struck him as an exciting job. He’d been undecided about his future path as a teenager but he says, “After seeing them I was pretty certain that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”

Chef Jon Vettraino
Chef Jon Vettraino
Joel Gale

The culinary school route wasn’t one that Vettraino took.  By the time that he contemplated it, his employer at the time told him that he’d already had too much experience to get much out of culinary school. Vettraino says, “I wouldn’t recommend doing it my way. I had to muddle my way through some terrible restaurants before I got to the good ones.”

The first chef who inspirational to Vettraino was Chef Martha Wright. She broke him of some bad habits kitchen habits that he’d picked up and set him on the right path. She taught Vettraino about seasonal cooking and introduced him to new ingredients.

One particular stage at a single Michelin starred restaurant in northern Italy inspired Vettraino. He explains that he worked there for a few months and was deeply impressed by their respect for the products that they were using.

Another experience that shaped Vettraino was working at Heston Blumenthal’s world-famous Fat Duck. Vettraino learned a great deal from watching a three star Michelin kitchen at work and found inspiration in people’s level of commitment to their work there.

A strong influence on Vettraino was working at Chef Victor Barry’s Splendido restaurant. He says, “I’d never worked in an environment like that and to thrive in it gave me a sense of accomplishment. They started me at the bottom. I was near thirty starting at a station with a couple of kids who were five or six years my junior. I had to fight my way up through the pecking order.” 

The interior of the Commodore Bar
The interior of the Commodore Bar
Joel Gale

The idea of cooking in a particular style has disappeared in the culinary world from Vettraino’s perspective. He focuses on seasonal ingredients and celebrates what he finds during each season. For example, he has Romanesco cauliflower on the menu for the short duration that it’s available in the winter and only at that time. He says, “I start with an ingredient that I like, we get it in and we play around with it and think about a way to serve it in a way that’s unique to us. I don’t think there are many things in the cooking world that are 100 percent original.”

An example of Vettraino’s approach is a dish that he created using pig’s cheeks and pig’s tongues. He explains, “I wrap the cheeks around the tongues and I tie them up. I sous vide them for a couple of days and it looks almost like a terrine. I just got tongues in one day by accident and wondered what the hell I was going to do with them but something really cool came out of it.”

Having a diverse menu is important to Vettraino. He takes ideas that interest him and combines them in a cohesive way to create a menu that caters to many tastes. For example, he creates compelling vegetarian dishes so that vegetarians don’t feel alienated when they come in to eat. He also has a bavette steak on the menu for less adventurous eaters. He says, “We serve it with a mushroom gravy for the meat and potatoes guys but we also serve it with a sea urchin butter for people who want to have something adventurous and feel like a steak.”

Vettraino likes to work with suppliers that are on the same page as him when it comes to ethical practices. He explains, “I’m looking for sustainable fishing practices and ethically raised meats. My meat guy gets heritage pigs and I’d rather get that from him than someone who just deals with factory farms which I’m totally against.”

The Commodore's bar seating
The Commodore's bar seating
Joel Gale

Maintaining his relationships with suppliers is a matter of loyalty for Vettraino. For example, he’s been dealing with his meat supplier for a few years and they’ve developed a rapport to the point that the supplier will deliver on his days off if Vettraino’s in need of something on short notice.

Demanding high standards of himself as a chef is important for Vettraino. He says, “I think a good chef should always be looking at what they’re doing and trying to make it better. Never being happy with what you’re doing is kind of maddening but it’s also a good thing.”

He also emphasizes working cleanly and keeping things organized. Vettraino adds, “Not everybody might see those as being critically important but I always think it matters. There are just too many things to deal with otherwise.”

Having like-minded people on his kitchen team is crucial for Vettraino. He wants people with personalities that fit with his and create a cohesive team. He says, “I don’t want to have big macho dudes in my kitchen. I’m too old for that and it makes me uncomfortable. I’m in a position now where I can choose not to deal with them.”

The desire to succeed is a major motivation to Vettraino. He explains, “This is my first business and I don’t want it to fail. Cooking is all I know how to do. I’m not trained to do anything else.”

Updated: 11/20/2015, Krlmagi
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