Toronto-based Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN) Margie Cook is a chef, lifestyle coach and food consultant. She also happens to be vegan. Specializing in both individual and corporate shifts toward plant-based living, she has spent the past several years reorganizing lives (and kitchens) to accommodate diets free of animal products.
Cook has recently taken on the immense task of becoming restaurant group Il Fornello’s first plant-based chef. She has developed a vegan menu (avocado Caesar salads and nut-based tiramisu cups anyone?) for the brand, which has been producing high-quality Italian cuisine in Toronto for the past 35 years. In the process, she has reorganized all of Il Fornello’s kitchens to accommodate a vegan-friendly workspace and avoid animal-product contamination.
We chatted with Cook and Il Fornello vice-president Stacey Patterson to get their take on plant-based Italian food and why Toronto is better for it.
1. What made Il Fornello decide to go with a plant-based menu to accompany its regular menu?
SP: Il Fornello has always been very aware of the needs and dietary choices of our customers. We were the first to offer a gluten-free pizza crust and pasta — well before other restaurants followed our lead.
When it became obvious that plant-based foods were important to many of our customers — for both dietary and environmental concerns — we engaged an expert in the field, Margie Cook, to work alongside our chefs to create our plant-based menus.
2. How could (traditionally meat- and dairy-heavy) Italian cuisine become well-suited to a plant-based lifestyle?
MC: Italian cuisine is extremely wide-ranging and versatile.
They have a very a strong tradition of meatless and dairy-free dishes — a classic minestrone, ribollita (the famous Tuscan bread soup) and pizza marinara are just a few examples of this. Additionally, any pizza and many pastas can easily be made vegan and delicious.
3. What internal kitchen changes needed to be made in order to implement your plant-based menu properly?
MC: We have created separate cooking areas in our kitchens and have provided separate utensils for the creation of our plant-based ingredients/menu items.
SP: As the recipes developed, we also decided to remove dairy from our regular pizza dough. We then improved the quality of our gluten-free and spelt-dough crust options, as well as our gluten-free pasta option.
4. Margie, how did you become involved with plant-based cooking and kitchen organization?
MC: Well, I haven’t eaten animals since I was 22 years old (I am now 48) and I have been fully vegan for eight years. Of course, this has impacted the way I cook and how I feel about nutrition. My career ended up going in several different directions and I have so much fun doing what I do. Working with Il Fornello has been a very positive experience and, really, I’ve never been happier (or healthier) in my life.
5. How do you feel about the idea of “fake” meat on menus? Are they the real deal, or are there better options out there?
SP: Although we do offer Beyond Meat products [on our menus], we believe that many vegans don’t actually want food that tastes and has the texture of meat. They would rather have from-scratch vegan meals like our “Bolognese” sauce, made with lentils and mushrooms.
6. How has your new plant-based menu been received by Il Fornello patrons?
SP: Many of our regular customers are thrilled they can now bring their vegan children to Il Fornello, knowing there is something for everyone on the menu. As a result, our reservations for groups have increased dramatically.
MC: The overall response has been really overwhelming. The menu we have created has not only been embraced by our regular clientele, it has attracted a whole new demographic of younger customers. These guests want restaurants with dedicated vegan menus — not just one or two dishes.
7. Any big plans for the future?
SP: We are extremely proud of the reputation for high-quality food and service we have built and maintained over the years. We will continue to innovate, adapt and expand our menu, but we are committed to staying true to the core values that have made Il Fornello a mainstay in the Greater Toronto Area.
We are actively seeking franchise applicants interested in joining the Il Fornello family, as we look to grow, both in Ontario and, eventually, across Canada. These are very exciting times for the Il Fornello brand.