In the Kitchen With: Craig Harding, Campagnolo, La Palma and Constantine, Toronto

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Chef Craig Harding’s nonna is the reason he’s where he is today in his career. As his earliest mentor, she solidified in him a desire to make cooking his life’s work. The owner of Toronto restaurants Campagnolo, La Palma and the recently opened Constantine, says he cherishes his memories of cooking alongside his nonna, seeing how much she enjoyed it — and how much he enjoyed eating it. He admits to “ripping off” her recipes and emulating her techniques.

In his last year of high school, Harding enrolled in a class with a European-trained chef who took him under his wing — teaching him classic cooking techniques and mentoring him. He showed the aspiring chef that cooking was more than preparing family dinners at home — it was a profession. After graduating from George Brown College’s culinary program, Harding apprenticed with chef Jamie Kennedy at the Jamie Kennedy at the ROM restaurant, before moving on to Jump and Canoe, where his roles included garde manger, saucier and butcher.

“I learned valuable lessons about how a kitchen that works as a team is much stronger than any single cook within it,” Harding says. And, he says, working with chefs Anthony Walsh, Tom Brodi and Basilio Pesce taught him the meaning of true hospitality. “I learned about sourcing the most incredible ingredients and what it takes to be an effective leader — leading by example and always being there to lend a hand.”

In 2010, Harding decided to follow his own path, opening the 50-seat Campagnolo on Toronto’s Dundas St. W. with his wife, designer Alexandra Hutchison. Harding says the rustic restaurant with a farm-to-table ethos was designed to be an intimate venue with a menu inspired by rustic Italian food.

“It was always about welcoming guests into what we envisioned as our dream farmhouse in the country,” Harding says. “We brought a little of that rustic quality into the city and have been elevating and refining the food over the years.”

The menu at Campagnolo features Pallotte Cacio e Pane with Piave cheese, braised tomato and artichoke ($15); roasted bone marrow with oxtail marmalade and plums ($15); and an olive-oil cake with buttermilk gelato, toasted almonds and lemon icing ($12).

Last June, Harding and his wife opened La Palma in Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood. The restaurant — featuring vegetable-heavy Italian cooking enlivened with international ingredients — takes its inspiration from the area’s eclectic arts-and-culture scene as well as the couple’s travels to Venice Beach, Calif.

Last month the duo opened Constantine inside The Anndore House hotel — a Mediterranean restaurant that’s “a little Italian, a little bit of the eastern shore, Greece, Turkey and Israel,” Harding says. “[These are] very exciting cultures and cuisines and it will be interesting to see the sharing of ideas in the food between all of these countries.”

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