The Making of a Master Chef

For Claudio Aprile, the grandiose culinary spectacle that is MasterChef Canada represents the most intense experience of his life. It’s an odd revelation from a man who brought us flash-frozen ice cream and one of the best restaurants in Toronto, who has since his twenties led kitchens beyond the status quo. The celebrity chef moniker isn’t something he ever chased, but it was an opportunity that would redefine him. “It was push, push, push and 17-hour-days — the most intense thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I learned to be led, which was liberating.”

A self-described risk-taker in food and in people, the Uruguay-born, Toronto-raised chef is a product of diverse elements, with a cooking style reflective of his time spent in kitchens around the world. On an overcast winter afternoon, he steals away from his office to a private corner booth at his spacious Origin North restaurant. A contrast to his TV self, Aprile, 45,  is surprisingly quiet in person, rarely making eye contact as he’s prodded on his luminary status. “I’ve never really pursued the celebrity chef thing, I’ve always thought it silly because there’s people out there doing more important things,” explains the Richmond Hill resident and father of two. “I’ve been out with my wife and a chef will come over to our table and say, ‘I’m so honoured to meet you.’ When the chef leaves I’ll say to my wife, ‘What’s going on?’”

Applying obsessive precision to his dishes, Aprile burst onto the scene with his much-acclaimed 2007 restaurant Colborne Lane. Touted for its modernist food and nitrogen desserts, Colborne Lane led the pack in creativity across an unimaginative Toronto foodscape. “Claudio has standards that I think, ‘Geez, that is incredibly demanding,’” says culinary entrepreneur and fellow MasterChef Canada judge Michael Bonacini, whose lucrative food enterprise includes Canoe and Auberge du Pommier. “But you have to be fanatical — I will go as far as saying insanely fanatical — because it’s that sort of attention that people are in awe of. In this business, you have to continually reinvent yourself — otherwise you become yesterday’s news pretty damn quick — and he’s good at that,” adds Bonacini, who remembers meeting Aprile 17 years ago when he applied for a position at Canoe.

Solidifying his spot as one of the city’s most innovative chefs, Aprile’s decision process is often unchartered by predictability. Last year, when he closed Colborne Lane to focus on the third installment of his Origin series, he chose to park his biggest restaurant to date next to the Bayview Village shopping centre in North York. The move raised collective eyebrows: how would Aprile, who had catered his hip, forward-looking food and vibrant atmosphere to the downtown crowd, hack it in suburbia? Serendipitously, Aprile, who admits to being his own worst critic, got a call from MasterChef Canada just when his 12,000-square-foot restaurant opened. Managing the operations of three booming establishments in tandem with the most intense experience of his life — a spot on one of the biggest culinary shows on TV — Aprile suddenly found himself with much more to prove. “I know that for him [his responsibilities] were heavily weighing on the back of his mind,” says Bonacini, who recalls how torn Aprile was during the six-week taping process. “Every time there were a few minutes of downtime, he would run over to his cellphone and check emails; he would pop in every night after taping or go to one of his restaurants in the morning. They were long, hard days, both mentally and physically draining.”

Aprile credits his mother, “a fighter, a person that never gives up,” as his biggest inspiration. The owner and creative force behind Orderfire,  which is currently overseeing operations of the Trillium Restaurant at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, is working on a cookbook, and in the next few years, plans to debut an innovative restaurant concept set in a small, intimate setting. “The word ‘empire’ scares the crap out of me,” says Aprile, who recently closed his Origin restaurant in Liberty Village to focus on MasterChef Canada. (His King Street East location, which opened in 2010, remains running.) It’s not necessarily about being the biggest, he explains. “It’s really about finding out the driving force behind what you’re doing. It’s about being happy. What I found appealing about MasterChef was that it celebrates the risk-takers, it celebrates the people that step out of their comfort zone to realize a dream, which is becoming a chef.”

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