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Chef Massimo Capra in the Swiss Alps near Zermatt.
Chef Massimo Capra in the Swiss Alps near Zermatt.

Chef Massimo Capra shares his gourmet escape secrets Add to ...

Congratulations on your new show Gourmet Escapes. How did you decide where to go? Did you pick places you always wanted to visit, or chefs you wanted to cook with?

We’re not really looking for Michelin-starred chefs and restaurants that are absurd in quality. We’re looking for things that are more traditional, that showcase the love that people have for the food, for the hunt, the farm, whatever. The passion that people have for making cheese, for making wine, for making liqueurs – it’s quite amazing.

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The idea is finding the places to go to that are interesting enough and that people can connect with immediately. Going to Lunenburg [N.S.]was a very easy choice – we know the place and we wanted to showcase a bit of Canada. Iceland – I always wanted to be there. The Iceland Food and Fun Festival is fantastic and I was invited as a chef. And then going to Ireland, that’s a totally different reason: We heard about the chef and she’d just opened a cookery school and she was fantastic. She’s incredibly passionate.

What tricks or flavours are we most likely to find introduced into your cooking here in Canada?

Right now we’re just travelling in the safe zones: Italian, French, German. We found this cheese maker in Wales at the farmers’ market. He has a herd of sheep and goats and he makes goat cheese and sheep’s milk cheese – 14 different varieties. He has people coming over from France to talk to him and learn from him. Cothi Valley Goats is the name of the cheese monger’s business. It’s so darned good, and the quality! When you taste it and you have something that is really good, you realize it. The aftertaste, the power up front, the saltiness, the flavour explosion in your palate, that’s what really makes you go insane about it.

You’re well-travelled. What’s the best advice you can give to travellers who search for that sometimes elusive sense of authentic taste? Do you have to know the local chefs?

It’s tough to really get to know the local chefs; it’s better to get to know the area where you are going. When I travel myself, I always go for local food. My first question is, “What’s the local cuisine?” And then it’s, “Who makes it, who cooks it?” You have to talk to local people. In Europe, newspaper men, tobacco venders, local bartenders, they’re always very helpful. You have to be careful, though, of the ones who have an axe to grind, or the ones who send you to their cousin or whatever. And of course I look on the Internet. It’s a very quick research – it doesn’t take forever.

And sometimes I get burned too. Sometimes you get into a great restaurant, but the chef is off that day. Restaurants are not as regimented as we have them here in Canada. In Europe, you might find at lunchtime they have a bartender doing free spaghetti and a salad – but at dinner they have the chef come in and put out the best dinner ever. Don’t be afraid of just getting up and leaving. Just leave some money on the table and say, “I’ve got to go.”

I was in Florence on a statutory holiday and all the restaurants I knew were closed. I ended up walking and walking. All the restaurants looked the same. I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m lost,’ so we just dove into one and we held our noses and ended up having a great meal. The more locals that speak with the accent, then you go in and you’re pretty well guaranteed.

Of all the places you’ve travelled, which surprised you most, and how?

The place that really surprised me the most was Zermatt, Switzerland. I thought I’d go into the heart of the Alps and it’d be purely tourists and a lot of put-on, fake foods that tourists tend to get. But we found a place loaded with good restaurants with great grub.

When I’m in Zermatt and I’m eating raclette and the steaks, and I’m eating rosti and I’m having all the melted cheese that can be eaten legally – we ate so much – and truffle season was upon us, it was quite special.

Plus there’s the influence of three or four cultures in one valley. You heard words spoken in the valley – Italian, French, German – and you didn’t know which way to turn. I was very surprised at the quality of the restaurants they had. We found wild game meat all over, local vegetables and fruit just grown down the valley.

Where do you long to visit for the first time?

Hawaii. The Caribbean is nice, but Hawaii and the South Pacific Islands. And Japan. And all of Asia. And the other one would be India. Eating my way through India and China wouldn’t be too bad. And all of the Middle East. I’d bring my fork and knife and let’s go!

Gourmet Escapes airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. (5 p.m. PT) on Travel + Escape.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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