When it comes to celebrity chefs in Canada, Michael Bonacini’s star shines as brightly as any. Co-founder, along with veteran restaurateur Peter Oliver, of Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, he is probably best known as a judge on Master Chef Canada and as host of Cook Like a Chef and Bonacini’s Italy. More recently, there is his role as celebrity chef on Emerald Cruises. The son of a Welsh mother and Italian father, Bonacini grew up in South Wales. His parents owned a restaurant that Bonacini and his sister helped to run. He was classically trained at the Michelin-starred Dorchester Hotel, one of London’s most highly regarded kitchens, before immigrating to Canada in 1985 to helm the culinary program at the Windsor Arms Hotel. Eight years later, he and Peter Oliver opened their first Toronto restaurant, Jump, a New York-style bistro. Since then O&B has grown to include a diverse portfolio of 32 restaurants, 10 event venues, and catering operations across Canada, offering a range of culinary styles — from barbecue joints and brewpubs to modern French and artisanal Canadian fine dining.
Vacay.ca: When you immigrated to Canada did you come with a dream?
Michael Bonacini: My dream was coming to a whole new country, a place that I felt excited to hopefully be a meaningful part of. I felt that Canada, and particularly Toronto, seemed like one of those places that was full of opportunity, youth, vigour, and excitement. It has fulfilled my dreams 10 times over. I feel pretty fortunate.
Vacay.ca: Could you have envisioned yourself 37 years later in a partnership with an operation of this size?
MB: I could not. I had absolutely no vision of Michael Bonacini partnering with someone by the name of Peter Oliver and potentially owning dozens and dozens of restaurants across a number of provinces, several event spaces and a catering business along with other exciting things we are working on. No way. I’ve had an exciting life as chef, restaurateur, entrepreneur, but the dream just keeps building and growing. Sometimes it turns into a nightmare, but what job doesn’t? If it wasn’t for the odd nightmare life would seem boring. I think it’s not how well you do when things are going great, it’s how well you do when they are going badly that counts.
Vacay.ca: To what do you attribute this amazing success?
MB: It comes down ultimately to the people involved in the company. Hands down, without a doubt. It is every individual that is able to touch the operation no matter what position they hold. And it spills over to the great relationships we have with our supply chains. Without their support, we couldn’t have achieved the things we have. I also believe you have to create a vision for a restaurant. You have to be able to write up your vision in a way that when you read it to the group of people who will bring the restaurant to life, they have to say, “I get it.” Whether it is a grab-and-go coffee shop with amazing freshly brewed coffee, or a French casual bistro, or well-curated Canadian cuisine, that vision is essential. Because every employee in the restaurant has to bring it to life and make it a reality. It’s a living document that you have to revisit constantly. The best way to do that is to empower the key individuals of that operation to be a part of creating that vision.
Vacay.ca: How much of your time today is spent in the kitchen cooking?
MB: Less and less these days, to be quite truthful. I think that’s a good thing because there are amazing young, talented cooks, chefs, sous chefs, and pastry chefs that can do it faster and better than I can. I love espousing the principles of respect for quality ingredients, of having a well-organized, well-run, clean kitchen and being able to share that knowledge and expertise with every employee possible. The world of cuisine changes constantly with new ingredients and new techniques and we can’t be afraid to move with the time, but hold fast when we need to because there are some classic dishes that are still important. I like to think of myself as someone who can provide a little inspiration and can rally the troops. And I enjoy tasting the dishes!
Vacay.ca: What are your favourite parts of Canada to visit?
MB: Starting on the east coast, my wife and I honeymooned in Nova Scotia and we fell in love with the area. For many reasons, but for me, it reminds me of where I grew up in the southwest of Wales, in a coastal town with harbours and inlets. You could walk the headlands or along the esplanade when the tide was in and you could lick your lips and feel the spray and taste the saltiness. I get the same visceral emotion when I go to the east coast, along with their hospitality and humour and the gorgeous terrain.
I love Caledon, just north of Toronto, where we have had a country home for 20 years. It’s the place where I decompress. I’m outdoors, in the garden, chopping firewood, looking after my bees, planting trees. I absolutely love it.
I’ve been to the Stampede seven or eight times. I love the cowboy culture. Alberta has such beautiful terrain from its prairie land to the Rockies. It’s gorgeous. I’ve been fortunate to ski Whistler and enjoy the winter and a little après afterwards.
Vacay.ca: What do you love most about travel?
MB: Anyone can get excited about travelling no matter how far it is or how short because there is something special about planning a trip, going to see something new or going back to a place you visited a long time ago. I believe travel is as much a part of a good education as anything else because you learn so much about people, food, history, geography, and architecture. When you leave a place that makes you want more, you know it’s a destination you have really connected with.
Vacay.ca: You will be in Portugal this summer. If you were to bring home a suitcase full of foods, spices, and condiments, what would it contain?
MB: Seafood conservas such as canned squid or octopus, cooked mussels in tomato sauce and olive oil that Portugal is famous for. Some good olive oil, ruby and tawny port; and if I could, some of their local cheeses and, of course, their delicious Portuguese cream tarts.
Vacay.ca: You have hosted several culinary themed cruises on European rivers with Emerald Cruises. You will be in Portugal to host a culinary cruise of the Douro River, on their sparkling ship, Radiance. What is the appeal of river cruises for you?
MB: What caught my eye with Emerald Cruises is the size of the ships. With 112 guests on the Douro, for example, you don’t get lost in a crowd. There’s a level of intimacy and contact with the guests from other countries that is truly meaningful. For me, you can’t beat a small ship with a friendly, well-trained crew that does a great job of looking after guests.
Vacay.ca: In addition to hosting a cocktail party on board, doing a cooking demo, taking guests shopping at the market in Salamanca, you have prepared a Portuguese-inspired dinner. How did you choose the dishes for that dinner?
MB: I started with the classic dishes of Portuguese cuisine and now I look forward to putting a little personal touch on them. Those are the kind of decisions chefs like to make when they’re in the kitchen with their sleeves rolled up. We will include delicious local wines.
Vacay.ca: What are you most looking forward to on this cruise.
MB: Getting away with my wife and, an added highlight this time, a first — my son will be with us. He is also a chef and I plan to put him to work. We will have a fantastic time. Being in the hospitality business, the “being on” part comes naturally. It’s been with me all my life and once you are bitten by the hospitality individual bug, it never leaves you. It comes naturally and I truly enjoy it.
Vacay.ca: Over your career you have made an important contribution to a number of worthy causes. Why is volunteering so important to you?
MB: Whenever we can, as an organization, we go out of our way to provide support that is meaningful and local, that affects as many different causes as possible. Being supportive of local events is so important for a company like ours.
Vacay.ca: What else should we know about Michael Bonacini?
MB: I feel as excited about the food scene today as ever. Food is being seen as more than just sustenance. People are hungry for knowledge about food, culture, and travel. It’s very exciting. We’ve had a set back because of COVID-19 but I am very positive that our industry and the food scene will come rolling back.