Michael Bonacini is a masterful chef, turned TV Celebrity on two shows: Masterchef Canada, and 24 Hours of Food. He is in town this week, filming an Episode of 24 Hours of Food (Bell Fibe TV), at Mallard Cottage, Chafe’s Landing, Merchant Tavern, and Tavola.

For Bonacini, There Was No Escaping a Life in Food

For Micahel, food is in the recipe of his genetic makeup. As he says, “My parents were in the hotel and restaurant business. My sister is a chef. My brother-in-law is a chef. Even my brother in Australia was in the food business for a while.” His brother in South Wales was in the food business in a more obtuse kind of way: he developed food for Pedigree, that was specifically for cats and dogs with digestive issues.

Bonacini’s father was from Northern Italy, and did all the cooking at home, because for him cooking was religion. “We would go to Italy often, eat lots of great good, and he would cook lots of great food at home. I come by it naturally.”

How Does One Become a Celebrity Masterchef?

Masterchef is a one of television’s’ most internationally successful TV franchises. It started with Masterchef UK in 1990, but today there are over 50 countries running a Masterchef show, among them: Masterchef Canada, Masterchef US (with the infamous Gordon Ramsay), and Masterchef Australia (whose seasons are a whopping 70-something episodes long, and very, very good).

Masterchef Canada, a newer addition to the global Masterchef craze, is in its 4th season, and Michael has been a judge since its inception. But becoming one of the show’s 3 faces was an intensive process. Forty chefs from across the country were interviewed for the job, followed by 3 days of on-camera testing.

“I received a phone message, asking if I was interested in auditioning to become a judge on Masterchef Canada, so I flipped that message over to my Director of Marketing, and said let me know if you think this is worth pursuing. Ninety seconds later, she came tearing into my office saying, Are you crazy? You need to do this!'” Going through the 6-week trial to get the job was, in his words, “Exciting, my knees went a little weak.”

Bonacini Was in Town Filming His Newer Show, 24 Hours of Food

24 Hours of Food is a show that rolls into a city, and eats at 4 local restaurants: one for breakfast, one for lunch, one for supper, and one for late night eats. Season 1 (now on air) was shot in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Season 2, featuring an episode on St. John’s, will air in the winter.

Bonacini was approached by Bell Media to do a show about the regionality of food, with a travel-show feel. “The show is trying to show the excitement of the food scene in these great cities that we have here in Canada. And I said sure, I’d be happy to do that. It’s a less intensive taping process than Masterchef, and it’s fascinating to be a part of.”

Once the network settles on a city, Bonacini is happy to toss a bunch of names around, of places he’s heard great things about, or that he’d personally like to try. “But as you can imagine, it’s tough to pick just one for breakfast, just one  for lunch, just one for supper, and one for late night food. Because everyone you meet says, ‘Oh, but have you been here, have you been there, you should eat here, you should try this!'”

He Was Happy with What He Tried in St. John’s 

Mallard Cottage for breakfast was a solid choice: for the third year in a row, they won “Best Brunch in NL” in The Overcast’s People’s Choice Polls. Bonacini was quick to praise chef Todd Perrin. “I love Mallard Cottage. Todd is such a warm, easy-going individual. I think his food is incredibly soulful, unpretentious, and as he said to me, ‘I’m done with the high end … I wanna cook real food that is crowd pleasing.'”

Bonacini was here in Newfoundland 8 years ago, when Mallard Cottage was still an antique shop, not a nationally renowned restaurant. “I was there with my wife when it was a little antique store. I love antiques and popping into antique stores, and that was one of the places we visited … she was pretty envious of me heading back here for a few days. I’m definitely going to bring her back.”

He intends to be here in the spring if he can, for an event Merchant Tavern‘s Jeremy Charles is planning. “I might pop in and do something there with him. he is the culinary ambassador of the province by the sounds of things. It seems to be a great community here. Very supportive.”

As for Merchant Tavern itself, “I liked it a lot,” he says. “From the name one would discern that it is probably an older establishment, but what I liked about it is that it is the modern interpretation of what Newfoundland chefs are doing. And again, I think the food we had there was not fussy, it’s not complicated. It’s got sophistication to it, it’s got refinement, it’s got great French cooking technique as a foundation, but no pretention.”

Michael grew up in South Wales, in a seaside fishing town, so, a meal in Petty Harbour at Chafe’s Landing, hit home. As for the food, it was his first taste of two local classics: Fish’n’Brewis, and toutons. Upon explaining what he’d tried there, he had to be reminded what “those little dough cakes” were called, but he was smiling as he asked, so, clearly, he loved them.

Chafe’s Landing lived up to their reputation for incomparable Fish’n’Chips. “The batter,” he says, “was incredibly light and flaky and crispy, without being greasy … and Angela was telling me that her husband catches most of the cod for the restaurant here.”

Tonight, he’s off Tavola for the Late Night Eats segment of the episode. Do try the chocolate board, Michael, after a feed of gnocchi.

In a Week Where Downtown Closures Dominate the News,
Our Food Scene is Bringing in TV Crews for Rave Reviews

The one commonality Chef Bonacini noticed, at all the restaurants, “is that everyone seems to be incredibly proud of local produce, the codfish, the root vegetables, their connections with the provider, the grower, the supplier, and taking this regionalized cuisine of Newfoundland and reinventing it, and putting it on a pedestal.”

This, he loves, because in his own words, “It’s taken Canada a long time to appreciate that we have great regional cuisine. And we need to shout and tout it loud and proud. because it takes a backseat to no one.”

In a week where downtown closures dominate the news, in part because we’re all shopping at Box Store / Franchises, our food scene is bringing in TV crews for rave reviews. It used to be that George Street brought all the tourists or buzz to our yard. Not anymore. It’s the food now. Don’t forget to toast our luck by treating yourself to meals and drinks downtown this holiday season.