Back To The Kitchen: In Conversation With MasterChef Canada’s Claudio Aprile

Chef Claudio Aprile is a storyteller.

We arrange to speak over the phone about the upcoming launch of his new Toronto restaurant, Copetín, and it’s immediately clear to me why Aprile has thrived in his turn as a television personality on MasterChef Canada. Just as the celebrated chef is skilled with creating food that tells a story of its own, fusing the flavors of various cultures and countries, he is also an engaging entertainer — especially when it comes to describing the path that led him to becoming one of the country’s top chefs.

It helps that the story of Aprile’s life is a fascinating one. Born in Uruguay and raised in Toronto, his early life reads like a Micheal Ondaatje novel. Aprile’s mother, also an immigrant, was a seamstress with an indelible work ethic. “She kept her head down and sewed dresses until her fingers bled…That for sure had an impact on me,” says Aprile. His mother worked six days a week, often twelve to sixteen hour days, sewing bridal gowns and dresses — and, at one point, costumes for an Elvis impersonator.

Aside from this early exposure to hard work, dressmaking had another lasting impression on Aprile: it afforded a constant exposure to diversity. People of various countries and cultures would often visit Aprile’s mother at home to try on her dresses, and Aprile likens this exposure to a crash course in working in kitchens. “Kitchens are incredibly multicultural and very inclusive environments, and if they’re not inclusive, they don’t work,” he says.

The influence of Aprile’s mother remains clear today; in fact, the name ‘Copetín’, a Latin-American word that means ‘drop-in, aperitif, community and social,’ was chosen by her. “The more I think about it,” he says, “the more it makes sense to me that my mother had the most profound impact on me, on my entire life and everything that I do — especially cooking.”

I often like to ask an interviewee, especially one celebrating a career milestone, what they consider in hindsight to be their ‘big break’ — a turning point or professional catalyst that changed everything and led them down their current path. Sometimes the answers surprise me; sometimes a person’s own perception of a big break is entirely different from one that a third party might pinpoint. But perhaps no answer has surprised me as much as Aprile’s. I expect him to perhaps talk about the opening of his first restaurant, Toronto’s Colborne Lane, or his first forays into television. Aprile’s actual answer? Getting fired from a donut shop at the age of fourteen.

Upon reflection, Aprile actually can identify several turning points in his career, but that donut shop was the first. With a discipline that mirrored his mother’s, he took a job working overnights on the weekends so as to not disrupt his schooling. Demoted to the role of ‘jelly-filler’, Aprile decided to approach this mundane task with fervor…by overstuffing the donuts to the point of bursting. “They did burst. Lots of people would laugh,” he says. “So that was my first job. I got fired from that, because I didn’t understand what the problem was.”

From there Aprile began working in a steak house, doing grunt work in the dish pit. But this job led to another big break of sorts — one that came about because he decided to take his future into his own hands and beg for a promotion. “It’s hell on earth, working in a dish pit. That’s the hardest job, period, the hardest job in the restaurant,” he says. “I got promoted from the dish pit to the salad bar. I was given the responsibility of prepping copious amounts of cauliflower, broccoli.”

Then came a more conventional ‘big break’; meeting Drew Nieporent, the owner of the Toronto Nobu, in the mid-90s. At that time, he reflects, Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, founder of the upscale restaurant chain, was turning into a demi-god in the cooking world. Once again, Aprile seized his chance. “I saw an opportunity; I jumped at it and applied for a job.” Fortunately, his wife had a UK passport that allowed them to move to England, and Aprile received an offer at Nobu in London.

Aprile, however, made a surprising and career-defining decision: he turned it down.

Realizing that what he truly wanted was to be a head chef, Aprile instead took a job at The Sugar Club. “That was the right move for me,” he reflects. The restaurant did well, and the press and the attention did wonders in building his confidence. “I thought, if I can go to England and not just survive but really thrive there, I felt that I could go anywhere.”

That ‘anywhere’ would be Toronto. In 2000, he and his wife found themselves getting homesick for life in Canada. Upon his return, Aprile was approached by Henry Wu’s team; at that time, Wu had a successful restaurant called Senses at Yonge and Bloor. Senses was a retail shop that served food — something that, while trendy now, was then unheard of. Aprile describes the restaurant as being fifteen or twenty years ahead of its time.

Now at a point in his career that feels a little full circle—though, he laughs, sometimes the description of going ‘full circle’ can be misleading, as though one has actually gone nowhere, like a hamster on a treadmill—he is opening a restaurant with Henry Wu as his partner. And while this might seem like a partnership that was a long time coming, the actual decision to work together on Copetín, Aprile says, was perhaps one of the quickest decisions that he’s ever made.

“It was really fast,” he says. “We literally connected at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Thursday. By 6 o’clock we had dinner. By 10 o’clock we had a handshake deal. We were partners on this new project.”

Copetín, which opens this month, will feature a main dining area with an open kitchen, a bar, and a patio. But the pièce de résistance will be the chef’s counter, a six-top station where Aprile, alongside up-and-coming chefs, will take a workshop approach to food preparation, engaging with customers in the process.

The inspiration behind this counter stemmed from Aprile’s desire to return to basics. For years, the people around him—including his children—had been encouraging him to return to the kitchen. “I had lots of talks with my kids,” he says, laughing. “My daughter kept saying, ‘Dad, you need to get back in the kitchen, you need to be proud.’ She kept using the word ‘proud.’”

It was time, Aprile realized, to strike a better balance between being a chef and being a businessman. He found himself in a position that any chef inevitably will when rising through the ranks. “As a young cook, you desperately want to be a sous chef; as a sous chef, you’re looking at the head chef position. You’re just waiting for the chance to pounce on it,” says Aprile. “And as a head chef, you’re looking at becoming a restaurant owner. It’s a natural kind of selection process, and I think sometimes it’s great for chefs at any level to maintain their culinary skills and their creativity when they become business people.” Aprile likens the struggle to that of a painter trying to market his or her own work. “If the artist all of a sudden stops painting canvases and starts selling canvases, the art is going to suck. I think that happens with chefs.”

But the chef’s counter at Copetín will present new opportunities for Aprile, allowing him to tap into the help and mentorship that he received from other chefs over the years and offer this experience to others. The dishes may not always turn out as planned, but the results will be as rewarding as they are surprising. “The kitchen counter is going to be that environment where I get to really work side by side with these young minds and future chefs, and I’m really excited about that,” he says. “Often you don’t realize what the ripple effect is going to be, how you impact other people, what you teach other people…I looked back recently and realized that a lot of chefs, a lot of very creative minds, had influence over my career, and I hope that I have influence on them.”

Aprile admits that he may not have been so open to this collaborative approach at another time in his life, . He describes himself as an extreme person who liked very much to be in control of a situation. But easing up was a lesson he learned from a director while working on MasterChef Canada. “She gave this really good advice,” he shares. “She said, ‘Do you play racquetball?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not much of a racquetball player…in fact, I don’t play at all.” She said, ‘Well, here’s the thing about racquetball: never hold on to the racquet too tight. Loosen up the grip.’”

Aprile has taken this lesson and applied it to parenting, as well as to running a restaurant. Now he is much more comfortable in letting his staff explore, even if that means occasionally making mistakes. Copetín was born from a collaborative process, with he and Wu strategizing together on the design, the aesthetic, and the brand — and that’s the vision under which the restaurant will operate.

I ask Aprile what other lessons he’s taken away from MasterChef Canada, and how his role as a judge has affected his own work in the kitchen. He responds with the observation that the show, if watched carefully, really serves as a kind of blueprint for how to live a life. “There are all these universal message in the narrative of MasterChef…One of them is to never give up, to push yourself; to milk every moment, with whatever it is that you’re doing,” he says. “We throw these crazy challenges at home cooks. We think it’s impossible — and then they do it. And then we take a home cook that doesn’t have a lot of confidence and they end up winning the entire thing.” The show, he muses, has always spoken to the fighter in him — the fighter that his mother inspired him to be.

As for what’s next for Aprile, he shares (following a quip about opening an eighteen thousand square foot donut shop, of course) that he will, for now, be focusing fully on Copetín. “If you do something and you put your heart into it,” he explains, “it does well.”

No doubt his mother would agree.

Courtesy of CTV