In our Chef Spotlight Series, we were able to catch up with Zambri’s executive chef Julia McInnis. For Julia, food has always been a central part of connecting with family and friends. She grew up watching family members cook and after attending culinary school in Montreal, she took over as the main cook of the family. She started at Zambri’s just over ten years ago as a line cook and has worked hard to become Executive Chef. She loves working for a family-run business where she is able to learn exactly what it takes to keep a small business going.
Courtesy of Julia McInnis
If there are three ingredients that you couldn’t live without, what would they be?
If you’re asking what I use the most it’s olive oil, sea salt, white wine vinegar.
If it’s what I can’t live without eating it’s: cheese curds, french fries, gravy.
Are there any ingredients that you don’t like to eat
Coconut. But for some reason only the flesh. Coconut water and milk yes, but never the flesh
What season gets you most excited for cooking (and why)?
High summer when produce is abundant and piles of fresh bursting tomatoes show up at the door.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
something rooted in history. I’m excited by secrets and tips passed down through generations, it comes with the benefit of experience and a nice story to share.
What is the most difficult or challenging ingredient to work with?
I think eggplant can be intimidating. It’s historically a very bitter vegetable so it would always need to be salted and pressed to make it edible. That quality has been mostly bred out, however, it still needs to be treated properly to get the most out of it, but when it’s good it’s really good.
What is your favourite thing to do on your day off?
Getting regular exercise has become increasingly important to me in our current situation.
Running outside. In the summer, a swim outside. Make a nice dinner with friends. Any time with my family.
Do you see any emerging food trends for 2022?
Lots of Diversity. Spotlighting the lesser-known regional food in different countries. More of a melting pot of the traditional styles of food people grew up with.
Can you share a great food memory?
One of the best things I’ve ever eaten was fried chicken and warm sticky rice served in a bag from a stall at a train station in southern Thailand. It was so unexpected, so simple but the flavours were so refined and so, so delicious.
What is your favourite music to listen to before service?
I love a good “pump up jam”. Usually soul, classic hits of the ’80s and ’90s, punk rock, always Iggy Pop.
What is your favourite dish that is currently on the menu? What drink would you pair with it?
Our Spaghetti Aglio Olio con Peperoncino is a definite favourite amongst the staff. It’s the one I replicate at home the most often. I would pair this with an aromatic, slightly off-dry wine such as a San Vincenzo or crisp beer such as a Kolsch or Peroni.
What do you love most about your community?
Through all of this we’ve really seen how passionate, creative and resilient our industry can be. Many restaurants quickly pivoted to providing for the city and their fellow hospitality workers. It was very inspiring.
Recipe: Penne alla Norma
This is my variation on a traditional Sicilian pasta dish from the city of Catania. Typically, it does not have olives and more often you will see the eggplant cut in rounds as opposed to cubes. The dish is named in honour of the opera by Catania native Vincenzo Bellini. When tasted by the poet and composer Nino Martoglio he was heard to exclaim “This is a true Norma” meaning a masterpiece!
Ingredients: For 4 portions
• 2 lbs (approx. 2 whole pieces) Eggplant
• 2 tbsp Salt
• 2 tbsp Sugar
• 1/4 cup + 1 tbsp Olive oil
• 3 cloves Garlic
• 1 pinch Chili Flakes
• 1 tsp Dry Oregano
• 2 tbsp Capers – drained of liquid
• 1 cup Olives (I prefer something firm and slightly briny like Castelvetrano style with pits)
• ½ cup White wine
• 1L or 2 jars Zambri’s house tomato sauce
• 200g uncooked pasta (approx 50g/ serving) Best served on a short pasta such as penne
• 1 handful fresh basil
• 1 Tbsp Olive Oil
- Peel and cube eggplant into a 2cm dice. Combine salt and sugar in a mixing bowl and toss eggplant in it until it’s coated and let sit for ½ hour. This will season the eggplant as well as draw out some of the moisture to ensure the eggplant keeps its shape and does not dissolve into the sauce.
- Rinse eggplant well and set to drain in a colander. Squeeze eggplant lightly to remove some of the remaining moisture.
- Place a high sided saute pan on medium heat. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in the pan until warm and add eggplant.
- Saute eggplant for 3-4 minutes until eggplant starts to become translucent and is just beginning to brown, you do not want too much colour on the eggplant. Move eggplant to the sides of the pan to create a well in the centre.
- Add an additional tbsp olive oil to the center and add the garlic to the oil; cook for one minute until the garlic begins to soften. Mix the eggplant into the garlic.
- Add chili flakes, oregano, capers & olives and when combined add white wine and tomato sauce. Mix well & cook for 5 minutes. Eggplant should be soft all the way through but not dissolved into the sauce.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- As the sauce simmers, bring a large pot of well salted water to a roiling boil.
- Add the pasta and set a timer for the time indicated on the package.
- Reserve 1 cup pasta water before straining pasta. Add the strained pasta and reserved liquid to the sauce.
- Simmer together for one minute
- Finish with a handful of chopped fresh basil and a tbsp of good olive oil.
- Serve in a warm bowl.
- Top with a good salty cheese such as pecorino or ricotta salata
Photo courtesy of Kristine Wilkinson
Responses and recipe courtesy of Julia McInnis, executive chef of Zambri’s
Written by Lauren Gaultier of @winethenfood