Chef Special: Interview with Claudio Aprile

Claudio Aprile is a visionary chef and restaurateur, currently at the helm of lauded Toronto restaurant, Copetin. He is also a MasterChef Canada Judge.

How has social media affected restaurant culture?
CA: I’m active on social media, but I feel fortunate that I experienced being a chef before it came into play. It’s inclusive, it’s evened the playing field, and it’s created a democratic opportunity for everyone; but we should never lose sight of the intention of the chef or restaurateur, or of the person who may have just posted something on the Internet without having any back-story. When every guest has access to social media, to publishing their own points of view, it takes away from the anticipation of a review by a credible writer or critic. I remember feeling real anxiety or excitement the week leading up to a restaurant review. That’s gone. Everyone is a critic now, so we lose that excitement. It’s like we no longer have to go to the well, we can just turn on the tap. A diner can be having a meal in my restaurant and post a review before they’ve even left. It can be hostile. It’s becoming less contentious though. People are objecting to negative social media—because it’s not productive. If there’s a direct message—that’s proper engagement, and that’s exciting too.

Has the food photography trend affected the aesthetic of your dishes?
CA: I don’t consider the iPhone when I’m cooking. I focus on the dish. But this is where the lines are blurred, and we’re starting to compromise social graces: If you invite me to your home for dinner, and I pull out my phone, and start repositioning the plate to take pictures of a dish you’ve presented, you’d say “what the hell is going on?” The visceral meaningful response of eye contact and dialogue is being delayed. We need to get back to the basics. This is a powerful technology that can be a great compliment to the restaurant, and enhance the dining experience, but as a chef I sometimes worry because the food I prepare is time sensitive. If a diner or guest is trying to set up a shot, they’re not able to appreciate the food at its full potential. That person should be, fully and completely, the benefactor of what they’re eating, not making all their followers, who are not at the table, the benefactors of it. On the other hand, we also enjoy sharing that moment with everyone we know will appreciate it. It’s conflicting and, actually, now, if someone doesn’t take a picture of my food; I wonder if I’ve missed the mark.

One of the big impacts of Instagram is homogenization. There’s a lot of carbon copy cooking in restaurants today. As a young cook, the only way I could know the genius of what David Burke was doing in New York City was to go to his restaurant. Great restaurants would never post their menus. You had to actually go in, order and experience it. There was a mystique. Now you can get on your phone and find out what an obscure restaurant in the mountains of Japan is doing. It is wonderful, though, to have that access, to see and learn from it, and it’s incredible that we can upload the lunch we just enjoyed to anywhere on the planet. I believe the upside out weighs any negatives.

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How do you view celebrity culture in the restaurant industry?
CA: MasterChef Canada has been a really privileged and positive experience for me. I’ve been able to reveal more about myself to a wider audience, and create more profile for the restaurant; but there’s hype and there’s craft. When chefs make an impact, it’s usually their food that creates memories. I don’t aspire to be celebrated; I prefer my food to be celebrated. It’s about what’s on the plate that matters most. All of this creates interest, allows us to step out of the kitchen and engage with our diners in a way that we never could before; and it’s quantifiable. We can measure how we’re doing through our social media interactions. I see that as an exciting opportunity. We’re going into an era where good is no longer good enough. Things need to be great. The greatest currency that any chef can have is creativity, because people catch on quickly. Restaurants are becoming more competitive, and that has a lot to do with social media, because the information is open; it’s an open market, and it’s there for everyone.

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