Meet the Culinary Star Who’s Redefining Italian Cooking in Canada
Chef Vanessa Gianfrancesco’s big—and perpetually hungry—family was the perfect test group for her signature modern twist on classic Italian recipes.
Cooking with Vanessa Gianfrancesco
All my life, food has been a source of inspiration. My earliest memories are set behind countertops and tables, surrounded by ingredients whose names I couldn’t yet remember but whose flavours I was already able to recognize. I was taken under my grandmothers’ and mother’s wings in the hopes of carrying on their recipes and traditions, and more than 20 years later, I have accomplished just that. My best recollections are of spending summer vacations in my grandmother’s kitchen, preparing meals for our family of 14. From fresh pastas to hearty minestrones made from our homegrown garden vegetables, I would spend my days experimenting with new recipes while the rest of the kids would be outside playing. My big—and hungry—Italian family was always the perfect test group! This not only developed my sense of taste but also awakened in me a deeply rooted passion for cooking and entertaining.
Despite my early exposure to and passion for cooking, being a chef was not always on my radar. I studied political science at McGill University in Montreal with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Towards the end of my bachelor’s degree, however, my thinking suddenly changed about my career path. One day, while job-shadowing a lawyer, I literally broke out in a cold sweat from head to toe. There was something missing in what I was witnessing. I could not say exactly what it was; all I knew was being a lawyer was not for me. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I decided that I would take a break from school. I was 23 at the time and told everyone that I was taking one year off to do something I always enjoyed so much—cooking! I applied and was accepted at Montreal’s culinary institute, ITHQ. It was there that I learned technique, discipline and a new respect for food, which have all culminated in the chef that I am today. It was a huge change of pace for me. I was one of the four women in the class and essentially had to fight my way through each semester, demonstrating and proving that I was meant to be there. It was one of the best yet toughest experiences in my life, because it was so physically and psychologically demanding. The one thing about me is that I never give up, and in this case I really didn’t! I graduated with honours, and even won a couple of cooking challenges along the way. Not only did I complete my schooling but I also had the privilege of working alongside Michelin Star chefs at private events (Michelin is a famous guide that awards stars to accomplished chefs and restaurants)—and do multiple internships in different high-end restaurants in the city. Each experience was so important to me and I made sure to take away something from each and every one.
Italian Food for the Modern-Day Palate
On this new path of mine, however, I soon realized that my natural thirst to interact with people and exchange knowledge and ideas would not be quenched working behind the scenes in restaurants. Every time someone asked me what I wanted to do in life, I told them I now wanted to teach cooking or be on television, and their answer was always, “Okay, but what do you really want to do with your life?”
That’s when I realized that I needed to do something as similar to television as possible—with an “audience”—at least as a starting point, so I began giving cooking classes at a company called Chef en Vous; today, I am their general director and manage more than 50 employees and four different divisions, including cafeteria management for private schools and offices, chef-at-home services, culinary corporate events and cooking classes.
But it was only after launching my own brand, Cooking With V, that my culinary career really took off. Cooking With V is a tribute to both of my grandmothers and my mother for having taught me all there is to know about food. It began as a website—cookingwithv.com—which is essentially a compilation of my favourite recipes, with dishes created in my kitchen for you to choose from and serve in yours. I’m often asked what type of chef I am. The answer is simple: I am a chef who takes classic Italian recipes and adapts them to the modern-day palate. I like to use fresh, local produce and healthy ingredients, and it is essential to me that I create recipes that people can easily make.
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From Kitchens to Canadian Screens
I launched my brand on Oct. 1, 2014, after working on it for more than two years. The very next day, I was scouted by Gusto TV, a Bell Media specialty food channel—thanks to my mom, who wrote in and told them about my new venture. They contacted me about a pilot project involving five hosts, who would be involved in the first original production for Gusto TV called One World Kitchen. It truly was a dream come true and continues to be. It’s funny, because each time a new season is being shot, when I call my husband or another family member to tell them how my workday went, I end up crying…and they truly are tears of joy! There is no bigger reward for me than to earn a living with something that I would do for free. That’s just how much I enjoy it!
From these experiences, many other amazing opportunities have come my way, including appearances on morning shows like Breakfast Television Montreal and Toronto and The Marilyn Denis Show. It definitely is a rewarding experience to be able to share my recipes and family traditions with such a large audience.
My motto in life is to take nothing for granted. I truly believe that being able to get up every morning and go to work is a blessing that most people do take for granted. And I am even more blessed to be able to share my work with the people I love by being able to cook for them, or for one of my favourite charities, like the Ronald McDonald House in Montreal.
For me, success isn’t based on how much money; it’s about how happy you are in your life and how you can spread and share that happiness with others around you.
Try Chef Vanessa Gianfrancesco’s Prosciutto and Fresh Fig Crostini recipe!