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The Culinary Journey of Chef Justin Raponi

The Executive Chef at Día Restaurant & Lounge in Toronto shares the five dishes that inspired his culinary journey.

By Justin Raponi

10:00 AM EDT on October 19, 2023

Chef Justin Raponi.

Chef Justin Raponi has been in the hospitality industry for 24 years. Specializing in high-end culinary art, Chef Raponi spent much of his career in the Toronto area working at top-end restaurants and properties. He took his cooking career abroad and worked as an executive chef at a well-known restaurant on the island of Bermuda and then out west to Victoria, B.C. Raponi then ventured into the private culinary world, where he worked for a prominent Toronto family as their personal chef. While in this position, he had access to many exotic and rare ingredients, encouraging him to try exciting and creative initiatives with his cooking techniques. 

Raponi, who recently joined Canopy by Hilton Toronto Yorkville as Executive Chef at Día Restaurant, shares with Appetito magazine the "Five Dishes" that inspired his culinary career. 


As a child, I remember going to my grandparents’ house with my whole family for dinner. Watching my Grandma & JoeJoe in the kitchen cooking fresh-made pasta, red sauce, casing sausages and rolling meatballs by the hundreds — a beautiful art and great passion. Their gardens had rows and rows of different types of tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and amazingly small red and white vines of beautiful grapes for home-made wine. It was all an introduction for me to the culinary world. What sparked my interest was these childhood memories. I just knew I wanted to do what they do but on a larger scale.

Gnocchi

The diversity of this beautiful dumpling is close to my heart. For well over a decade, I have kept it with me in many forms. Many regions lay claim to gnocchi, all generally associated with northern Italy. The diversity is excellent as we can use many types of flour to create a different dumpling each time from texture and flavor profiles. I learned this dish many years ago under an Italian chef from whom I had the pleasure of learning a lot of my southern and northern Italian cuisine. When opening the first Canopy by Hilton Toronto Yorkville in Canada, I introduced a pan-fried brown butter gnocchi with lots of fresh sage as an opening menu item, which has done very well. Although not on the menu now, it will appear again in the winter months. 

Risotto

Believed to have originated from the Lombardy region of Italy in the early 1800s, risotto has since evolved and made its way across the globe. This arborio rice dish has been a constant on my menus since the early 2000s. Risotto must be cooked perfectly every single time, and there is no room for error; patience and timing are crucial, which instilled in me the understanding that cooking good food takes time. 

Pasta e Fagioli

For me, pasta and beans goes back to when I was as young as I can remember. My grandparents used to make this all the time, and this dish actually introduced me to my love of food. Small elbow macaroni and an assortment of beans can be used. Onions, garlic, stewed tomatoes, and spices make this a warm, comforting meal any time of the year. Although I have not cooked this much in the past few years in my professional kitchens, I do cook it at home. I don’t mess with the original. This is a dish that doesn’t need any evolution. 

Braised Pork Hock & Polenta 

Known in Italy as Stinco di Maiale al Forno e Polenta, this dish pairs two incredible ingredients. The pork hock in its raw form must be seared crispy and cooked low and slow with many different flavors that can be added. For my preference, I keep it very simple but extremely flavorful, with stewed tomatoes, capers, olives, anchovies, herbs, wine, garlic, and onions. This has inspired my career because I am creating unique flavors using cheaper cuts of the pig. Culinary perfection is the low and slow process that tenderizes the meat and marries all the flavors together. The addition of the cornmeal polenta cooked to order and its outstanding creamy consistency is perfect for this dish. 

Tiramisu

Its literal meaning of “Pick-me-up” originated in Treviso, Italy, in the late 1960s. We have this as a staple on our dessert menu at Canopy by Hilton on our Día Restaurant & Lounge menu. Finger biscuits layered with light and fluffy mascarpone cheese infused with fresh lemon, sugar, egg yolks, expresso, and marsala wine, including whipped, fluffy egg whites. To finish, it's dusted with cocoa powder. I have tried many variations of this classic dish to create different flavors and fusions, such as green tea matcha, limoncello, pistachio, and semifreddo, to name a few. I was introduced to this dish early in my career by chef Frank Ferragina, who made the process and understanding look so easy. I fell in love instantly, and it has stayed with me for the better part of my culinary journey.

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