Tania Ganassini from Niagara-on-the-lake, ON spoke to Onside about how she dreamt of becoming a chef as a 10 year old to competing today in Top Chef Canada.
How and when did you think of becoming a chef?
I started watching cooking shows and the Food Network avidly when I was about 10 years old. My mom always worked from home, so she was cooking constantly. I paid attention to everything she made, and I absorbed her love of cooking like a sponge. I have classroom journal entries from Grade 2 talking about the previous night’s dinner.
I dreamt of having my own cooking show, and would beg my mom to purchase the tiny glass bowls used on my favourite shows. When I was coaching a kid’s soccer camp at the age of 18, I noticed that the kids were bringing junk food to camp, and their energy levels would suffer for it. I began writing a business plan for healthy cooking classes for kids, but I never followed through. I went to University the following year, and was miserable. After that first year, my parents (who are self-employed) took me and my 3 younger siblings out of school for 100 days to backpack through Europe. I returned with a journal full of food experiences, and with great uncertainty, I decided to take a real stab at cooking (no pun intended).
What was your first stint as a chef? Kindly share any interesting incident during that?
Within a week of returning from Europe, I applied to my first professional kitchen: Paradiso Restaurant in Oakville. It was a very busy Mediterranean restaurant, and at the time, was the pinnacle of fine dining in my mind. Until this point, I had never seriously considered cooking as a potential career. My resume was pretty dismal, as I had ZERO professional cooking experience. They hired me based on my enthusiasm, and I worked my way up from the bottom of the ranks in the 2 years I was there.
While working there, I was absolutely terrified of cooking on the hotline, and would do anything to avoid it. Eventually, I overcame my fears, but I was terrible at memorizing orders. I also cut myself pretty badly, being a total amateur and trying to rush through tasks. For example, while helping out washing dishes during a busy service, I dropped a plate, and one of the shards cut through my chef pants and sliced my leg to the point of needing stitches. Another time, they took me to the hospital after slicing through the top of my nail while cutting lettuce. I made every ‘rite of passage’ mistake a young cook could possibly make.
How did you think of Staff Meal? How’s the business going? Please share future plans and vision?
Staff Meal was born out of a shared experience between myself and my close friend/Co-Founder, Amanda Ali. We worked together in a craft brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and became fast friends. Frustrated with the lack of health-focused eateries in the area, we saw health and nutrition gaps, and felt the community was undeserved in that regard. After chatting with friends, family and co-workers, we decided to help busy staff across all industries swap their soft drinks for smoothies and make healthy options available. When Amanda and I shifted to plant-based, whole-foods diets, we noticed a profound impact on our mood, energy levels, and performance in the workplace (and life).
We knew we were on to something, and felt it was our duty to share this with others. The business is flourishing, and adapting as we evolve as people. We teach plant-based workshops in the Niagara Region, and are catering workplace meetings, and myriad other events. We are also working on a nutrition project with PhD David Ditor from Brock University to study the benefits and healing properties of an anti-inflammatory diet on those with spinal cord injury and MS. We see ourselves joining forces with a few of our favourite female entrepreneurs to open a Wellness Collective in Niagara. We envision a world-renowned space to hold retreats, workshops, customized nutrition programs, yoga and meditation classes, an organic garden, and lots more.
Your journey from a chef to becoming a household name with Top Chef Canada? Kindly comment, specially how did Top Chef Canada happen to you?
After my first gig at Paradiso, I applied to culinary school to further my training. I completed my 2 year Culinary Management Diploma, as well as a post-diploma program specializing in Italian Culinary Arts. I worked at a Michelin Star restaurant in Italy, and became enamoured by the culture and way of life, especially with my Italian familial roots. I worked for Jamie Kennedy while in school, and interned on Anna Olson’s show Fresh. After graduation, I worked in Toronto at Canoe, followed by Cafe Boulud. While at Cafe Boulud, I began my foray into televised culinary competitions by appearing on Chopped Canada. I was a finalist on my episode, and really loved the experience.
I left Cafe Boulud to move to Niagara, whereupon I opened up a secret location supper club called The Norton Underground with my husband John (also a chef; we met during our Italian Culinary program). I worked in hospitality in Niagara-on-the-lake for a few years while operating my own businesses, including product development for a local organic winery. I opened Staff Meal in the fall of 2017 after winning a small bursary for female entrepreneurs. The following year, I noticed that Top Chef Canada was accepting applicants, but the application form was so long and in-depth, I wasn’t sure I had time to complete it in time for the deadline. I managed to finish it, and received a call for an on-camera audition downtown Toronto the following morning.
I was working, and didn’t think I’d be able to make it to the audition but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t make it happen. I completed the audition, which consists of cooking a signature dish, while being interviewed by a producer. I had no expectations, but I had a really great time during the audition. I found out a few weeks later that I was selected to compete on Top Chef Canada, and the rest is history!
There are many female home chefs who are trying to make it, in the competitive food industry, any words of wisdom for them?
I am still learning how to navigate the industry myself, but my biggest pieces of wisdom would be: don’t play small; you are worthy of every opportunity your male counterparts are offered, find female mentors, you are inherently enough; your career does not define your worth.
As a vegetarian, which is your favourite food?
TOFU! Just kidding. I do love fermented soy products though. Really nice organic miso, tamari, and Ontario grown tempeh are among my favourites. Also, I can’t turn down a beautifully cooked french lentil.
TOP CHEF CANADA
Top Chef Canada is returning for a seventh season on Monday, April 1st at 10pm ET on Food Network Canada. This season sees the return of the lovely Eden Grinshpan as host and returning head judge Mark McEwan. Returning as resident judges are restauranteur Janet Zuccarini, prolific food critic Chris Nuttall-Smith and social media influencer Mijune Pak.
For more information on Tania Ganassini & Staff Meal Niagara kindly email : [email protected]
This story is edited by Yugbodh(YB), for Onside Media Canada, for comments kindly email: [email protected]