It’s Saturday night at Celli’s Osteria and the restaurant is buzzing with happy, chattering people. The waitresses glide to and fro’ with platters of pizza and pasta, the lights are dimmed and the candles are lit, wine is poured and there is a hum of genial conversation. Periodically, Chef Michael Stauffer moves out of the kitchen, to appear at the bar, bearing food and casting a judicious eye over all of the proceedings.
Stauffer, a Dundas native, is a classically trained chef whose culinary skills have been honed at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and in five star establishments such as Langdon Hall, Toronto’s Spendido and the late, lamented Rain where he worked with Guy Rubino learning to cook exemplary Asian fusion. Perhaps the most impressive notation on his resume, however, is a six month internship at Le Grand Véfour in Paris, one of the world’s most renowned, Michelin-endorsed, temples of gastronomy. (He recalls, “I worked from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to midnight, getting my butt kicked every day. But what I learned was equivalent to a three years apprenticeship.”)
So how did this accomplished and innovative chef end up in Burlington?
It was a yearning to own his own business that brought him back to Hamilton where he teamed up with an old friend to start his own catering company, The Culinary Office. He worked at that Locke Street location for five years and when it was bought out by the owners of Celli’s, he moved to Celli’s Cafe in Ancaster. Now, he spends his time in two venues: the mornings at the Ancaster location, until after lunch, when he moves to the Osteria on Burlington’s Brant Street.
He takes a tremendous amount of pride in Celli’s. “The kitchen team is my backbone, they all care a lot about the food that we make and Sharon, the sommelier, is dedicated to finding the very best, value-driven wine.”
The term “osteria” means tavern or inn, a simple lodging with traditional food and wine. On the restaurant’s website, that translates into rustic Italian dishes with a contemporary flair including a wide variety of pizza and house-made fresh pasta. But there is much more than that; Stauffer notes that the steaks are dry aged and one of the superstars of the menu is “branzino” — Mediterranean sea bass simply filleted and served with a red pepper soffrito. And Stauffer pushes his clients to refresh their tastebuds and try something new.
“We add guanciale to our buccatini — it’s our own pork jowl cured with salt, sugar, spices and herbs for four weeks, and then, with cracked pepper for six weeks. It’s a bit like a prosciutto, but from a different part of the pig. We’re always trying to market something new and inventive — diners don’t have to drive to Toronto to have an exceptional experience.”
Not surprisingly, Stauffer’s early training left him with a penchant for culinary history which evidences itself in a personal collection of old cookbooks by the French masters — people like the Troisgros Brothers, Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon. In fact, he finds this advice from Fernand Point who is often considered the father of modern French cuisine, to be his guiding precept. Point said that to be a good chef, one must see everything, taste everything, smell everything and read everything, in order to retain even a little bit.
“A chef must be like a sponge,” says Stauffer. “You must approach everything with an open mind and never stop learning in this industry.”
We have been lucky enough to have Michael Stauffer oversee our Go Cooking sessions three or four times now. Here is a recipe for a wonderful, refreshing salad that he made for us to enjoy a few weeks ago.
Warm Israeli Couscous Salad with Arugula, Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, Prosciutto, Toasted Pine Nuts and Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
1 pint cherry tomatoes
Salt and pepper
½ cup Israëli couscous or Concini de Pepe
2 cups washed arugula
¼ cup pine nuts (lightly toasted)
150 grams prosciutto
1 Meyer lemon, zested and juiced
½ cup cold pressed olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp honey
- For the tomatoes, place in a bowl and season with salt, pepper and olive oil.
- Put on a parchment lined baking sheet and place in a 325° F oven for 30 minutes or until just wilted.
- Cook the couscous in a large quantity of salted water until just al dente, strain, spread on a oiled baking sheet and allow to cool slightly.
- Place all vinaigrette items in a bowl and whisk well.
- Add the arugula and pine nuts and toss gently.
- For service, mix the warm couscous with the arugula and pine nuts and arrange on plates.
- Garnish each plate with thinly sliced piece of prosciutto, cherry tomatoes, and Reggiano.
- Serve immediately