Meet the Chef: James Santon

Join Toronto Chef James Santon as he recreates the famed dish that inspired his career in Italian cuisine—Cacio e Pepe.

Mark Cirillo, writer and editor of CucinaTO, talks with Toronto Chef James Santon from the popular eatery Enoteca Sociale about how quality products from Italy speak for themselves.



After graduating from university, Chef James Santon was in a life-altering car accident that made him decide to dedicate his life to his true passion: cooking. Since then he has worked in some of the best restaurants in Toronto including his most recent role as Executive Chef at Enoteca Sociale.

(Keep reading for his exclusive recipe for Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe!)

You were born in the UK and grew up in small town Ontario. How did you become interested in Italian cuisine?

As a young cook, you’re trying to find out what you like and what your path is going to be. There was just something about Italian food that appealed to me—it’s authentic and genuine. That struck a chord. I liked the fact that it was so ingredient-driven—using the highest quality products and letting them speak for themselves.

Enoteca Sociale has a special focus on Roman food—is it your favourite Italian regional cuisine?

Because Rome is such a cosmopolitan centre, there are different culinary influences that run through it. In that way it is similar to Toronto and I’m drawn to that. I like Italian food as a whole and incorporated other regional touches into their menu, like soppressata and ’nduja from Calabria.

What are some of the essential Italian ingredients in your kitchen?

We made all the pastries, pastas and breads in-house, but we used a lot of authentic Italian double zero flour and semolina to make them. And of course the pasta extruder was Italian.

So was the extra virgin olive oil. There’s a depth of flavour and complexity to it you can’t really find anywhere else. The one we had been using for quite a while was an Ottobratica and Carolea blend from Calabria. I like Italian extra virgin olive oils that are peppery, spicy, bitter and a bit fruity.

We would also serve authentic Culatello di Zibello PDO salumi and Taleggio PDO cheese on our charcuterie boards and real Italian Mozzarella di Bufala Campana PDO in our arancini. And of course we’d go through a ton of genuine San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino PDO tomatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO and Pecorino Romano PDO cheese.

In January 2017, Enoteca Sociale’s Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe was named one of the top 25 pasta dishes in Toronto. What’s the ideal cheese for making Cacio e Pepe?

I prefer the traditional Roman recipe that uses just Pecorino Romano PDO. Pecorino’s a little nuttier and silkier, the salt levels are easier to control and it melts perfectly.

For you, what’s the most underrated ingredient elevating a dish?

Italian anchovies. Chances are if you’re eating something with a certain umami or depth of flavour it’s got anchovies in it. It could be a braise like Ossobuco. Or something like our orecchiette pasta and rapini. Adding anchovy just gives it an added earthiness and saltiness that makes the dish.


Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 1/4 package Dry, made in Italy spaghetti
  • 1 tsp Black peppercorns
  • 1/4 cup (50 ml) Pasta water
  • 1/4 cup (30g) Pecorino Romano DOP, grated
  • Salt, to taste

Preparation

  1. Fill a quart-sized pot with salted water and bring it to a boil. Then add spaghetti.
  2. While pasta is cooking, place a pan on medium-high heat.
  3. Crack black peppercorns into pan and lightly toast. *
  4. Once pasta is cooked al dente, drain while reserving the pasta water. Add 1/4 cup (60 mL) pasta water to the pan and swirl to create your sauce. Remove from heat.
  5. Add pasta directly to the pan. Include some of the reserved hot water with the pasta (the starch in the water helps bind the pepper and cheese to the pasta.) Return pan to burner and bring to a simmer.
  6. Gently toss the contents of the pan while slowly adding the Pecorino Romano PDO. If the pasta is too dry add more pasta water.
  7. Season with salt to taste.

*At this stage, Santon adds that you can also melt 1 tbsp of butter into the pan for extra richness.

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