John and Tania Vetere are a young couple who have recently relocated from Toronto to little ol’ Niagara. They made their mark in the high-end culinary world of the big city before moving to our small, but very enthusiastic community – enthusiastic that is, when it comes to our local food and drink.
The Veteres have created a unique concept: an intimate dining experience catering to the adventurers and romantics of the area’s close-knit population of gourmands. They have successfully introduced a new model of ‘going out for dinner’ here in Niagara, and it has added a mysterious and sexy new twist on what it means to dine, to date-night, to out-on-the-town.
Both halves of this couple are equally charming and frankly, kind of adorable. We had our chat at their home in NOTL, over tea and their homemade rillettes – a chunkier cousin of pate – with crackers. Ya know, just a little snack they whipped up on a weekday. I rather enjoy their perspective on food, business and this lovely region we all call home.
So, two Toronto chefs move to Niagara to start a new culinary venture… What brought that on?
John: We moved down to Niagara in December of last year. [In terms of our business, we were] just thinking of an experience that we would want ourselves. We found that this area didn’t have that type of experience. That’s how The Norton Underground came to be – we saw that it just didn’t exist here. We felt it would be something we would want to do and that others would enjoy as well.
Tania: And we sort of waited, it didn’t really feel right in Toronto because it was so saturated with new businesses and restaurants, and the food industry is so overwhelming in Toronto because it’s everywhere. It excited us to come [to Niagara] on the verge of the upswing of this area… We really felt like, this area is going to be Napa-esque one day. This area is going to be a serious culinary cultural destination. It excited us to be a part of it. What didn’t feel right in Toronto just really felt right here. And the timing was perfect. The opportunity to purchase a home here came up at the exact same time that we were ready to start our own business. We were really inspired by travel – to Chicago, New York. And the secrecy, the 1920’s prohibition era mystique was appealing to us but we couldn’t experience that anywhere here. That was really the birth [of the business].
John: We had actually already put a deposit down on a condo in Toronto. We backed out after [Tania’s father] brought us down here and we saw the house. It was kind of funny, we came and it smelled like concord grapes.
John: Literally. It was harvest season, and with Jackson Triggs right there I guess it was just in the air. I was like, This is incredible, it smells like Welch’s grape juice everywhere! And I hadn’t been here since I was a kid so I didn’t remember what it was like. We walked around downtown which was nice. We took a leap of faith, in a sense.
Can you describe Norton Underground in a few sentences?
John: The Norton Underground is a secret dining society. We host secret dinners once a month in the Niagara Region. The menu changes every time, as well as the location.
Tania: It’s a completely all-inclusive experience. So, transportation is included, your alcohol is included, tip, tax, all in one transaction up front. You can literally leave your wallet at home.
John: It’s to represent kind of like a dinner party. If you were to go to someone’s house for a dinner party, everything is there. We wanted to eliminate – after you have a great meal, a great experience – the idea of the bill coming, tipping and any of that; making it seamless so people can just enjoy the whole night.
Tania: Yeah and [the customer] can get really into it because they aren’t worried, thinking,’ Oh man, if I order that $100 bottle or that steak, I’m going to pay for it later.’ No, no we’ve taken care of all of that for you. All you have to do is show up. [We] usually have someone who is educated about the wine and has collaborated on pairings with us. It’s really important for us to constantly be communicating with the guests. We explain every dish in detail and then our wine expert will explain the pairing in detail. We’re not always pairing wine. Sometimes we’ll have craft beer, cocktails, non-alcoholic cocktails if it calls for it.
Can you each tell me a little bit about your culinary background?
Tania: I actually went to University for a year, but my heart wasn’t in it. My friend at the time was like, ‘Why don’t you just apply at a kitchen. You’re always cooking, all you do is watch The Food Network.’ So I applied to a restaurant [without any culinary experience]. I didn’t own a knife, I didn’t even know how to hold a knife properly. All I knew was what I watched on television. That was the start of it all, they believed in me. I worked my way up in that kitchen but I was secretly terrified of cooking on the line. Then I went to culinary school [at George Brown College] and I got a really good internship with Jamie Kennedy. I did another internship with Anna Olsen. I worked on her show, Fresh. After graduation I had the opportunity to do post-secondary program in Italian cuisine at George Brown. It’s a year studying Italian cuisine, culture, recipes, the language. Then they ship you off [to Italy] and you work in a Michelin star restaurant for three months. I worked at Canoe for two years right after graduation; worked my way up through the stations there. I went to The Four Seasons after that – I worked at Café Boulud for two years. I started at a senior station. I had never worked the Saucier station. It was a week into opening [and their Saucier quit]. I just got [tossed in]. That was the only station I did not work at Canoe. And it was right at the opening so no one really knew what was going on, it was nuts. I was there for two years and sort of did lateral moves because there was nowhere else to go – that was the senior station. That was my last job, I quit there because we were moving here. A month after quitting, we started the business.
John: I started cooking at 16 as a co-op through high school. That wasn’t my original plan at all. I wanted to be an engineer. All of my schoolwork was lined up to become an engineer. I decided to do a co-op because I cooked at home maybe once or twice a week. My dad had a big influence, he said, “Make sure you do something you love and something you could see yourself doing every single day.” He’s a contractor, so he works with his hands, and I had this kind of thing with working with my hands. So when I started working in a kitchen when I was 16 I fell in love with it almost instantly. I went to culinary school at 18, at George Brown. I did the Culinary Management (Integrated Learning) Program. It was basically the Culinary Management Program with all the fat trimmed off of it. One semester of school, one semester of internship. After that went with Tania, right into the Italian program and that’s where we met. After that, when I got back I did a short stint at The [Royal Ontario Museum]. Then I went right over to Scarpetta at the Thompson Hotel and I was part of the opening team for them. I was there for two years, worked my way from [Garde Manger] all the way to Saucier. The chef of Scarpetta left and I left with him to open up Yours Truly. I was the Sous Chef there and I was there for about two years. After that I switched gears a little bit. I worked at a place in Yorkville called Kitchen Studio. It was like a Monday through Friday day gig where we did private cooking classes and cocktail parties. From there, that’s when we left to move here. Then we opened our business. Now I’m the Sous Chef at Ravine [Vineyard Estate Winery].
Niagara is such a “foodie” community, especially Niagara-on-the-Lake. What brings you inspiration from the area?
Tania: I love just driving down any country road within 5 kilometers of our house and stopping on the side of the street for stuff that was picked that day or a couple days prior. Totally in season, and the six week growing period that we have that’s a little bit earlier than everywhere else. That’s awesome. I also like that the businesses are mostly small businesses. McDonalds and Starbucks are the biggest corporate entities that you will find which is really nice. People seem very eager to help, and we felt welcomed from the second we got here. People have been very generous with their time and their resources and it completely blew us away.
Where do you see yourselves in 2 years?
John: Well, I think it’s always kind of been a dream of ours, for The Norton Underground, to eventually have an international destination. Kind of a package, like a villa in Italy for 5-7 days [for example], where we cook and do day trips…
Tania: And we’re still maintaining the secrecy, so [the customer will] know Italy is the country, or maybe we are going to the Netherlands or Northern Ireland but they have no idea what those daily retreats are until that day.
John: Yeah, that’s the dream.
Tania: We want to get the ball rolling in the next year. We want to get our first international trip planned. An excursion or a retreat, we’re not sure what the exact wording will be. But hopefully we will be executing that within the next one to two years.
Hypothetically, this is your last day on Earth – your ‘Last Supper’… GO!
Tania: I want to literally sit on a mountain … of cheese. Tuscan countryside, a mound of cheese, some kind of wine – that’s not fancy, whatever is from the area that I’m sitting on. Huge chunks of ciabatta bread… and prosciutto. Can’t live without prosciutto. That’s it, I’d be happy with those things, and bread.
John: I think a wheel of Parmigiano.
Tania: Ooooh Lambrusco!
John: Yeah, Lambrusco. It’s a light sparkling red wine. I think it’s from Parma. It’s the most delicious wine in the world with a wheel of Parmesan… probably a full wheel of Parmesan, and cured meats.
Cured meats, and cheese, and bread and wine. Simple and delightful.
With their talent and ambition (and that whole cool/cute thing they have going on), I don’t see anything but success in their future! Cheers, Veteres!
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