In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby entirely without the use of the letter E.
Over the course of 50,000 words, Wright has his characters band together, grow, fight, and change—but he never, ever uses the letter E. It’s a task much easier said than done. The letter has already appeared 40 times in the article you’re reading right now. (45 now.)
Gadsby is the quintessential example of what is called Constrained Writing. The creator limits themselves to some condition—not using the letter E, avoiding verbs, never repeating a word—in order to produce something new, interesting, and unusual. One might suspect that imposing such restrictions would hinder the work of an artist, but the opposite is true. Being limited inspires creativity. With fewer tools at their disposal, they must be resourceful and inventive with what they have in order to create an experience as or more beautiful than any other piece of work.
Even if you’re not much of a reader, the exact same philosophy can be applied to something we all love: food.
Vegan food, which we’ve talked about before, has limits imposed upon it as well: no meat, no dairy, nothing from an animal whatsoever. Considering that most people have at least one animal product with every single meal they eat, eliminating them entirely is something of a challenge. Vegan chefs turn this constraint into freedom by using substitutions, innovations, and imagination to create a culinary experience unlike any other. Few vegan chefs in Toronto are quite as creative as Il Fornello’s Margie Cook (yes, that really is her last name). The Italian fine dining chain Il Fornello—with their six locations around the GTA—have brought on Cook to create for them a fully plant-based menu, taking advantage of the surging popularity of vegan food. In only a few short months her creations have soared in popularity, becoming some of the most in-demand items on offer at Il Fornello. But their success is due to more than the growing acceptance of veganism. The food is some of the best Italian that the Mr. Cavaliere team has ever tried.
Italian food is not known for being the most vegan-friendly cuisine. But Cook has taken the norms of Italian and recreated them with purely plant-based ingredients. Italian cheeses like mozzarella, parmesan, and ricotta are remade with cashews and coconuts; and sausage and pepperoni are reimagined with peppers, beans, and perfect seasoning. Combined in dishes like the Vegan Pepperoni Pizza, these ingredients have the look of a more traditional pizza without sacrificing taste, experience, or even protein content.
The Rigatoni Bolognese gives a similar experience. Inspired by the original, Cook’s version uses a sauce made with lentils and mushrooms. It has a rich and earthy flavour, absolutely packed with taste. The protein-rich lentils make for a filling meal, but don’t leave you with the heavy feeling that its meat-based counterpart often does. “The beautiful thing about vegan food is that you don’t end up in a food coma,” says Cook. “It’s a slow burn.”
It’s a good thing that veganized Italian leaves a little more wiggle room, because any fine dining experience is incomplete without a lovely dessert to cap it off. The chocolate brownie is a perfectly-proportioned and gorgeously-presented final course, served with fresh strawberries and edible flower petals. Also on offer are rich and fresh Maple Bourbon doughnuts from Parkdale’s Glory Hole, another Toronto institution that has taken full advantage of the growing demand for plant-based fare.
At their Danforth location, Il Fornello’s vegan selection expands to brunch as well. The Eggs Venny is served with a tofu and pinto bean breakfast sausage and Mornay sauce, creating a light but savoury dish. One of their most impressive vegan transformations is the Smoked Carrot and Dreamy Cheese bagel, topped with pickled onions, capers, and arugula microgreens. Slices of smoked carrot blend with raw cashew cream cheese for a surprising and satisfying tang. It speaks to Cook’s skill that even the simple carrot can be made to sing with such vibrancy in her capable hands.
Marie Cook, who describes herself as a food “experimenter,” has turned limitations into opportunities. For her, veganism is no constraint. It’s a jumping-off point; a first step that allows her to recreate, reinvent, and reimagine one of the world’s most popular and established cuisines. Hers is a menu created with vegans in mind but is welcoming to people of all diets. If you’ve already begun your journey into the newest frontier of culinary innovation, or if you’re curious to see how one of Toronto’s most exciting restaurants is veganizing the Italian food experience, Il Fornello has what you’re looking for.
Words by Liam McConnell
Photography by Vincent Ko