Chef Danilo Pamintuan, and his platoon of bakers, are bringing tastes of the world to Piazza de Nardi.
By Dunja Kovacevic
Chef Danilo Pamintuan, known affectionately as Daniel around La Grotta Mediterranean Market, is a well travelled man. His illustrious career as a pastry chef began at a small bakery in the Philippines, at age 13. Innately possessing some rare magic in his hands, he moved quickly, easily even, up the ranks, landing in a high-end bakery in downtown Manila. A chance encounter with a foreigner led to an incredible offer: an apprenticeship in Saudi Arabia. Pamintuan, then just 18, jumped at the chance, though he knew precious little about that part of the world. “All I knew about the Middle East, at that time, was that there were camels there,” he recounts, with a laugh.
Those gifts have proven useful; they have created, for him, a world of opportunity that has stretched across some of the farthest-flung corners of the world, including New York City, Cairo, and Bermuda. In 1998, armed with an impressive array of experience, Pamintuan hung his hat in Winnipeg. Though family ties led him here initially, Pamintuan stays for the easy-going lifestyle and readily-available opportunities. He wasted no time: the Crowne Plaza hired him on his second day in the city. And it was through his work there that his name fell into the hands of Maria De Nardi.
The De Nardi’s were in the process of conceiving their one-stop superstore, Piazza de Nardi, modelled after Italian open air markets. Slated to open in 1999, on then undeveloped Taylor Avenue, the building would be comprised of a stand-alone bakery, delicatessen, wine store, butcher shop and hot table station. It was a risky venture. Pamintuan and one night baker worked in a cramped 600 square foot space they shared with the kitchen.
Looking back, Maria De Nardi says “all I know is the day he came to work for me, I received a gift.” Within a year, the bakery began to outgrow itself. By 2008, they knew an expansion was necessary. Renovations began, and included a brand-new gleaming 2000 square foot space for Pamintuan. Today, the bakery operation has grown to include 14 staff, jokingly referred to as the “United Nations.” Snippets of various languages can be overheard, as the skilled platoon of detail-oriented bakers churn out exquisite delicacies with machinelike precision. Afghan, African, Vietnamese, Italian, Ukrainian and East Indian nationalities are represented, among others. This, in turn, reflects the fluid evolution of the baking itself. Now loosely defined as “Mediterranean-inspired” baked goods, the operation has come a long way since the early days of traditional Italian desserts, drawing all the while from the skills of those behind the counter.
The real success of the business, however, according to both Pamintuan and De Nardi is the commitment to quality derived from only the freshest ingredients. “My advantage to other shops is access to fresh dairies,” says Pamintuan, referring to Mondo Foods, the wholesale food company also owned by the De Nardi family. For a small shop, cost of goods can be a strain on business and compromise sustainability. Food cost is high at the bakery, about 60%, but necessary for maintaining quality standards. In a year, the bakery will spend $100,000 on fresh cream, and $150,000 on chocolate shavings alone. This commitment to quality doesn’t go unnoticed. Cakes typically move off shelves within 48 hours.
For a master in any field, the freedom to exercise creativity without limitations is paramount. Whenever Pamintuan imagines something that requires a rare ingredient, he has only to ask, and it will be imported for him.
Maria de Nardi and Daniel Pamintuan claim that having fun is essential to what they do. After 14 years, the two have built upon their natural creative symbiosis. Maria De Nardi, the matriarch of the De Nardi empire, is an impressive woman. She speaks of Pamintuan with great affection, “I’ve got a flow of ideas in my head, and he’s got the talent in his hands. Together, we make a great team.”
Over the years, Pamintuan has won many international culinary competitions, for sugar pulling and various other skills. His expertise is such that he was asked to consult on the creation of the highly-regarded Red Seal exam. Even so, Pamintuan does not adhere to certification snobbism rampant in the culinary world, believing that talent itself speaks volumes.
In a competitive and rapidly changing industry where chefs often bounce around, his loyalty to Piazza de Nardi is all the more noteworthy. For all his travels, it’s clear that Pamintuan feels most at home behind the counter at La Grotta.