Robert Bartley’s early experiences with food came from hanging out with his mom in the kitchen. The youngest of seven children, Bartley was constantly entertained by helping his mom bake, prepare meals and make summertime preserves. “We always ate wholesome food, to the point where she would make her own mayonnaise and ketchup,” says Bartley, who grew up in Woodstock, Ont. “I often begged to have Kraft Dinner, but we never did, because my mom would make macaroni and cheese.”
As a school-aged youngster, Bartley began experimenting in the kitchen, inspired by the cooking show Wok With Yan, which he would watch religiously. His first introduction to the foodservice world came when his parents opened Bartley’s Dairy Bar, where he worked as a teenager.
Despite his auspicious beginnings, Bartley never imagined he’d make a career out of food. “I went through high school thinking I’d like to be a chiropractor, because I was decent in science,” says the 44-year-old chef. But Bartley dropped out of university after one year, as it proved to be a struggle. When he discovered the government was offering subsidies for chef training, he decided that would be his new path. He gained some experience at Café Bruges in London, Ont., before heading to Stratford Chefs School in Stratford, Ont.
More than 20 years later, Bartley is senior director of Food & Beverage and executive chef at Toronto-based Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (MLSE). He joined the organization in 2008 following posts at the Four Seasons’ Hotel in Toronto, Avalon, Imago Restaurants and Lotus.
Celebrity chef Lynn Crawford, who worked with Bartley at Four Seasons, is not surprised by Bartley’s career trajectory. “He’s extremely ambitious and has always set his goals very high for himself and his team, and that is a direct reflection of where his career path has taken him,” says Crawford. “Robert is one in a million…. He is truly one of the most passionate, talented chefs I’ve ever worked with.”
He’s certainly passionate about his job, calling it “the coolest” in the country, since he is surrounded by entertainment and is a big hockey fan to boot. “I’ve always been fascinated by big-picture hospitality,” adds Bartley, who said no to the job at first, because he thought MLSE’s foodservice operation was all about hotdogs and pizza. Once he realized the scope, he liked the fact that he would oversee multiple venues and multiple styles of cuisine.
There’s a lot on his plate: Bartley is responsible for the entire food program under the MLSE umbrella, including Air Canada Centre’s concessions; three private clubs/restaurants (the recently renovated Hot Stove, the Platinum Club and the Air Canada Club); Real Sports Bar & Grill (RSBG); E11even; and BMO Field, home to Toronto FC. He oversees a team of four executive chefs, 15 sous chefs, 45 managers and hundreds of cooks.
In his role, Bartley is one of the final decision-makers developing new menu items and new restaurant concepts. He had a big hand in the design and development of E11even and RSBG, both of which opened in 2010. The success of RSBG — named number-1 sports bar in North America by ESPN mobile — led to a second location in Ottawa’s famous ByWard Market, which opened in November 2012. Bartley played a significant role in the Ottawa location, including restaurant design, staff recruitment, training and menu implementation.
Bob Hunter, chief facilities and live entertainment officer at MLSE, says Bartley has an amazing passion for the culinary and business side of his job. “We’re forcing him to become a business guy, but that’s part of his growth opportunity,” says Hunter. “He’s taken that equally and seriously but [hasn’t] let go of the handle on the culinary side. He’s doing a great job.”
Even with such diverse venues under his domain, Bartley has a single vision for the food: each item is made with the same commitment to quality, whether it’s a concession-stand hotdog or a premium steak at a restaurant. “Food is part of this emotional attachment when people come to see the Toronto Maple Leafs,” says Bartley. “We can’t control what happens on the ice, but we sure as hell can make a great experience for the fan.”
Over the years, Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (ACC) has been set apart from other stadiums, with more than 100 menu items that appeal to everyone from the “hungry man” to the vegetarian. Bartley and his team are constantly evolving the offerings to give fans even more choice. This year, the ACC introduced a gourmet “melt-shop” concession called MacCheesys, which features premium grilled cheese and mac and cheese (both $8.50); a new Kosher stand called Baldwin Street Kosher; and two new hotdogs at The Dog House: butter chicken and bruschetta (both $7.75).
Bartley’s culinary philosophy is to use the best ingredients and not manipulate them very much. “I want to make a carrot taste like a carrot,” he says. “I don’t like to do too much to food. I like clean, simple food, like the purity of shucking a raw oyster and eating it, or the simple pleasures of a roast chicken and mashed potatoes. You don’t need to do anything to it other than treat the ingredient as best as you can.”
That philosophy is evident on menu items such as E11even’s Double-Cut Bacon with maple sherry glaze ($12). “It’s the simplicity of just grilling double-thick bacon as an appetizer, and we don’t do too much to it,” says Bartley. At Hot Stove, one appetizer is simply a ball of fresh mozzarella, which gets served with grilled country bread and is meant to share ($25). “I buy good mozzarella; it gets served at the right temperature, it gets drizzled with a little olive oil, salt and that’s it.”
The chef’s inspiration for new menu items comes from reading food magazines, watching TV food shows, dining out and travelling to places such as P.E.I., where he recently went oyster fishing and eel fishing. He also uses Twitter (@MLSEChef) as a tool for research and to stay in touch with his peers and the food community as a whole.
Bartley is also committed to helping the next generation. One of his many charitable endeavors is to recognize upcoming talent in the industry. This past March, Bartley hosted the 5th annual Bartley Culinary Challenge, an Iron Chef-style event that allows culinary students to showcase their skills at the ACC’s Platinum Club. More than $5,000 was raised and awarded to the winners to put towards their tuition.
As the culinary leader of one of Canada’s biggest foodservice operations, Bartley’s main challenge is making every minute count. “When there’s only 24 hours in a day, I need to maximize each minute to the fullest,” he says. Like many chefs, Bartley puts in long hours, but he does so out of passion. “I’m here because I love to be here,” he says. “I can hardly wait to get to work.”
photo by Margaret Mulligan