Gentle Giant: Profiling Robert Gentile of Toronto’s Buca


Robert Gentile’s love of life and food shows at Buca restaurant in Toronto.

With “Now Is All We Have” emblazoned on his left forearm, top Toronto toque and Buca coowner Robert Gentile grabs a small squeeze bottle filled with 33-year-old balsamic and delicately dresses a plate of prosciutto and melon. “The tattoo is personal to me,” he explains. “It’s about living in the moment, getting up in the morning and seeing what you can accomplish today.”

The single chef, whose family hails from southern Italy, started cooking for pocket money at 13. “My mom had to go in and speak to the owners,” says Gentile, recalling how he landed his first odd jobs. He rose quickly through the ranks in his teens and 20s and now leads the brigade at the renowned Buca on Toronto’s trendy King West.

Raised by his mother — a single parent — and his grandmother, the two women nurtured his love and passion for cooking from a very early age.

Standing at the pass between kitchen and dining room, where he polishes a plate, Gentile gently calls out for service to his front-of-house staff. He sends the house-cured prosciutto and melon to table 32. The melon is prepared sous vide with grappa and mint, just one of several exciting techniques Gentile uses in his innovative kitchen. There’s a salumi room in the dining room, a showcase of incredible in-house cured meats and game. He uses tincture of mustard gas to “gansta-fy” a couple dressings. His menu is not for the faint of heart: there’s organic duck egg yolks smeared on a Tartufo Nero pizza ($24); cervello or lamb’s brains ($7); home-made cheeses ($18/$25) and duck egg pasta ($21). 

At 31, the cook is already a veteran of the Toronto restaurant scene, having been mentored by Mark McEwan at North 44 for 10 years. “Going in there at the time was like joining the military. It was hardcore,” he says, pausing to remind his pasta cook to make the sauce a little richer as the night’s service picks up. They’re cooking a Nova Scotia lobster dish with roe butter, lavender, cherry tomatoes and squash flowers. In staccato kitchen-speak, he instructs staff to add “more sauce” and make it a “little thicker please. Add more butter.”

A down-to-earth family guy, Gentile appreciates those who’ve helped him along the way. He credits McEwan for moulding him into the chef he is today, almost as though success has nothing to do with his own natural talent, which shines through on his menu. “We make eight different pasta noodles from scratch, and there’s no pre-blanching. It’s all cooked à la minute, including the risotto.” What else would you expect from an osteria and enoteca whose pastry chef mastered the absolute perfect ball of ice cream at Gordon Ramsey’s Maze in London?

For Gentile food is all about life and happiness. As he finely shaves truffle slices that glide onto a plate, a manager approaches the pass to give him customer feedback on the lobster orecchiette ($24). “Chef, they loved it,” he proclaims, “They said it was excellent.” A small smile creases Gentile’s face, as he softly answers “Good, good,” happy in the knowledge that now is all he has.

photo by Stephen Uhraney

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