Volume 47, Number 9
By: Jennifer Febbraro
[dropcap size=big]R[/dropcap]ob Gentile is beaming. Standing in the centre of Buca Yorkville in Toronto’s new Four Seasons Residences complex, he breaks for our interview on the first day of what he terms “orientation” for new staff. It’s autumn, a time for new beginnings, and his energy is contagious, as is his enthusiasm for slow-cooked, artfully created, authentic Italian dishes, which have made him the go-to Italian-Canadian chef. “As a kid, I preferred to watch cooking shows rather than cartoons,” laughs Gentile. “But, of course, being the youngest, I was also hanging out [at] my grandparents’ [house] eating food they grew in their backyard.”
Food is clearly a passion at King Street Food Company, which has had a banner year. Peter Tsebelis, managing director, and Gus Giazitzidis, managing partner, first met at Myth, a Mediterranean-themed restaurant in Toronto that Tsebelis opened while pursuing an economics degree at the University of Toronto. Eventually the entrepreneurs became business partners and founded King Street Food Company in 2006.
In 2008, Tsebelis and Giazitzidis met Gentile through mutual friends; he was the perfect person to bring Buca to life. “We met a few chefs and restaurateurs,” says Tsebelis. “But no one really impressed us with their philosophy of food until we met Rob.” Formerly of Mark McEwan’s One and North 44 restaurants, Gentile was ready to lead the culinary vision at Buca with gourmet, rustic Italian comfort food. He became executive chef and managing partner in 2009. “Rob understood the importance of the traceability of ingredients,” explains Tsebelis. “The ingredients need to be traced back to their sources — the farmers and fishermen who supply them. The ingredient is paramount.”
King Street Food Company grew to include Jacobs and Co. Steakhouse (in 2011) and The Saint Tavern (in 2012). “The company didn’t really represent a ‘type’ of food or even a restaurant look but a philosophy towards hospitality,” explains Tsebelis. “Our approach has always been a guest-first approach. That translates into an overall feeling of comfort in the food, the service and the environment.”
The Buca brand did so well that more locations followed. Earlier this year, the 38-seat Bar Buca trattoria was born, serving espresso and pastries as early as 7 a.m. and Italian bar food until 1 a.m. Brunch draws lineups on weekends with dishes such as Gentile’s version of eggs — the Uova Strapazzate, which features farm eggs, burrata cheese
and truffle ($14).
“Every neighbourhood in Italy has [its] little restaurant on the corner where they go for their morning coffee and pastry, their lunch or dinner and then a glass of wine and a snack to eat at night,” Gentile says of the inspiration behind Bar Buca. “We discovered Toronto had nothing like it. Restaurants were focused on the café concept or the bar/restaurant concept, not the entire day’s menu options.” And, the new concept is already well regarded (like its sister restaurant) with noted Toronto food critic Joanne Kates — Buca is number 1 and Bar Buca is number 10 on the writer’s annual list of the best 100 restaurants in Toronto.
But, it doesn’t end there, as Buca Yorkville just opened this past fall. The menu focuses on sustainably sourced seafood and homemade seafood salumi (ever tried salmon mortadella?). It seats approximately 70 and includes a large patio.
And, the team recently inked a multi-restaurant deal with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who hand-picked King Street Food Company to debut his rustic Italian restaurant concept — which has 35 outlets in the U.K., Australia, Ireland, Hong Kong and Singapore — in the North American market. The 200-seat, 8,000-sq.-ft. Jamie’s Italian restaurant is set to open inside Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre this spring, bringing pizza and pasta made on site daily to a fast-casual setting. Details are still being worked out, but every unit will vary slightly, blending culinary ideas from Oliver and Gentile.
The celebrity indie chef fell in love with Gentile’s cuisine on a chance dinner at Buca in the fall of 2011. Gentile was in the kitchen that night and smiles as he remembers the special service. “The first thing we did was a salumi spread on a long board,” he says. “We had over 20 types of meat from every animal you could imagine: wild boar, goose, goat, venison, moose, lamb, horse, bison.” Many of the salumi were hand-made, hand-cured by Gentile who took several educational training tours through Italy.
Of course, the dinner didn’t stop there. The menu also included orecchiette with basil-fed snails and an entrée of lamb’s neck on a spread of polenta. “After that meal, he came into the kitchen,” Gentile recalls. “We were chatting, and [we] really think the same way about food — how to use every part of the animal and not throw anything away and how to hand-pick every ingredient.”
That night Oliver tweeted that it was his “favourite meal of the year,” calling Gentile a “humble genius.” An empire was born. “We could potentially see 10 outlets over the next five years, but we are taking it one step at a time,” explains Giazitzidis, who adds that locations are being scouted. “To rush it would be a mistake, as we still want to pay the same attention to local ingredients and use local products as much as possible.”
The deal with Oliver, new restaurant openings and a surge in traffic due to positive buzz has spurred a spike in business, with sales rising by 75 per cent between 2013 and 2014. “We don’t give out exact sales numbers, but years of a strong work ethos and genuine love for good food have truly paid off,” explains Tsebelis.
A good work ethic is taught from the onset by Gentile. The executive chef and managing partner is a perfectionist when it comes to schooling his staff. “Employee training is the most important part of our business,” he says. “Ensuring consistent service is the core that requires the most time, training and practise.” It’s about getting everything right from the kitchen prep lists to the steps of good service, notes the toque who has six years of experience coaching staff. Every step of the food process is honoured, from nurturing relationships with farmers and fish suppliers to employee training. No element is overlooked.
“We provide extensive training seminars specific to each venue, [its] concept and offering,” says Tsebelis. “Our people are our most valuable asset, so training is ongoing.” The partners also subsidize educational programs. In the past staff attended a symposium on Slow Fish (part of the Slow Food movement), for example. An educated staff communicates better with the customer and can deliver knowledge in a more convincing and personal way, Gentile notes.
It’s clear the company partners are committed. “Like most people, we ended up in the service industry by accident where it started as a part-time job,” says Tsebelis. “We grew to love it and stayed in this field because of the creativity it offers. It’s addictive to create new concepts.”
But, it’s about more than spreadsheets and new ideas, and the King Street partners don’t forget to give back to the community that nurtured their success. They actively participate in at least two charity events per month in Toronto, including Bloor Street Entertains, which benefits the city’s CANFAR (Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research) and The Evergreen Urban Rodeo and Barbecue, which supports green and healthy cities. It also partners with organizations such as Second Harvest, Community Food Centres Canada and The Stop, which all provide food to Toronto’s less privileged.
“It’s just as important to give back as it is to succeed in business,” says Giazitzidis. But perhaps the biggest success of all is that the entrepreneurs behind the growing empire are living out their childhood dreams. “I was raised by a single mother, and she always told me, ‘Whatever you do for a living, make sure you enjoy it, because you’ll be doing it for a long time,’” Gentile recalls. “That led me to cuisine, and I haven’t looked back since.”