The Soul’s Passion – Rob Gentile of Bar Buca
Stepping away from the kitchen, Rob Gentile, the mastermind behind the Buca restaurants, sat down with City Life to discuss his journey in and out of the kitchen.
Few people can say that they knew what they would be doing for the rest of their life by the time they were 12 years old. Typically, at that age you’re focused on other things besides your career. Not for Rob Gentile, who, at the age of 12, knew he wanted to be in the food industry. And that’s exactly what he’s been doing since.
As a child, he spent a great deal of time with his grandmother, who spent much of her time cooking the traditional Italian way. “I was always around food, [around] my grandmother. It was like her goal to fatten me up, so all I did was eat,” he says with a laugh.
Owing to that early exposure of the happiness that can come with food, when it came time to find a job in his early teens, he knew exactly where to look. His mother also gave him some sound advice, which he still recalls to this day: “Whatever you decide to do, make sure you truly love what you do, because you’ll be doing it for the rest of your life.” With that advice and the early exposure he received, thanks to his family, his path in life was clear.
“I worked Saturday morning and Sunday morning as a dishwasher,” he recalls of his first experience in the food industry, which was at a Greek diner in Brampton, Ont. “The exciting part about it was, when I wasn’t busy cleaning dishes I got to help out in the kitchen. I was able to chop up tomatoes and peel potatoes. And I started to learn how to cook eggs and how to do all these things in the kitchen. By the time I was 14 years old, I knew how to use a chef ’s knife.”
These skills proved invaluable when he turned 18 after high school and decided to go to chef ’s school at Toronto’s George Brown College. Since those early days, he has worked his way up in the business, culminating in the creation of his own restaurant, Buca, and the subsequent development of three additional Buca restaurants.
The inspiration for two of the restaurants came straight from his personal experiences in Italy. Bar Buca, which has two Toronto locations, 75 Portland St. and the newly opened 101 Eglinton Ave. East, are both designed with a similar concept to the bars Rob has frequented on his trips to Italy.
“[An] Italian bar isn’t a bar where you go and you drink your face off. It’s a place where you go and you get what you would like, depending on the time of day,” he says. “The Bar Buca idea is an idea that’s based on neighbourhood service, community, us being a place anyone around can frequent for [whatever] they want.”
Whether you’re looking for a quick pastry and a coffee in the morning, a selection of lunch options, including sit-down dishes or an aperitivo spread, or a perfect spot for dinner and some cocktails or a bottle of wine in the evening, Bar Buca has been designed to satisfy any dining desire.
“The Bar Buca idea is an idea that’s based on neighbourhood service, community, us being a place anyone around can frequent for [whatever] they want.” — Rob Gentile
Along with a successful career, Rob has excelled in his family life, marrying Audrey Gentile four years ago and celebrating the birth of their daughter, Clarice, just over two years ago.
Audrey is originally from northern Quebec, where she was raised in Senneterre, a small town she affectionately calls “the bush.” Says Audrey: “It’s just a beautiful, tiny place to grow up and very connected with the land and the outdoors.” After acquiring a business degree, Audrey moved to Toronto and went back to school at George Brown College, attending its culinary school. Though she was passionate about food and cooking, she discovered it wasn’t her driving force.
“It was more a hobby for me than it would ever be a career choice,” she says. After a few years in sales and event planning, she decided to do her yoga teacher training, which was over 10 years ago. Since then, she has created a booming business for herself all with the support of her husband, Rob.
“It’s great to share my life with someone who’s also passionate about what he does. I feel like our path is very similar. Even though we’re doing completely different things, we’re still very passionate individuals who kind of get to design a life that works for us, that’s different maybe than the average lifestyle,” she says.
As an extension to designing their life, they have fused together their two passions with a week-long yearly retreat that they host, bringing people to less-travelled parts of Italy, where they can practise yoga and revel in the Italian way of life.
“[Rob] cooks, I teach yoga, and we go on culinary adventures with [the guests]. Truffle hunting, clam digging, stuff where we can just really connect with the land, the landscape, the ingredients. I mean, that’s what Rob and I are all about.”
“It’s great to share my life with someone who’s also passionate about what he does”— Audrey Gentile
This luxury experience is designed to rejuvenate guests with daily yoga sessions, hands-on cooking classes with Rob and original experiences in Italian locales. This retreat is designed to bring people in line with their body, mind and soul, stepping back from the hectic reality that we often face in our day-today lives.
“I feel it’s a good antidote for the nonsense that’s happening right now, this culture of business where nobody’s got time for [anything],” she says. “I feel like there’s a place for a cup of slow living in this environment, and I’m going to continue pushing that as long as I can.”
When it comes to their own lives, you would think that Rob and Audrey would also seek out other forms of slow living. But when asked what they do when they get a free minute, the answer comes quickly. “We do more yoga and we do more eating,” Audrey says with a laugh. Rob echoes the sentiment: “I love doing yoga. Yoga helps me to kinda wind down.” And when they want to spend time as a family with their young daughter, they frequent some of the city’s top spots, like Evergreen Brick Works’ Farmers Market and Jimmie Simpson Park. “Reecey likes the splash pad,” Rob says with a smile.
Chef Rob Gentile’s Ragu Abruzzese (serves four)
- 270 grams carrots (chopped)
- 200 grams onion (chopped)
- 200 grams celery (chopped)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 150 grams pork fat from your local butcher shop. If pork fat is not available, you may substitute with olive oil (150 ml).
- 1,200 grams equal mix pork shoulder, beef short rib and veal shank well- dried of blood from your local butcher shop. Ask for meat to be buffalo chopped (finely chopped). If that is not possible, the meat may be ground.
- 250 ml white wine
- 250 ml whole milk
- 1 can (800 ml) whole peeled plum tomatoes
- 400 ml water
- 50 grams parsley leaves
- 50 grams basil leaves
- 1 sprig savory
- 1 sprig thyme
- 4 bay leaves
- Soft fresh ricotta at room temperature (for garnish, approx. 4–6 tablespoons)
- Raw extra virgin olive oil (for garnish)
- Salt and pepper (for seasoning)
- Blend carrots, onion, celery and garlic in a food processor and pulse, occasionally scraping the sides of the processor, until ingredients are very finely chopped.
- In a large bottom-heavy pot at high heat, add pork fat (or olive oil) and heat until it lightly smokes.
- Add meat mix, sear until browned and the juices from the meat begin to release. Continue to cook until juice evaporates (approx. 10 minutes).
- Reduce heat to medium-high and add carrot, onion, celery and garlic mix. Manage heat and reduce if the pot begins to brown too much. Cook vegetable mix until soft, translucent and water from vegetables has evaporated.
*At this point in the cooking process, a golden-brown glaze should form at the bottom and sides of the pot. This is called a “fond,” which develops once all the juices of the meat have nicely caramelized to a golden brown colour (not black). Fond adds an essential element to the flavour profile of ragu.
- Once fond has been achieved, add white wine to deglaze, and with a wooden spoon, scrape the sides of the pot, collecting the fond to stir back into your mixture.
- Add milk and continue to scrape fond into mixture until the pot is clean.
- Add canned tomatoes, water and herbs (parsley, basil, savory, thyme and bay leaves), then season well with salt and pepper.
- Reduce heat to low and simmer for 2–3 hours, stirring occasionally (approx. every 10 minutes).
- When meat is tender and begins to pull apart and tomatoes have broken down, use a traditional manual potato masher to pass through the ragu until it becomes a smooth sauce.
- Toss with your favourite pasta and garnish each serving with a spoon of soft fresh ricotta, fresh basil and raw extra virgin olive oil.