Dante Rota landed in Toronto just in time. It was the early 1980s, when the city’s restaurant scene was slowly transforming from a place where fancy had meant shrimp cocktail, to a foodie epicentre. But there was a long way to go; the eighties were still about heavy cream and butter in wannabe French food, while regrettable Ital-Cal-Thai fusion loomed on the horizon.
Among Toronto’s most gifted chefs, the silver-haired Rota lifted cooking to another level and taught diners to take food seriously while revelling in glorious new flavours. As executive chef at the Windsor Arms Hotel from 1981 to 1985 – “when Toronto gastronomy was flying on the wings of conspicuously delicious consumption,” in the words of former Globe and Mail restaurant critic Joanne Kates – food lovers enjoyed “the grand excesses” of the hotel’s signature eateries, Three Small Rooms and The Courtyard Café.
Rota also presided over the rebirth, and death, of the iconic downtown Toronto restaurant Noodles.
Although trained in the rigorous tradition of French haute cuisine, notable for its sauces and creams, he favoured simpler Italian fare: homemade pastas, virgin olive oils, fresh vegetable antipasti and cooked-to-order risotto. Hard-bitten critics swooned over his gnocchi in velvety gorgonzola sauce.
Rota, who died Sept. 9 in Alessandria, Italy, at age 82 of complications from a stroke, helped change the way Toronto eats, especially traditionalists looking for proven worth. He helmed Noodles at a time when Italian food “was pulling away from the Chianti-bottle-with-a candle and red-and-white checkered tablecloths, to dishes that were hundreds of years old,” said veteran Toronto chef David Adjey, who apprenticed under Rota at the noted restaurant. “If it was a traditional dish of Rome, he cooked it that way. He didn’t modify it. He didn’t bastardize it. He made the dish the way it was supposed to be. He taught me that food, ingredients and dishes have integrity, and you as a chef have to respect that. It’s not up to you to put your flair in it.”
Dante Firmino Francesco Rota was born in London in 1929 to Italian parents who had found work in England. His father, Carlo, was a sommelier. As war clouds gathered, young Dante and his sister were shipped to northern Italy to live with their grandparents. When war came, Carlo Rota was arrested as an enemy alien.
“[Prime Minister Winston] Churchill had this crazy notion that there was a fifth column of Italian waiters, ice cream salesmen and hairdressers that were going to rise up against Britain,” archly noted Dante’s son, Carlo Rota, an actor well known for his TV roles on Little Mosque on the Prairie, 24,La Femma Nikita, and most recently World Without End.
Set to be interned in Newfoundland, the senior Rota was put aboard the SS Arandora Star, which was promptly sunk off the northwest coast of Ireland by a Nazi U-boat in July, 1940, killing Carlo and more than 600 other passengers. “That event,” said his namesake grandson, “shaped my father’s desire to keep family close for the rest of his life.”
Back in England in 1946 and after about a year at high school, Dante began a two-year apprenticeship in the kitchen of a posh London men’s club. It wasn’t what he wanted.
“I wanted to go into hairdressing,” he told The Globe in a 1985 profile. “But we were in the difficult period of rationing and I had to earn a living. My mother argued that there would always be employment in the food world and that decided my career.”
As a British subject, he was called up for military service, and when officers heard about the rising kitchen star, “they were clamouring for him,” Carlo said. So Dante spent two years in the Royal Air Force cooking in the airmen’s mess and then as personal chef to the commander-in-chief.
Demobilized in 1949, he began the pitiless training of a French cook at London’s Café de Paris. For five years, according to the classical “brigade de cuisine” system codified by the chef, gourmand and writer Auguste Escoffier, Rota toiled in station after station in the restaurant, from pot-washer to aboyeur (the person who takes orders and transmits them to the kitchen) to saucier. He soaked it all in, learning a reverence for fine food and its creators.
“The chefs were in their 70s and 80s,” noted his son, who worked in restaurant kitchens for years before turning to acting at age 30. “You never spoke to the chefs.”
Rota worked his way up to sous-chef, and married his Italian wife, Rina, whom he had met as a teenager in Fubine, in the Piedmont region of Italy. She would later join him in the food business.