Rob Gentile's approach to rustic Italian cuisine is about as far as you can get from stadium food. The Toronto chef is known for his luscious pastas, carefully cured salumi and heavenly desserts. Hot dogs and chili are not part of his repertoire, nor even among his guilty pleasures.
He would rather tuck into a fresh, steaming plate of pasta al pomodoro made with quality olive oil and sun-kissed tomatoes any day. Yet when the organizers of the 100th Grey Cup Festival approached him to prepare their gala dinner, Gentile didn't hesitate.
Sure, the chef of Buca, one of Toronto's hottest restaurants, follows the Canadian Football League in his limited free time. (His favourite team? "Well, the Argos, of course.") But he simply couldn't refuse the opportunity to work with his former boss and mentor, Toronto restaurateur Mark McEwan, on such a momentous event.
"Immediately, I'm like, 'Wow, Chef McEwan and me? That would be fantastic.' It's a great combination," Gentile says.
Instead of a formal sit-down dinner, festival organizers are holding the Nov. 21 gala on the field of the Rogers Centre just days before the Grey Cup game, and have chosen a tailgate-inspired theme to suit the turf.
To encourage guests to mingle, some of the food will be served from the backs of pickup trucks. And instead of white cloth-covered tables, the 1,500 to 2,000 expected guests will dine in lounge-type seating areas.
(At $7,500 per 10-person seating pod, it is largely expected to be a corporate crowd, although single tickets are available for extreme football and food fans at $900 a pop. Proceeds go to the Huddle Up Bullying Prevention Program, aimed at tackling bullying in schools.)
Festival organizers won't divulge what is on the menu, but Gentile offers a few clues: "Instead of your, let's say, pigs in a blanket, you have your sausage-stuffed olives that are breaded and fried to order," he says, adding that he will also be preparing an heirloom-beet salad with buffalo mozzarella, buckwheat and grape mosto cotto, a cooked grape juice.
This hardly sounds like tailgate food. (Where are the chili, tacos and other items that can be eaten with one hand while holding a beer in the other?) As Gentile explains: "What would a professional chef do at a tailgate party? That's what we're trying to put together."
Gentile's name may not be as recognizable as McEwan's. But the 31-year-old has quickly proved himself a top chef and has been described as one of the country's most innovative.
It has been three years since Buca opened to rave reviews, and Gentile is working on opening two more locations – a second Buca in the upscale neighbourhood of Yorkville in the spring and Buca Bar, a casual spot near the existing Buca location early in the new year.
Gentile began working for McEwan straight out of culinary school at the age of 18, and stuck with the chef for 10 years, cooking at McEwan's various restaurants, North 44, Bymark and One.
That experience "moulded me into who I am today," he says. It instilled in him a strong sense of work ethic and drive, he says, and he learned the importance of keeping tabs on what goes on in every aspect of his operation.
Gentile seems undaunted by the task of feeding up to 2,000 hungry football fans in one night. The biggest challenge he anticipates will be to execute his dishes efficiently, but it is a challenge he is willing to take in stride.