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Kitchen master fine-tuned Toronto’s tastes

Dante Rota, with wife Rina, was executive chef at the Windsor Arms Hotel in 1981-85.

John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

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.

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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."

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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.

Assignments followed at some of London's most highly rated restaurants, including the venerable Café Royale and Gennaro's in Soho, where he concentrated on Italian cooking. After two years in South America, he returned to London as executive chef at the Excelsior Hotel at Heathrow for six years, then opened the Excelsior Hotel in Hong Kong, where he remained for four years.

In the three years that followed, he cooked at London's Grosvenor House, moved to New York for a stint at the Hotel Pierre, then worked at the Nassau Beach Hotel in the Bahamas. (After the grand, airy hotels of Europe, he would later think it scandalous that restaurant tables in North America were so close together).

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His talent drew the attention of the owners of Toronto's venerable King Edward Hotel, who hired him in 1981 to help reopen the venue. But there was a falling out between the parties, and since Rota had bought a house in the city, he accepted an offer from the Windsor Arms Hotel.

As The Globe's Kates noted, little happened at the time in Toronto haute gastronomy that was not either at the Windsor Arms or directly influenced by its chefs. Even before Rota's arrival, the hotel's Three Small Rooms, opened in 1966 by George Minden, was "the most important restaurant in Toronto."

In 1985, in a move that sent shock waves through foodies, Rota quit the Windsor Arms and bought Noodles from the hotel's owners. With its prime location at Bay and Bloor streets, Noodles was an icon when it opened in 1973 as Toronto's first Italian restaurant to go from spaghetti-and-meatballs to risotto. For a decade it was the place to be seen.

But it was dying. As Rota said at the time: "Business is terrible. At night, a party of two has a pizza and two salads and then they go home. By nine o'clock I've got nobody left in the restaurant." Add to that a strike by staff, and Rota packed it in. In 1990, the Minden organization bought Noodles back from him.

Throughout that dispiriting time, Rota did his best to dispel the stereotype of the frenzied chef. "He was always very calm," recalled Cosimo Mammoliti, owner of the Terroni restaurant chain whose first job was as a food runner at Noodles. "No matter how crazy things got, he would say, 'Right. Let's get it done.' "

Rota landed at Orso, another well-known Italian spot, but his stay there was brief. Even so, owner John Maxwell recalled "an old-school chef, insanely charming, enthusiastic and hospitable. A jewel of a man."

He was released to open Da Dante's in north Toronto, a bold move considering the dog-eat-dog restaurant scene in that part of the city. One critic practically went weak at the knees. "Da Dante is the repository of the Rota family's dreams," she gushed. "You can smell their commitment. It smells like the sharp sweetness of balsamic vinegar smoothed by the velvet of extra virgin olive oil, the bite of garlic tamed by the absorptive charms of rice and pasta. … The fried calamari crackles like glass, so crisp and ungreasy. [Rota's] thin pizza is a triumph of the bread baker's craft, in its flavour and crunch."

On retirement in 1997, Rota handed over the keys to the place to his apprentice, Richard Fox-Revett, who reopened it as the Monkey Bar & Grill.

What did Rota like to eat? "If I had to choose one cuisine," he said once, "it would be Chinese. The Chinese mode is the mother of world cooking. Others, including French and Italian, have developed from it. Its beauty is that basic Chinese cooking hasn't changed – it hasn't had to. It has survived the years."

And if he had trained in the classical French style, why didn't he cook in it?

"Believe me, this was a big debate between us," his son Carlo related. "I believed he perceived a value in following Italian cuisine. French cuisine in its heyday ruled the planet but when in the '80s restaurants came to the fore, French cooking retreated somewhat. He saw that Italian cuisine was the way to go."

Carlo Rota laboured alongside his father for many years in hot, cramped kitchens and learned more than he thought about cooking and food. "But there was absolutely no way I could call myself a chef," he said. "I could never look my father in the face again."

Dante Rota leaves his wife of 59 years, Rina; children Carlo, Marco, Laura and Maria; 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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