By Sean Moon
For the King Street Food Company, the recipe for success has been a unique combination of three equal parts Mediterranean heritage, a company-wide commitment to sourcing only the best local, sustainable ingredients and a passionate interest in people.
As the three principals of an ever-growing presence on Toronto’s critically acclaimed food scene, Managing Director Peter Tsebelis, Managing Director Gus Giazitzidis and Chef Director Rob Gentile have together played a pivotal role in the revitalization of one of the city’s most historically significant neighbourhoods — King Street West.
“When we opened Brassaii back in 2003, King Street looked like urban Detroit, nothing like it does now,” recalls Tsebelis. “When (landlord) Allied Properties first showed us the plans for the future home of Brassaii and the other buildings in the neighbourhood, we knew we were working at the right time with the right people and we could see the potential for what this part of the city could be.”
From east to west
After establishing themselves as successful restaurateurs with their original neighbourhood hotspot called The Myth on the Danforth in east Toronto, Tsebelis and his business partner Giazitzidis were looking at the opportunity to take their “upscale but accessible” restaurant concept further west and past the more traditionally trendy areas of Yorkville and Yonge and Eglinton.
“We believed that King Street was becoming that kind of a neighbourhood where people live and work within walking distance of one another,” says Tsebelis. “We thought that with Jacobs and Buca coming along we could potentially tap into the growing community that was there.”
After finding the perfect location for their new Italian concept Buca, Tsebelis and Giazitzidis began the search for the perfect chef to take the reigns of the new kitchen. Fortunately, they were introduced by a mutual friend to a celebrated chef named Rob Gentile, who had been honing his considerable skills for the previous 10 years under the tutelage of renowned chef and restaurateur Mark McEwan at locations such as North 44.
All in the family
Gentile, who grew up as the youngest of three kids, was raised by his Italian mom and grandmother to appreciate the use of traditional Italian ingredients and recipes. His experience with Italian flavours and techniques pushed him away from opportunities in French cuisine and towards a new career as the head chef at the new Buca project.
“As a kid growing up, I loved eating and trying different things,” says Gentile. “It seems like the interest in food was always in me, while at the same time I got showered with it from my surroundings. For me, it all starts with using the best ingredients you can find. Going to the fish market with my grandmother, going into the back garden to see what we had growing, knowing what a ripe tomato tastes like in the summertime — these are the experiences that drive me and what makes it interesting to me.”
Today, as the executive chef at Buca — often cited as one of Canada’s best restaurants with one of the country’s top chefs — who also leads the culinary vision at other King Street Food Company properties, Gentile says a key part of his role with the company is to instill a love for creativity and innovation on his team while staying connected to where ingredients come from, whether through monthly foraging trips with staff in the summer or meeting with local farmers and suppliers.
“I am continuously trying to be inspired and to inspire others,” says Gentile. “The creative side of cooking is so important. There’s so much more to being a chef than standing in front of a stove. There is so much more learning involved, more to the process of becoming a chef that the kids need to be able to grow into in order to be successful.”
The next evolution
Although Tsebelis, Giazitzidis and Gentile started out as a three-person operation with the opening of Buca in 2006, the King Street Food Company has grown to include over 600 employees at eight restaurants, including the new Jamie’s Italian locations at Yorkdale Shopping Centre and Mississauga’s Square One, in partnership with famed TV chef and culinary activist Jamie Oliver.
“What’s not to be exited about with Jamie’s Italian?” asks Giazitzidis. “Not only is he extremely talented, but he is also a wonderful man. During our early conversations with him and his team, we found that we are very like-minded, with the same ethos and feelings about hospitality, people and food. So it was very easy for us to go to the next step with him to create this arrangement with him and for us to be able to grow his brand together across Canada.”
In addition to the recent partnership with Oliver, Tsebelis, Giazitzidis and Gentile are also looking forward to other developments that allow them to share their passion for people and food, including the opening this fall of a new French bistro called La Banane with another successful young chef, Brandon Olsen.
“We’re passionate about a lot of different things,” says Giazitzidis. “When it comes to food, sustainability and education for us is paramount. We are also very passionate about people, as well as developing our industry and growing that industry as professionals. But one of our biggest commitments is to the development of people and us being able to touch as many people as possible, to be really able to pay attention to our staff and develop the teams around us. As we continue to grow we need to empower more and more people, to give them the tools to be able to do their jobs and to really care about what they are doing.”
Sean Moon is the managing editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News magazine.