Our paths crossed with Rob's in work and life at Buca, instilling in us indelible memories. There was nothing quite like the experience that Rob created at the restaurant and his openness and generosity in sharing his knowledge and multifaceted talent.
One of Canada's most beloved chefs, Rob grew up in North York between his dad's place in King City and his mom's in Brampton. Inspired by the gifts of Mother Nature, he is driven by a passion for ingredients and foraging, connecting him to the essence of food. A creative at heart, he brings his love of family and his deep rooted Italian background to everything he is and does.
- Food has a relationship to our own understanding of place and identity. How did your family’s origins and stories influence you?
My family came to Canada in 1956. My grandfather was in construction and built their house in North York beside family and many other Italian immigrants at the time. They lived their lives as Italians in Canada, so naturally their entire backyard was a garden. It was enormous — spanning multiple family yards next door — and you could even reach out the bedroom window and pick beans. There was every kind of fruit tree you could imagine, and my grandparents fed themselves from the produce most of the year.
Raised by a single mother, I would go to my grandmother’s before and after school, and watch as she preserved pears, canned tomato sauce and cured meat. Those are the beautiful memories of my childhood that ultimately influenced me.
- Beyond your primary creative drive, what else do you explore?
Connecting with Mother Nature and her bounty is something I seek both in the wild and the city. I love being outdoors; I have a huge love for fishing and foraging, and go hiking weekly. Living in Toronto, I grow a small 10x14ft garden, which is a constant source of creativity for me. There is something so special about being close to the energy that fuels us. I sit out there every morning with my journal in the summertime. There is always something growing, changing, however incrementally.
Gardening is a hobby I share with my family. Like many kids, my daughter Clarice is a picky eater. I was so attracted to food and cooking because I was around it as a kid, so I want to pass on that experience to her.
- You take a very bold experimental approach to cooking with creations such as pig’s blood ice cream. How do you generate ideas for your recipes?
When your medium is food, it all starts with the quality of the ingredients. It's my inspiration, it's what I get excited about. It's going to be good if it is grown right and given the chance to come to full flavour — seasonal eating is the best way to go about that.
An ingredient’s origin is either from Mother Nature — who has given us the ingredient — or a person who is passionate about an ingredient and has taken the time to raise or grow it. I do not know what it will become until I see it, feel it. And then it tells me what it's going to be. Sometimes it is about enhancing it, or maybe it's about keeping it simple, but the idea is always to make the ingredient shine.
My crazy recipes come from traveling, researching and understanding Italian cuisine. In Italy they make a traditional chocolate cake with pig’s blood — so I shifted that flavour combination to gelato. Much of my cooking comes down to taking what I know and twisting those flavors in new ways.
- Why is foraging an important practice for you?
Foraging is an exciting way of seeking out ingredients and inspiration. It's an expansive playground and you never know what you are going to find. You might not be expecting wild ginger, but it's there because it happened to be warm yesterday. When I was a kid, I would pull up wild dandelions with my grandmother. It's comparable to gardening; you find what’s available, be it dandelions, berries or mushrooms.
There are many wild ingredients I do not know, but there are a lot I can identify. Just as there are many that are edible and don’t taste very good, there are many that you can eat and taste delicious. Cattail lilies are edible, but there's nothing you can do to make them taste good. Tasting is a huge part of learning. Have new dishes come out of it? Absolutely. But it's all about the moment of seeing, tasting, and connecting to nature to be inspired.
- Seasonality is always on a chef’s mind and yours as well. How does being present play a role in your cooking and your life?
- My “now is all we have” tattoo is a reminder for me to stay present, which is so hard to do. The idea of the past and future only existing in your mind is deep and challenging to understand and then apply to daily life. Getting away from distractions, my phone and work is so important to allow me to be present for my 4 year old daughter and Audrey, my wife.
Take the time to live a life that is pleasurable and soulful without all the clichés.
- You and Audrey facilitate a meditative food experience. Can you tell us more about the project’s inception, the philosophy behind it, and what you have learned along the way?
Audrey is an amazing individual — she has helped me so much in my life and in my emotional and mental health through yoga and meditation. These experiences we created over the years were all based on our feeling that food, slow living and mindfulness are all intertwined. We thought we would carve a space — to get people together for a week to slow down, eat, and learn to reconnect with yourself and others. In every retreat, strangers became friends through shared experience. It brought people together in a new way and they held onto those moments.
Slow living is the conscious effort to be present. North American living is incredibly fast paced and everything connects to monetary success. Slow living is connecting to the land, its people, and taking the time to live a life that is pleasurable and soulful without all the clichés.
- Do you have any rituals that are essential to you?
I start every morning with my journal, writing gratitudes and my goals for the day, and watching inspirational videos. I spend 30-45 mins in this space to begin my day in the best possible mindset. Because of the pandemic, I run a lot now and do yoga. Exercising and releasing energy is a huge part of maintaining my health.
These mindfulness rituals grew from realizing my own negative mindset in the past. I was a difficult young man who was jealous and misguided by our world. I didn’t understand how to set goals or truly accomplish what I wanted. Working in kitchens is a tense, tough environment that does not always bring out the best in people.
When I was 21, I heard Bob Proctor speak, and he was the first person to educate me on the mind and our agency over it. And that realization was extremely eye opening — the choice to be upset or happy. It sounds simple but it's so challenging. I am 41 and it's tough! It really is a constant intention of asking how I can be a better person, and better towards other people.
- If you were to sit at a table with the most inspiring people, who would you be sitting with?
- Ryan Holiday, Robin Sharma, Deepak Chopra, and of course Audrey would be there. That would be enough, it would be explosive! I would just listen and take notes. Chopra is so intelligent and articulates himself in a way everyone can understand. I heard Robin Sharma and Deepak Chopra talk, and in a room full of 600 people, you could hear a pin drop.
- What does home mean to you?
When I was a teenager, I went to church and heard a sermon about the difference between a house and a home. A house is a thing, a building. A home is a place you live, be it alone or with loved ones. For me, home doesn't mean the house I am in now — home is always with me. It's Audrey, Clarice, and our dog Norma. It's the moments we share together.
I have to put just as much effort into making a home a happy place as my wife does. It's a conscious effort to make the home you want to be in, but once you acknowledge its importance, it's a sacred, special place.