Get to Know a Chef: Rob Bragagnolo, Marben
Chef Rob Bragagnolo spent most of his culinary career overseas, but was eager to come back to the city he grew up in. Now, the executive chef of Marben, he's ready to introduce some of his favourite flavours to the menu while preserving the restaurant's staples. The not-so-new kid on the block talks about growing up in a family of chefs, his go-to dishes, and what it takes to create an experience.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Not always. Early on, I went to hotel management school in Switzerland, and I was going down that route. But my mom's side of the family in Italy is all inside the restaurant business; they're all cooks, and I realized the part that I love the most of the hotel and restaurant business is actually in the kitchen. And so, I decided in my early twenties to go into the kitchen full time.
Where did you learn to cook?
At home and from my mother's side of the family. I would spend my summers in Italy until I was about 18, and I got an opportunity to work in the family trattoria, and essentially a factory where they make pastries. Most of my real learning about what food is supposed to taste like and how you're supposed to treat ingredients came from those earlier years. The more professional side of it is when I went to Spain and started working in a Michelin-starred restaurant there. So the two things together helped me become a proper chef.
What meat do you take the most pride in at the restaurant?
I would say probably the beef. One came in that's really spectacular: it was free range, ate grass, and the farmer just treated it with a lot of respect; and it comes through in the flavour. And so, we do revere those animals. The cote de boeuf we do here is very simple, and it highlights the beauty of the animal. You have the whole rib on the bone, we grill it to order, and it's like a 35 oz. rib-steak that you're getting with béarnaise. There are not too many places where you can get that amount of beef and that high quality cooked to order; it's just a very spectacular product.
What's the most challenging aspect of running a locally-driven restaurant?
You can't get things every day, and then the seasonality, too. Typically, we will get in all of our meat and fish on one day for the whole week. So, in terms of consistency, it's difficult because you can't predict whether you're going to have enough for the whole week. You might sell 90 burgers a night, or steak, and if you were at a restaurant that doesn't source locally, they'll get it in every single day and they can plan a lot better.
The other challenge, that I think we handle well, is being able to use the entire animal. Most restaurants will just order in the tenderloin, but we get in the neck, belly, chin, and all of these other parts that most people don't use. So, we have to find ways to use it and not allow it to go to waste.
What's your favourite dish to prepare and why?
Because of my roots, definitely risotto. My family's from Venice, which is the birthplace of that dish. And that was the first thing I ever learned how to make, when I was five or six years old. I just get a lot of joy out of making one that tastes really nice.
What's next for you and the restaurant?
What we're trying to do is balance out the sort of "meat heaviness" of the restaurant, because I think the perception out there is that Marben is definitely a meat restaurant. My background is very much from the Mediterranean - very fish and vegetable based. So, we are now incorporating lighter fare, including fish and shellfish, and we're trying to create experiences for people, so there are a lot of "wows" with the food.
What do you do for fun?
I try my best to travel as much as possible. Bordeaux, France, Hong Kong, and Copenhagen were all really amazing.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Most underrated ingredient? Tomato
Best culinary tool? Wooden spoon
A chef that inspires you? Karlos Arguiñano
Favourite Toronto restaurant? 416 Snack Bar
One dish you can't live without? Tomato salad
What would people be surprised to find in your fridge? Kalles kaviar
One food trend that needs to end? Deep-frying everything
For more chef profiles, visit our Toronto Chefs Pinterest board.
Photos by Jesse Milns