Q&A: Eataly Toronto executive chef Rob Wing on the city’s best pizza, $2,000 cheese wheels and cooking for Lidia Bastianich
Three years after the Eataly team announced it was bringing one of the Italian food emporiums to Toronto, opening day is finally here. The 50,000-square-foot store spans three floors of the Manulife Centre and includes—among many other things—a licensed all-day café, a pasta bar, a seafood restaurant, wood-fired pizza ovens, an enoteca, a gelateria, $2,000 cheese wheels and a brewery. We spoke with Rob Wing, the Eataly Toronto’s executive chef, about Eataly, what it’s like to cook for Lidia Bastianich, and where he goes for his pizza fix in Toronto.
For people who have been living under a giant pasta shell, can you tell us about the Eataly concept?
It’s a marketplace that offers the best Italian products from Italy and from the local region, so in this case, from around Toronto. One of our mottos is “eat, shop, learn” and that’s kind of what you do at Eataly: you can come in and have a nice meal at one of nine restaurants, you can have an Aperol Spritz, and then you can shop for anything you just ate and learn about it all from our different experts and chefs. When I was at Eataly Chicago, friends would come see me when their family was visiting because they needed something to do. Even when my own parents would come to visit, I would take the day off and the first thing they wanted to do was go to Eataly. It’s a great place to pass a few hours.
Speaking of cheese, tell me about those $2,000 wheels?
They’re Parmigiano-Reggiano, and they each weigh over 80 pounds—so that’s a big part of what makes them so expensive. And then there’s the process of making them—they’re aged for months on end. When you look at these wheels and you see that really hard rind on the outside—that’s all just cheese.
So, going into cheese tray season, it’s okay to eat the rind?
If it’s been aged for a long time, the rind is going to be really hard so I wouldn’t recommend eating it, but it makes a great stock for soups.
To point out the obvious, “Wing” doesn’t sound like an Italian last name.
That’s right, I don’t have Italian roots. In terms of my cooking background, I was classically trained in the old French techniques. And I had the opportunity to spend six years living in different parts of Asia, so I was at the markets every morning. I actually had never worked in an Italian kitchen until I started at Eataly Chicago, but I noticed a lot of crossover between what I was doing and the Italian methods.
Well, didn’t spaghetti come from Asia?
The story is that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy after travelling to Asia. Whether that’s true or not, I’m not sure.
Did you always want to be a chef?
My first job ever was in a restaurant when I was 15 years old. I’ve actually never done anything else. I really love the intensity, the stress, the pressure, the camaraderie, the teamwork. There’s that instant gratification that comes from taking a raw product and turning it into something that makes people happy. I don’t know if I always wanted to do it, though—I don’t think I really saw being a chef as a career option. That was before there was a Food Network and before Kitchen Confidential.
I noticed on your Instagram account that you were a big fan of Bourdain.
I really appreciated how he was able to make the connection that food is the best way to get to know somebody. I think if people can be open-minded about food, that can lead to open-mindedness about other cultures. There’s a lot of common ground that comes across through food and eating traditions. If you share a meal with somebody you can walk away having zero differences.
I’ve heard that the ultimate judge of Italian cuisine is the nonna. Have you cooked for many?
I’ve cooked for the nonna: Lidia Bastianich. She signed off on me, so I think that’s about as good as it gets.
Toronto’s Eataly was many years in the making. What took so long?
It had to be perfect. A lot of that was finding the ideal location and I think we did that. A lot of people live and work in the Yorkville neighbourhood, and it’s also a destination for people visiting the city. And there are so many other great restaurants nearby.
You recently moved to Toronto from Chicago. What has surprised you most about the Toronto restaurant scene?
There’s a lot of similarity in terms of the food scenes in Toronto and Chicago. In both cities, there’s a lot of focus on quality. One thing that’s surprised me about Toronto is how busy the restaurants are—all the time. It’s great. I guess people here really love to eat. I’ve had a lot of great experiences, though. I love Buca, Bar Raval, Antler, Indie Ale House. I’ve also had some amazing Jamaican beef patties.
Have you met many of our local chefs?
As soon as I found out I would be coming to Toronto, I started following all of the big Toronto chefs on Instagram. By doing that, and also coming to visit on occasion, is how I learned about a lot of the great local suppliers that we’re using now.
Are you a big fan of any one chef in particular?
Well I haven’t met her yet, but I’m a huge fan of Jen Agg. Her places are so well conceived and thought out. When you go, you know you’re going to have a good time. I follow her on Instagram and Twitter and I just think she’s great.
Coming from Chicago and working at an Italian restaurant, I have to ask where your pizza loyalties lie. Are you a deep dish guy?
I do appreciate a good deep dish. But I’m originally from Detroit, so my all-time favourite pizza is Detroit-style. The dough goes in a blue-steel pan, and then you put all the toppings and the cheese on, and then you put the sauce on top before baking it. The trick is the pan and a really hot oven. The cheese burns a little bit and it’s just the best. There’s a place in Toronto called Descendant where they do a very good Detroit-style pizza. That’s where I go to get my fix.
So there’s no Detroit-style pizza at Eataly then?
No, it’s not something I’m going to bring into work. That said, we make three different types of pizza: Neapolitan, Roman-style and Torino-style. So, you know, I’m not exactly lacking in options to fulfill my cravings.