Chef Rob Bragagnolo wants you to eat as the Spanish do – and not just in the dishes you’re served, (though you’ll find favourites like aged serrano ham and tomato rubbed Cristal bread) but also in the social manner in which you enjoy them.
“The Spanish are not having massive glasses of wine or full pints of beer.” he explains, “Tapas bars in major Spanish cities focus on smaller formats so that you can move on and try more things. The idea of having a huge pint and one big plate of like fish and chips is very boring. Why would I talk to one person when I can talk to seven people and go to three or 4 different places – it’s a much more exciting format.”
I sit across from him at one of Labora’s cosy back tables just before the Wednesday lunch rush. His latest project used to share the space with another: Campo Food Hall, that was also under Chef Rob’s direction. It catered to the business lunch crowd with varying grab-and-go stations such as a salad and sandwich bar “I made the decision to say, okay, we’re going to just focus on Labora as that’s getting the most attention.” explained Bragagnolo. “It’s a bit more “special” to be honest with you, especially when you come in the evening, there are candles and it’s all very Spanish and romantic.”
Every detail in Labora is designed to help you have the most Spanish experience possible, right down to the seating options, “In places like Madrid, Barcelona and Palma, You go to bars and sit up at the counter. It’s a mixture of drink and food right there. They’ll have somebody who’s hand carving ham right in front of you while also making you a cocktail and maybe even frying up some baby squid. That’s what we’ve done to this bar: Labora really now is the bar and then the restaurant. You can come in and have a quick vermouth or a snack, or if you’re here on a date, the back restaurant caters to a larger dinner setting.”
While I share a (rather uncommon) last name with the chef, upon further conversation we discovered there is no relation. Rob’s parents are from Castelfranco Veneto and moved to Canada in the late sixties. Rob was born here in Canada but his parents took him back to Italy every summer. Italian citizenship is easy to attain if your parents are from there – Rob got his as a child which enabled him to spend over 15 years living and learning to cook in Europe in his early twenties and into his thirties. He began his cooking education in Switzerland but got his first job (an accounting position at a hotel) right out of school in Majorca Spain. It was through a chance encounter with the executive chef at a small countryside Michelin star restaurant that set his career down the successful path he’s been on since. Though he’s worked with some of Europe’s best chef’s he attributes a lot of influence on his cooking from his early days cooking in Italy with his mother. “The region we’re from in Italy has very different cuisine from what most people consider to be “Italian food” like pizza or pasta. In northern Italy, the dishes are mostly rice-based: a lot of stews and braises. There’s a parallel between the cuisine of Veneto and Northern Spain. Rice, shellfish, hyper-seasonal vegetables and mushrooms are things that I already like cooking the most and I find myself going back to wanting to put them onto the menu.”
After sampling Labora’s menu a handful of times, I can confirm the chef’s love and appreciation for these ingredients and the resulting magic: Labora’s paella (only available Sundays) is one of the best dishes I have had the pleasure of tasting in Toronto.
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#Paella is Spain’s most internationally recognized dish, and also its most bastardized. Much like when pasta and pizza first came to America, it is usually a far cry from it’s true intended form. In Spain ‘paella’ means and refers to the pan, not the dish itself. The dish is ‘arroz en paella’ or rice cooked in a paella pan. Sometimes also referred to as ‘arroz seco’ or dry rice. This is our #lobsterpaella – We try our very best to serve a version as close to the traditional lobster rice served in Spain as we can. We use Canadian lobster and Spanish technique. Think less a big mountain of over cooked seafood and rice, and more one single layer of juicy, sticky, a touch crunchy rice, with an intense lobster flavour. #Spain #restaurant #toronto #regional #simple #rustic #paella #arroz #arros #arrosseco #lobster #langosta #bogavante
On advice he wishes he could give his 25-year-old self? “Travel more! And I would have spent more time interning at restaurants for free. When you play with someone better than you, you tend to play better yourself. If you are really serious about your work or your industry, just go to work and see how experts in that field do things. It sounds really easy, but people just don’t do it. I think there’s this misconception that younger cooks need to go to cooking school. School is important to have some foundation, but seeing how restaurants around the world operate is pretty key. Spend some time in Spain and France, the countries known for gastronomy – that culture is so ingrained in their society that we often forget how good their chefs are until you go there and you see it. It would be the same advice for a kid growing up in rural Italy who wanted to play hockey. You want to go play hockey, go to Canada or Sweden.”
While you ponder quitting your job to try and intern at a restaurant in Spain, in the meantime you can head to Labora for a sit-down meal with amazing Spanish tapas or pop by for a “Labora cola”: sweet house vermouth & freshly squeezed citrus served in a soda syphon. At this bar, you never know just who you might meet.