Another buzzy chef is poised to open shop in L.A. despite past harassment allegation

Nov.04, 2009 Buca restaurant at 604 King St. W. Chef Rob Gentile with sausage links around his neck.
Chef Rob Gentile became head chef of Buca in Toronto in 2009. (Michael Stuparyk / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Rob Gentile is just about to open West Hollywood's "most exciting" new Italian restaurant.

Construction is nearly finished. The menu is being created. In the space that used to house old-school Italian joint Madeo, Gentile will be serving up Italian food with an emphasis on local ingredients, including specialties such as Sicilian su filindeu pasta, with his business partner, Janet Zuccarini, a Canadian restaurateur.

But amid announcements of its anticipated opening in early 2024, the latest in a wave of flashy Italian restaurants in L.A., The Times obtained internal investigative documents from King Street Food Company, the Canadian restaurant group where Gentile used to work, which show the head chef was found to have contributed to a hostile workplace at a high-end Toronto restaurant.

The documents, along with interviews, revealed the celebrated chef was fired from his last job as head chef of Toronto restaurant Buca and that, separately, outside counsel hired by the company found that he had engaged in workplace harassment and made sexually and racially demeaning comments about staff members.

Workers put up the sign for the new restaurant called Stella outside the front of Stella.
The sign for Stella went up this month at the space that used to house Madeo. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

"As a partner in the business, [Gentile's] role was to act as a role model and to curb disrespectful and harassing behaviour," wrote the independent investigator, Lauren Bernardi, in a summary of her findings. "Instead he engaged in it himself. The impact on individual recipients and the culture of the workplace as a whole cannot be overstated."

The allegations against Gentile are just the latest to emerge in the Los Angeles food scene. Last year, trendy American restaurant Horses was buffeted by accusations of animal abuse and cat killing by one of the head chefs, Will Aghajanian.

Other restaurants such as Jon & Vinny's have been accused of withholding tips from employees, while Silver Lake staple Café Tropical shut down amid a fierce family legal battle over money.

The allegations against Gentile did not appear to be serious enough to spur his partner Zuccarini to slow down opening the restaurant or consider another chef. Gentile admitted to some of the offensive texts he sent that came up in the investigation, but denied that they were representative of his character or of his style of running a kitchen.

"That's not who I am," Gentile said in an interview with The Times. "Janet knows me. I was as truthful and honest as I could be."

Gentile had not shared information about his unceremonious ouster from Buca with Zuccarini, she told The Times. Gentile was fired from the group during the pandemic after his partners became aware that he was doing outside catering work despite his contract, he told The Times.

Still, Zuccarini said she believed in giving people second chances and that she trusts Gentile to lead Stella.

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"I'm a female owner of a restaurant group. I’ve been in the industry 28 years. I believe you have to guard your reputation with your life," she said. "I understand the culture in kitchens. Especially with men, and it can be very toxic. As a female owner I have zero tolerance for any of this."

Zuccarini added that the chef de cuisine of Stella is a woman.

King Street Food Company declined to comment on the investigation or Gentile's termination from the group. Zuccarini said she spoke with the company and was informed that the investigation was not solely into Gentile, but was a broader inquiry into workplace culture following a sexual harassment allegation against another chef.

A Toronto Life article had cited serious financial and workplace issues at Buca, but most of the allegations in the article were not about Gentile, though it was reported that he demanded excellence while not hiring enough cooks to get the job done. Gentile also admitted that he had learned a lot about being a kitchen leader since he started at Buca and that his management style had changed.

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Gentile has worked in restaurants since he was a child, starting as a dishwasher in a diner in Ontario, Canada, when he was 13. He went to culinary school and worked at several Toronto restaurants before becoming chef of Buca in 2009. Buca was frequently featured on lists of Canada's best restaurants.

Zuccarini also opened Felix Trattoria in Venice, which is one of The Times' 101 Best Restaurants in L.A.

The allegations detailed in the documents reviewed by The Times also described Gentile as crass, sending sexually and racially disrespectful messages to co-workers and to group chats that included co-workers.

Workers put up the sign for the new restaurant called Stella outside the front of Stella.
Sarah Fiore, who will be the chef de cuisine at Stella, said she began working with Rob Gentile in high school, that he has always been a mentor for younger chefs and she feels no issues reuniting with her former boss. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

In a "chefs" Instagram group chat, Gentile messaged staff members who reported to him about a photo of a tattooed woman in a bikini, according to the investigative documents. Gentile speculated the woman was "drunk and high on coke" and made a crude reference to the woman having sex with multiple Black male partners, according to the messages.

In a separate instance, Gentile allegedly threatened one of his workers with crucifixion.

"If she doesn't do this, I'm going to put her on a crucifix with nails in her hands. I'm going to crucify her and hang her up there for everyone to see," Gentile wrote, according to the investigator.

Gentile denied sending the message, saying the investigator's recitation was "embellished."

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In other messages reviewed by The Times, Gentile threatened to choke and punch employees, which he initially denied to the independent investigator, according to her report.

Sarah Fiore, who will be the chef de cuisine at Stella, said she began working with Gentile in high school and that he has always been a mentor for younger chefs. She went on to work under Gentile at Buca in Toronto before opening her own restaurant.

Despite the allegations in the investigation, Fiore said she feels no hesitation about reuniting with her former boss.

"Rob was not a chef that promoted toxic behavior at all. He didn't stand for it. He is not a malicious person. He always wants to provide help to other chefs in the industry, not just ones working with him," Fiore told The Times. "Rob has spoken to me about the messages … He’s been remorseful of it and I don't think they’re a reflection of him at all. I've watched him grow and change."

Still the investigator found that even during her interview with Gentile, the chef was not totally forthcoming.

"Rob initially denied making the above comments including claiming that the allegations he wanted to punch someone were false and denying the Instagram posts even though such allegations were easily provable," the investigator wrote.

When confronted by the investigator with the messages, Gentile admitted to sending them.

"It's not acceptable, I will give you that," he told the her, according to her report. "I don't even realize in the moment that I'm writing these things to be honest with you. Looking back, it's obviously unacceptable. It's not okay. It's my vocabulary and the way it comes out, it's not okay."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.