Ever wondered what it feels like when your heart stops? Chef Robbie Hojilla knows.
When I ask him about the "June 09-2012" tattoo on his forearm, his giddy demeanor suddenly turns serious.
"That's the date my heart stopped," Robbie says. "I have an enlarged heart, which does not pump well and, in 2011, they put a defibrillator in because it can start beating super quick. I don't really like to talk about it."
I begin to tell him that we don't have to discuss such a personal topic. He interrupts: "Fuck it. Let's talk about it."
"Everything just went black and fuzzy and spotty during service at Ursa," he recounts. "I collapsed on the ground, banged my head, and the defibrillator re-started my heart and saved my life."
After more than a decade working in some of Toronto's most respected kitchens, Robbie, like many chefs, had learned to push through the mental and physical barriers that stand between pain and a successful service.
"I didn't know the symptoms of heart conditions at that point. My chef was like, 'You're going to the fucking doctor.' The doctor gave me an X-ray and said you have to go to the emergency room right now. I was in the hospital for two months; it's been a tough battle."
That tough battle is even tougher because his passion could potentially kill him. "This job isn't the most friendly to this type condition, but it's what I love doing, so it's a constant struggle. People have wanted me to quit for years now, but I just couldn't do it."
Robbie has cut down significantly on his hours on the line and has finally been given the chance to synthesize all of his influences at Toronto's Lake Inez. His classical French and Italian technique are on full display, but he's also tapping into his Filipino roots and the insane variety of cuisines that was available to him growing up in the suburbs of Toronto.
"At first, I thought we were just going to make dirty Asian food and serve beers here," he laughs. "I mean 'dirty Asian food' as in something you can just crush; nothing is super composed."
The food at Lake Inez in Toronto is anything but dirty, even in the broad sense employed by Robbie. But his menu is definitely a marked departure from those of the modern French and Italian kitchens he's worked in the past, or from any other kitchen, for that matter. It's a kind of Euro-Filipino interpretation of pan-Asian cuisine.
Dishes like Japanese deviled eggs and market fish kinilaw, a Filipino ceviche served with cassava chips, exist harmoniously alongside Sichuan pappardelle in lamb shank ragu with peanuts and cucumber.
"I'm not a traditionalist because I didn't grow up in Asia. I grew up in Scarborough and I studied French and Italian cooking, so that's what is authentic to me. I spent years learning these French and Italian techniques, so I don't want to throw them out. But I also love Asian foods. Is it modern Asian? Is it fusion? I don't hate the term 'Asian fusion,' I embrace it. I'm going out of my way to fuse things. Like the Chinese-Italian pasta; I just want to fuck with people a little bit."
Part of that creative process means not getting hung up on the contentious concept of authenticity. "There are a lot of people who only eat 'authentic' Asian or whatever cuisine, which is fine. But a lot of people of my generation were born in Canada or grew up here. I can't even relate to how it was 'back home' traditionally."
It also means embracing a culture that he was once embarrassed of: his own. "When I was young, the word that got thrown around a lot was 'FOB' [fresh off the boat]. You didn't want to be a FOB," Robbie says. "I would make an effort to speak English without an accent and not feel weird, so maybe I assimilated a little too well and lost some of that. I didn't even know how to cook Filipino food. But when I was in Italy working, I got jealous of how proud they were of their cuisine, and was like, 'I want to feel like this about my own heritage!'"
To that end, Robbie is much more interested in creating a brief moment of nostalgia than a foamy, avant garde spin on Filipino classics—and he's not the only one reconnecting with his roots at Lake Inez.
"We had one woman say that the food made her wish that she kept closer contact with her family in the Philippines; it was a tender and tragic moment," says Lake Inez co-owner Zac Schwartz, who named his restaurant after a private lake in Michigan where he would spend time as a child. Schwartz's childhood was remarkably different from his chef's but they are ultimately gunning for the same thing: a sense of comfort and familiarity.
Schwartz says he hired Robbie because he was looking for a menu that "hadn't seen the light of day yet," and a chef capable of coming up with unique dishes like tagliatelle in a miso butter emulsion with smoked eggplant, maitake mushrooms, and Parmesan. For Schwartz, Robbie's ballsiness as a chef was not only attractive but uniquely Torontonian.
"I think the only thing authentic about being from Toronto is inauthenticity," Schwartz says. "You take a few different cultures and interpret them through your lens. Because it's not like we're going to have absolutely authentic Filipino food here; it's not possible. Robbie interprets the food through his family, his travels, and his palate. That is what is exciting about Toronto food, because you can taste something that you couldn't have tasted before."
But as with a lot of chefs, Robbie's expertise and ability to synthesize influences came at a significant cost. It also meant making some pretty drastic lifestyle changes, brought on by doctor's orders that included "stop fucking drinking!" The booze, he says, was relatively easy to give up; the sodium, not so much.
"The toughest one is the salt because you have to taste the food constantly. My palate is my strongest feature and I'm tasting things a fucking million times and adjusting the salt. The doctor was like, 'You have to think about whether this job is worth it.'"
"Sometimes I think I'm getting too old for this shit, but I'm not that old," Robbie says. "I definitely still want to be here for a few years but I don't think I'm going to do another chef grind after this. Maybe I'll become a clipboard chef in some huge corporate kitchen, but I think I'm done with independent restaurants. This restaurant may be my swan song."