Agio is a popular restaurant in the city's west end, known for its fresh ingredients and pure Italian recipes. He came highly recommended, as a more Toronto story was hard to find. Raised in South Korea, worked in Japan, trained in Italy and settled in Toronto. After treating us to a few wonderful meals, Marino himself obliged us with an interview.
Sadi: So I just want to start by asking you how business is going. How's business these days?
Marino: Very good.
SM: How long have you guys been here? This location?
M: This one here, we had for 7 years.
SM: And has business always been good or at the beginning...was it a little bit rough, how was it?
M: Ugh...when I start at the beginning...it was terrible.
SM: Oh yeah. For how long?
M: Umm...for a couple of years.
SM: Ok so what changed? Just took some time?
M: Uhh no. It was not. When we open the restaurant, 3 months later...3 or 6 months. However, this is an Italian restaurant.
SM: Uhh yes.
M: And you see me? (laughter). I am not Italian if you could not tell. So, I have been doing the managing, the cooking, the everything. And actually people see me, and then they stand up and walk out. You know why? Everyone talked about this place thinking it was a Chinese restaurant.
SM: So I have a question. Why did you decide to open up an Italian restaurant then?
M: I worked in Italian restaurants for 37 years. Only Italian cuisine. I'm old.
Andrew: Oh wow. You have done very well sir.
M: You know what? You know why I do well?
M: Make a fresh food. And make it nice. Happy to customer. That's why people come.
SM: So 37 years ago, why did you decide to go into the restaurant industry? Why not another kind of industry?
M: I was in civil engineering before. I did the high school and I did the university. But then I changed my whole career when I was doing military service.
SM: So what was the reason for changing? You did not like civil engineering?
M: No no no no no.
AD: Can I ask, was this in Canada or in South Korea?
M: South Korea. So in South Korea, I was working 3 years in military service. I had a big issue with it. That's why I said, change. So yeah, let's try cooking school.
SM: So was the cooking school in South Korea or in Italy?
M: No, in South Korea. So I did that. I worked in a hotel and then I went to Japan. And then the Japanese government sent me to Italy.
SM: That's interesting.
M: Because of the, we went to Italy in 1991. Canadian people sent 24 people in 1990. American people did it in 1989. 24 people. For 30 years in Japan even until today, and at the time, I was very lucky. So I went to Torino. There was a cooking school. I did the...well at the time, 23 people, Japanese people went. I was the only Korean. I did 6 months there. I worked for 7 years in Italy. You don't need to write this down though. This is my legend. I worked in Japan for 6 years. Tokyo, 5 years. Very famous Sicilian restaurant there. We had around 300 seats in there.
SM: Oh wow.
M: Everyday, it was busy. Everyday, people lined up. Two restaurants.
SM: So what's the story behind the restaurant's name? Agio. Is there a story behind that?
M: Yes. Agio means...actually "at home." ‘Be comfortable’ is the meaning. Because the Agio actually translated, the Italian people cannot say the "Ag" to mean their home. They will say "casa" as in "casa mia." Casa Mia would mean "my house." "Casa" is a house. But this doesn't mean they are at home. However, when you say "Agio," it means the literal Italian translation is "at home." Be comfortable is what it means.
SM: I see.
M: Also why does it start with A? When you write down the "A" for restaurants. "A" is the 1st letter and the first thing that comes up. "G" is the 7th. "I" is number 9. So my restuarant, when you type, it will be on top.
AD: Oh that's very smart.
M: Marketing. Seriously. Acura? Why do they say Acura?
SM: "A" and "C."
M: You see. More common when you are looking for a car writing down the AC. It comes out of 4th. Avante? And then another thing is the Audi. Why do they say...why they name...why are they choosing the A? Because people's brains are very simple. However, when you said the common word "A" starts with "A." They say Oh! Acura. Audi.
SM: What's the most popular dish here?
SM: Is there a specific pasta dish? Which pasta one?
M: Hmm actually the lobster pasta, the lobster ravioli. Most popular.
SM: Which is the one you are the most proud of?
M: I am very proud of the lobster ravioli actually. I first made it when I was in Italy. Sardinia actually. Sardinia I landed. So the northeast side, called the Costa Smeralda. The most beautiful place. I was working there. I landed there the first time.
SM: Is there anything you want to serve but is not in the menu?
M: No actually. In my head, there is lots of kinds of pasta dishes. So... who is the regular customers? They don't even see the menu. And then they just say... (laughter). I can make whatever.
SM: So I'm curious, why did you choose to open a restaurant in Toronto? It seems like you have been in a lot of different countries. Did you ever think about opening up a restaurant in South Korea or Tokyo? Why did you choose to settle in Toronto.
M: My daughter is starting her career here. That's why.
SM: If you are not at this restaurant and it looks like you are here every day, you always look busy but if you go out to eat, where do you go out to eat in Toronto. What kind of restaurant?
M: I like French restaurants. I like the Italian restaurants. I like...also the popular foods.
SM: Which French or Italian restaurant do you like in Toronto? Can you say? Can you give us one? Just give us one.
M: Canoe is very nice. The one on TD tower. That one is over 15 years old. But now, they changed it. I like that place.
SM: Do you...read reviews about your restaurant? Do you pay attention to this sort of thing?
M: Uhh now...no. Because, umm I adjusted the...well reviews are ok. However, umm...I know the good chefs in the world. The European chefs. They...for example they are from Michelin 3 star restaurants. And then next year, he knew he won the gold but it was a stressful life. He was suicidal. Actually this year, they are just genuinely happy now because they just know they are Michelin quality.
SM: So if you think you read that stuff, it will just make you more stressed?
M: It is stressful to think about reviews. However, I can say ok. You know what? Forget about the review. Who is coming to my restaurant? Customers. Just make your food fresh. Make it nice. That's it. That's a very simple way to make customers happy. Simple. And then what? Some people, they come down, they want to review and only leave a bad review to write down. You know what? I don't have time for that. If you want to come down, have a seat and worry if you will like the dishes, even then, we talk to customers and make sure no customers have food allergies and then we ask that all the time. Also, I make all the food. I don't have a cook inside. It's just only me. I do it all.
SM: You do all of the...everything? You do...everything?
M: Ya. Weekly, most times I do. However, sometimes on Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I might have a cook come down to help me. Because also, those times, people are walking in or call me. Sorry about that. You have to wait for half an hour. Otherwise food quality will go down. Honestly, you know, if you are only looking for money...no no...no thank you. I want people to come here and make them happy. They eat a nice meal. That is my goal. That is what makes me happy.
SM: What is your favorite part about the job?
M: It's the cooking! The cooking! (laughter)
SM: What's your least favorite part of the job?
M: Uhh...first of all...the cleaning! (laughter) And keeping organized? You guys might be laughing. However inside the kitchen. Clean. Organized. It's very important. Cooking is ok. When you are organized and clean, you can cook. Otherwise, you not, then you are a mess. Than you cannot cook. People do not know, simple, basic things. People forget. Ok. Let me explain. You are a mechanic. Mechanic has a lot of tools. So if your tools are everywhere...Oh, I need my wrench. Where is my wrench? Oh I need something else? Where is that? No, no, no! You cannot be working like that. Very organized. Whatever job, I think we need to be organized.
AD: So we wanted to ask you, you have been in the restaurant industry for 37 years. What would you say is the best piece of advice you got that helped you when you were starting out? What's something that someone told you about cooking or being in the restaurant industry?
M: Well in Italy, they help me a lot. My place here. I have 3 pictures. In Sardinia, on the Costa Smeralda. It was called the Porto Cervo. It is a world famous place. At the time, I learned a lot. Then, when I finished the work - at the time I had little speaking of Italian and English. So I had the recorder - 2-3 hours during the busy time, I put it there. I listened to it again, what people are saying, even though I wouldn’t understand. Recording that, I play again and I ask what is the meaning? I bothered people a lot. Seriously. They said, "Get lost. Please. I'm busy." However, if you not understand what they are saying, then how to work? It's very important to understand. Even though I did not speak English and they did not speak a lot, they spoke Italian. After that, for the work, I make one dish. Then I'm tasting it. Then somebody give it to me and asks "How was it?" Then I ask them, "So?" For 7 years, when you finish work, you make one dish. One year. There is 365 days. So, 365 dishes. I made 1 dish every day, for 7 years. So whatever you can make. That's how I learned. I learned a lot actually. Also weekend, I worked at different places and different restaurants. Taste different cuisines. Very helpful to me. When I'm cooking, no problem.
SM: Did anyone ever say something to you that you remember? Anything that really stuck with you?
M: Oh my chef told that it is important to use fresh ingredients. You have to make food with heart. Make it a nice dish. And people will come back again!
SM: And if someone was going to open up a restaurant, let's say me or him and we came to you for advice, what piece of advice would you tell us?
M: Uhh...I don't know. There is so many people that finish cooking school. And then, they also come to the restaurants. I had 3 or 4 people try coming here. They say I graduated from CIA. You know the CIA?
AD: Yes. The Culinary Institute of America?
M: Yes. Thank you. Then people come down, they have the experience and they say "I want to work in here." I ask them in interview two questions:
1) Can you tell me the 5 kinds of mother sauces?
2) Can you tell me how to make hollandaise sauce?
No answer to that. They go 4 years in cooking school to graduation. They don't know mother sauces or the 5 kinds. Oh my god. It is a surprise. Even though they know how to make the hollandaise sauce. However, how many egg yolks do you need? How many butter do you need? They don't know those. I don't know about these North American cooking schools.
SM: Has the neighbourhood changed much in the last 7 years? Any new restaurants or restaurants close?
M: Yes lots of restaurants, they close.
SM: Is the neighbourhood better now for restaurants or is it worse now than it was 7 years ago?
M: My customers are from outside the neighbourhood. Some people from the States. Italian people a lot. Also, the I don't know...Windsor. People from Windsor come here. I'm surprised. People from Windsor come here regularly. They bring their mother and father and girlfriend. And then they come down. I surprise. You want to eat some dish. It has an appetizer. And then, they eat the pasta and meat dish. Also you came here last time. Remember the appetizer? It's called the - served it as amuse-bouche.
M: What is amuse-bouche?
AD: Happy in your mouth.
M: Ya. Happy in your mouth. That's good. (laughter). You gotta know the food things. How to talk to people. Talk to people who have more knowledge and learn. You asked me what the meaning of my restaurant is. That's good. But you have to know already. And then, oh! I like that you guys asked me about my restaurant name - Agio. I went to Buca, the restaurant. So I ask the people. What does it mean - Buca? (laughter)
AD: Well I don't know.
M: Seriously, I ask them that. The waiters, the cooks. What is Buca? Very famous Italian restaurant. What is the name of its meaning? I know already but I ask them. They did not have an answer.
AD: So what does it mean?
M: Hole. So like Bucatini pasta. So "buca" means "hole." Please. You work in your company. You don't know what it means and you are working there? You working better? I don't think so. What? My mind is a little old but I educated in the old mind. Old things. I am by myself. I go to the market. I buy my food and buy it myself. I now am older than that. I went to the - what is it called. The butcher. I see. I like it, I buy it.
SM: How much sleep do you get?
M: Why? (laughter)
SM: because it sounds like you don't get enough. 4, 5 or 6 hours maybe at most.
M: So. Everyone who calls me today - I say I open today. Excuse me I just told you. We open one year. 400 days of the year. (laughter) You think I'm joking? I'm not joking. I open the Christmas. I open Thanksgiving Day. I open the New Years Day. Most busy time. My restaurant.
SM: That makes sense.
M: And then summer, until I serve 1 o' clock, 12 o'clock midnight.
SM: Anyways we are finishing up. So Marino, thank you for your time. Thank you chef!
M: Ok. Ciao! Ciao!
1351 St. Clair Ave W