By Scott Taylor
WINNIPEG — Assiniboia Downs executive chef Gerardo Tummillo knows exactly why the opening day brunch at is sold out. It’s all about his staff and his own personal experience at one of the most popular Italian restaurants in Winnipeg.
On Sunday, Mother’s Day, Assiniboia Downs kicks off its 62nd season of live thoroughbred racing with its annual Mother’s Day Brunch. However, if you don’t have a reservation, you’ll have to try to book a seat at the Mother’s Day dinner buffet which will start after racing has finished.
Brunch is sold right out, as it has every spring since Chef Tummillo took over at the Downs. And he is completely aware as to why that is.
“I think the food here is 10 times better than it’s ever been because I brought in an older staff,” Chef Tummillo said this week. “I have very experienced people who have immense pride in their food. They make me look good every day. They never miss work, they care about what they serve, they don’t do stupid things and they don’t worry about anybody else doing something stupid. These are people with mortgages and families and they really care.
“I simply instruct them. I show them my flavour profiles. I show them how I want things to look, how they should taste and the time it takes to create the dish and they’ve been executing from Day 1. That’s why our brunch and dinner seatings are, so often, sold out.”
Chef Tummillo has come a long way since he started working for his “Uncle Joe” at Colosseo Ristorante Italiano on Corydon Avenue. And to his credit, he learned a lot of lessons along the way.
“I was 19, working for my uncle at Colosseo playing junior hockey for the Seven Oaks Raiders and going to school,” he explained. “It was just a part-time job to pay for university, but one day I noticed that Uncle Joe’s chef was stealing. I looked into it, got rid of him and suddenly I was cooking. Just like that.
“I worked at Colosseo for about seven years for my uncle and then he came down with cancer. Suddenly I thought, ‘This restaurant business isn’t a bad way to make a living,’ so at 27, I figured out how to get a loan from a bank for $750,000 and filled out some government forms to get more money and bought Colosseo when I was 28.”
At 28, he had 52 employees and owed the bank $750,000, so he decided to bring in a partner. That’s not always a great idea.
“I brought a partner in and it was good for the first year, but as partnerships go it didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped,” he conceded. “So I negotiated a buyout and I left. But I owned Colosseo for four years.
“From there I went to Sorrento’s for a bit and found my way again and then I moved to the Convention Centre where I was banquet chef and sous chef and then I moved here. I worked for Chef Michael Keeler and when he left, I became executive chef. That was two years ago in June.”
Since then, Tummillo has put some his personal touch on the menu. But he admits he could never have done it without his staff.
“I have some special items,” he explained. “The root beer bar-b-que sauce, the bacon bourbon brownie, root beer brisket, those are really special items but because I have such a good staff, they make it to perfection. And because I have such a good staff, I can bring in very expensive food and there are no mistakes and therefore no waste. A lot of places don’t want to bring in certain high-priced items because they aren’t sure the staff can prepare them properly. I have no fear of that. I bring in the best quality beef and pork, the best quality products, and it’s not going to end up in the garbage. The people I have on staff are extremely skilled and many restaurants don’t have that luxury.”
With a great staff, it gives Tummillo plenty of time to bond with the customers at the Downs. Whether you’re a regular sitting in the betting carrels or a one-timer out with a group for brunch, it’s likely you’ve seen and chatted with Chef Tummillo.
“With my staff, it allows me time to get out front,” he said. “I can shake hands with our customers, walk around the dining room and get feedback. Today (at a special media luncheon) I went to every table and asked the customers about their experience. A lot of our success comes from what I learned from my uncle, Joe Rondinone, at Colosseo. You come out of the kitchen and speak to your customers, you walk around to every table
“As a result, everything we do now is selling right out. Our customers feel comfortable and if they have a problem, they know I’ll be right there to handle it.”
Live racing kicks off Sunday at 1:15 p.m. with free seeds courtesy of T & T Seeds to the first 1,000 moms (a spectacular flower mix), draws for gift baskets for moms and family fun for kids that includes a petting farm, bouncy castle, pony rides and face-painting. The first race goes to post at 1:30 p.m. and there are seven races on the card.