For someone who spends all day making spaghetti, tortellini and tagliatelle at work, Brent Genyk sure eats a lot of pasta at home.
"It’s my girlfriend’s go-to — pasta is her favourite for sure," Genyk says. "Obviously you can’t really go out or anything right now… but we’ll make a date night out of it and do some handmade pasta at home."
While the 31-year-old co-owner and head chef of Harth Mozza and Wine Bar doesn’t have any Italian heritage, he’s spent his entire career getting to know the cuisine and its traditions.
His first kitchen job was as a dishwasher, and later cook, at Bellissimo Restaurant and Lounge on Waverley Street.
"They had a lot of family involved there, like the chefs’ moms were really involved," he says. "That was the atmosphere I grew up in."
Genyk went to culinary school at Red River and was working at the Mitchell Block when he started dreaming of opening his own restaurant. He connected with his former Bellissimo boss, Greg Gagliardi, and together they opened Harth in 2017 — a simple, high-end Italian menu was an easy choice. Sous chef Brady Palmer is also an owner as of 2019.
For Genyk, the business is a return to his roots in more ways than one. He grew up in the south end of the city and his childhood home is a short drive away from the St. Vital restaurant. As a kid, dinner was always home cooked, but speed was a priority for the family of hockey players.
His love of food has grown along with his admiration for the communal side of Italian cooking. Genyk still remembers the first time he made gnocchi.
"I made it with one of the owner’s moms and luckily she was patient with me, but everything I did was wrong," he says with a laugh. "Eventually, I formed a really nice relationship with her and that’s part of the whole pasta process for me… and I think that’s what you see (at Harth) too; when the guys are making pasta, it’s a good chance to bond."
Making pasta with his co-workers every afternoon is as close as the chef-owner gets to a meditative state these days.
"You can’t really stop and start it," Genyk says of the pasta-making process. "In the restaurant, it’s really hard for me to get things done because I’m getting pulled in a lot of different directions, where with pasta, that’s the focus."
At home, it’s an opportunity for Genyk and his girlfriend Michelle to put a record on and slow down after a long day of work. The pandemic has shortened his work hours, which means the couple is eating dinner and cooking together more often. Michelle is pescatarian (a meat-free diet), so seafood and vegetarian dishes are staples and gnocchi in pomodoro sauce — a blend of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and fresh basil — hits all the right notes.
‘It’s super-quick, it’s easy and it has substance to it, being a vegetarian dish," he says. "And it’s just a good way to use some nice fresh local produce."
Spring is a period of anticipation for local fruit and vegetable connoisseurs in Manitoba, which makes the first batches of greenhouse-grown tomatoes from Greenland Gardens in St. Anne feel like an extra-special treat this time of year. Genyk tries to use the tomatoes, as well as basil from Winnipeg company Fresh Forage, in as many dishes as possible, at work and at home.
The pandemic and its effects on the global supply chain has forced Harth to look for more ways to work with local ingredients. When suppliers and producers in Italy had to shut down at the height of the country’s COVID-19 crisis, the boutique Winnipeg restaurant felt the ripple effect.
"Bringing in a lot of imported Italian stuff, like San Marzano tomatoes and olive oil… really slowed to a halt for a while," he says. "Luckily, a big part of our business is working with local purveyors in the city."
While Genyk is hot on the local tomato train right now, gnocchi can be paired with any kind of sauce. One component, however, is non-negotiable.
"Have a good potato ricer and rice your potatoes when they’re hot," he says. "Like, if you had to make gnocchi and had nothing, you could grate the potatoes, but a potato ricer is gonna make sure your potatoes are nice and fluffy and aren’t gonna have any lumps. Lumpy gnocchi sucks; nobody wants that."
Gnocchi in Pomodoro with chef Brent Genyk
Yield: 2 Portions
450 g (1 lb) riced Russet potatoes
120 g (1 cup) all-purpose flour
1 large egg yolk
45 g (1/2 cup) Parmesan, grated fine
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Semolina, for dusting
Put whole potatoes into pot and fill with enough water to cover.
Once potatoes are cooked through, cut in half and scoop out flesh into potato ricer and push through.
On a flat surface, mix together the flour, Parmesan and salt. Make a well in the middle and add the potatoes and egg; mix together with your fingers to form a soft dough. It should not stick to your hands.
Lightly dust a flat surface with semolina. Cut small amounts of dough to form ropes and cut into 2 cm pieces.
Sprinkle with a little bit of semolina and toss, so they don’t stick together.
In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the gnocchi; gnocchi are ready when they float to the top.
Drain, while reserving a small amount of pasta water to add to sauce with gnocchi.
1 796-ml (28-oz can) whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano, preferably)
125 ml (1/2 cup) olive oil, plus more for garnishing
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
150 g (1 cup) fresh local cherry tomatoes, quartered
6 leaves fresh basil
60 ml (1/4 cup) fresh ricotta
Kosher salt, pepper
Open a can of tomatoes and pour into a bowl. Using your hands, crush the tomatoes.
Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic, stirring often, cook until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.
Add crushed tomatoes and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes until sauce slightly thickens.
Add fresh tomatoes, gnocchi, pasta water and basil to sauce.
Adjust seasoning and simmer for one more minute.
Place in a serving bowl and garnish with more basil, dollops of ricotta, olive oil and Parmesan cheese.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.