T.O.’s secret chef ready to go public
Matt Kantor on secret pickles, ghost chefs and when he plans on opening his own place already
The name Matt Kantor has been slowly swirling in Toronto foodie circles in recent months. But after his recent 23-course el Bulli tribute meal (a celebration of the haute cuisine created at chef Ferran Adria’s now-shuttered restaurant in Catalonia, Spain) at the Cookbook Store in Yorkville, the tech-savvy chef is one of the hottest names in town, and he doesn’t even have his own restaurant ... yet.
Kantor is the personification of two of this city’s cultural obsessions: social media and cooking. The 42-year-old chef has launched a novel way to reach both an online audience and hungry diners in one fell swoop. The Secret Pickle Supper Club, Little Kitchen and Ghost Chef are three separate ventures Kantor founded after moving to Toronto in 2008 (www.mattkantor.ca). Each business leverages social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, to gain the attention of a dining audience looking for new experiences.
What does a chef know about social media? Pre-apron, Kantor worked as a software developer, which he says came in handy — particularly for designing web pages and social media apps.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about how to get to people who don’t know about me,” he says. “It’s both the message and how to get people to pay attention.” And pay attention they have — largely thanks to Kantor’s social media savvy.
The Little Kitchen brings a fine dining experience to your home or business for a planned event. The Secret Pickle is an underground supper club that descends upon venues across Toronto to host themed dinners such as “sweet versus savoury” and “contemporary vegan.”
“I love the idea that he moves around the city, bringing the food to you (or your neighbourhood), and collaborating with chefs and venues.” says Dick Snyder, editor of City Bites, a Toronto magazine dedicated to the city’s food and wine scene. “What he’s doing is demonstrating that a chef can be more than a cook. He’s an inventor, an innovator, and idea guy. He's educating himself and his customers, and breaking the mould of how we think of dining out in Toronto. His events are also really good value.”
But perhaps most intriguing of all, Ghost Chef features Kantor making house calls to prepare a gourmet meal and leaving before the guests arrive — allowing the client to take all the credit.
What all of Kantor’s ventures have in common, though, are the impressive followings they’ve gained using Twitter and e-mail.
When Kantor moved to Toronto as a software architect, he developed a Facebook app — a cooking contest whose winners won a meal for four cooked by him. One of the winners was Alexa Clark, the founder and publisher of CheapEats Restaurant Guide, who was so impressed with his dinner she hired him on for a birthday party. The party turned into the first Secret Pickle dinner, and Clark became co-founder of the supper club.
“The contest showed up as an ad in my sidebar,” Clark remembers. “I don’t generally read the ads, but it caught my eye, and I was certainly the target audience, so I entered and I won. “I tell people, ‘I won Matt on Facebook.’”
Kantor was born in Wappingers Falls, New York, and grew up in the Hudson Valley area with two younger sisters. It wasn’t until Kantor was at college in Albany, studying physics and math, that he took an interest in cooking. He and his housemate would dine at a local Indian restaurant and try to replicate each dish at home. Kantor also travelled a lot in his early 20s with a buddy who worked in the wine business. While Kantor’s friend was only interested in the wine, Kantor says he was “blown away” by the food.
“I saw what amazing food should be — especially in Italy where it is so simple,” Kantor says.
Pursuing a career in IT and consulting for 15 years allowed him the financial means to continue travelling and tasting food.
Finally burnt out from the grind of the tech world and ready for change, Kantor went to chef school at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Upon graduating, Kantor worked at the fine dining restaurant Picholine in New York City. He says he did a bit of everything and learned how to create great food with a small team.
While Kantor was building up his cooking resumé, he kept a foot in the tech world. When an opportunity came up in Washington — on the IT side — Kantor took it and kept his cooking skills sharp by catering ad hoc dinners in D.C. It was at one of these dinners where Kantor met his future wife, a Canadian journalist. The two have been married for just over two years and are quite at home in Toronto.
And, yes, he plans to open a restaurant soon but can’t say where or when. “The wheels are turning,” he says, although he doesn’t have the property for it yet. But, he does know he would like his space to be in Leslieville or on Dundas Street West, where he feels his concept would fit in.
For now, Kantor says he’s happy bringing the kitchen to his diners. He says it keeps him on the edge, always thinking of creative ways to throw events in spaces that aren’t designed for making meals. He’s served an 11-course dinner from a tiny kitchen in a bachelor pad; he’s made gourmet meals in a Cabbagetown jewellery store; and he’s served a five-course Argentinian supper in a downtown coffee shop.
When it comes to Ghost Chef, Kantor doesn’t take any credit at all for the meal he designs — it all goes to the host who has hired him. During the actual dinner, if Kantor is around, he poses as a server and busses the meal.
“I don’t do complicated food,” Kantor says. “I make it as ready as possible, and I teach them [the hosts] tricks to impress their guests when they show up — I’ll teach people how to drizzle sauce on a plate.”
The margin for error in this line of work can be thin, though.
“One time a guest arrived earlier than expected, and I had to hide upstairs in a spare bedroom,” Kantor says, laughing.