by Andrea Chiu, Contributor
Feast Executive Chef Curt Martin has a resume that includes some of Toronto’s most recognizable restaurants: The Drake, Harbord Room and Byblos. Making the jump from busy restaurant kitchens to a very different environment at Feast just made sense to Curt for the next phase of his career. I sat down with him to talk about his new role, the challenges unique to working at a food startup and where he finds inspiration.
Q&A with Curt Martin, Executive Chef
You were the chef de cuisine and co-owner of The Harbord Room. Feast is very different, tell us how you made the jump from a popular restaurant to a food delivery startup.
It was a better decade of working with Cory Vitiello and we made a lot of great music together, but I was thinking about the second half of my career. What are the things that I want? First and foremost, I was trying to find a work-life balance. The restaurant industry is what it is, but I'm married and I have a son. I just knew that it was time to move on.
I had been given a job ad by a friend who introduced me to Steven and Trish. After several meetings with them, I started to understand what they wanted to do. I knew what I could do food-wise. I wanted to be in a more creative position. I wanted to start passing things on to younger cooks. I saw the scope of this place and what it can actually offer.
Can you give me an example of how you approach a dish at Feast versus how you would approach it at The Harbord Room?
In a conventional restaurant, if somebody is coming in—whether it's a regular or a VIP — you can always create a special dish for them, just on the fly. You hand it to them and you get their response. We don't have that luxury at Feast. There are so many things that we have to test. Can we fit this in the packaging? Is it going to hold up in the packaging? If it's a hot item, how are we making sure that it stays at the optimal temperature when it gets to the customer?
Now that you have more work-life balance, what do you do outside of the kitchen?
I spend time with my family. When I’m by myself, cycling. I listen to a lot of music. From house to hip-hop to jazz, whatever. I’ll put on Bob Dylan and Tom Waits or Lou Reed just to guide me to what I'm looking for if I’m trying to create a new dish. Their songwriting is beautiful and somehow, listening to their music, pulls my ideas out.
Where else do you look? To other certain cookbooks or chefs?
My wife and I go to New York three times a year. Those are great missions for me. We don’t even go for the contemporary restaurants and current chefs. I like to get outside of what's cool and focus on cultural pockets. Maybe a Jewish or Italian neighbourhood. I try to really explore what their foods are and find inspiration there.
Obviously, there are a bunch of chefs in Toronto that I think are great. I still hop in and see what Craig is doing at Campagnolo, or what Grant is up to at Bar Raval and guys like Scott Vivian [at Beast] and Cory at The Harbord Room. Toronto is a great city for that because there are so many great restaurants operating now.
So, why Feast (and not a conventional restaurant kitchen) as your next step?
What appealed to me about Feast was that it was completely outside the box of what's happening. It's not a conventional restaurant, it's an opportunity to really get out that lane and start focusing on something that is maybe a little more humble on the surface.
We wanted to represent the city without being heavy handed and feeling like we’re just trying to check all the boxes. We didn’t want to be like, “we're going to do a Korean dish, and now we're going to do an Ethiopian dish.”
Our kitchen has a lot of different cultural backgrounds. We try to figure out how to mine this. Veronica is Indian and Randy is Filipino. We got Jimmy and he’s Chinese, Gideon is from Ethiopia, Niraj is from India, Ilan and Michelle are both Jewish — and it's great because it's … Toronto.
They have a lot of their own cultural history of cooking and food. We get to use it and get everyone to be a part of the menu. We don't want it to be hokey, but we want to be able to deliver different flavours. We want to be able to represent the city. It's like we're not an Italian restaurant, we're not a Spanish restaurant, we're not really a restaurant.
It's not like we're trying to be a pizza-pasta joint. We don’t have to work with a blueprint, we can do whatever we want.