Chef Matty Matheson’s Pandemic Pivot

We chatted with the Toronto chef about bespoke tailoring, his shift from Toronto fine-dining to hometown southern barbecue, plus his new book.

By: Ben Kriz
Matty at home, on Blue Goose Farm, in his new bespoke Harry Rosen suit.

Toronto chef, entrepreneur, YouTube cooking show sensation, New York Times best-selling author and father Matty Matheson is never far from a new project. The cheerful and charismatic man-about-town is notorious for having several projects on the go at once, including his popular, freewheeling YouTube cooking segments, a massive music festival, and now his second cookbook with Matty Matheson’s Home Style Cookery.

From humble beginnings at Humber College’s culinary program, Mattheson bounced around the Toronto restaurant scene, starting out under the tutelage of chef Rang Nguyen at Le Sélect Bistro to becoming the executive chef at Parkdale’s Parts and Labour, partying hard the whole way through. His shouty yet charming personality caught the eye of VICE, who asked him to shoot a cooking segment for their Munchies video channel. After shooting a short segment in his cramped apartment about cooking burgers on your stove, life changed. Suddenly he was doing more videos for VICE, late-night talk show appearances with dozens of other new opportunities banging on his door. “Obviously, getting sober changed everything in my life for the better. It unlocked a lot of fucking doors that I put in my way,” he deadpans.

And after all this success, Matheson is looking to get back into restaurateuring with an as-yet-unnamed fine-dining restaurant on Queen Street. But, like nearly everybody else in the world, the pandemic changed his plans. However, it didn’t slow him down. It only secluded him to his farm in his hometown of Fort Erie, with his wife, Trish, and their two children –– from where he could plot his continued world domination.

Meanwhile, in what seems like a lifetime ago, we invited Matty into our Bloor Street store to outfit him in his first-ever bespoke suit. We caught up with him recently and talked about his interest in tailoring, how to wear a suit but not look like a suit, his never-say-die entrepreneurial spirit and his new book.

You mentioned to me when you came in for the fitting that you don’t get to wear suits often, but you do like to wear them and appreciate tailoring. Where does that interest come from?

To be honest, I never saw a larger guy, you know – a big boy – in a suit that looked good. Then I saw my buddy Tony Sylvester, and my buddy Ben [Phillips], who is actually a manager at one of the Drake’s stores in the UK –– I saw those two guys from a distance, and I just saw how stylish they looked as bigger guys.

I always took my fashion nods from punks or hippies, but I think just being inspired by a few people like, they’re doing this; they can make it look cool and comfortable; they can make it look sharp! They’re wearing things that fit them and make their shape look proper. Every time I needed a suit, I’d like go down to, you know, [the suit warehouse] or whatever and get something that makes me look like a kid going to Communion. I never knew that you could dress well at my size. But then, I never had the money to get a bespoke suit, like a real bespoke suit.

I started getting into suits, probably like three years ago. I started being like, I’m going to start pre-emptively getting suits. Because every time I’m getting a suit, it’s like I’m playing defense, right? Oh, I have a wedding. I need a suit. Oh, I’m getting married. I need a suit. Then, I switched my mentality to be like, no, I need to be prepared to look good. It takes time and consideration.

This my first actual bespoke suit. Before, I was getting made-to-measure. This is also my first experience with Harry Rosen, which has been amazing.

You also mentioned that you’ve made some mistakes in trying to have your suits be as loud as your personality.

At first, you don’t know what your personal style is. You don’t know what your colours are; you don’t know what your shapes are. I was the guy that would get like, a purple suit and all these like wild suits. And then at one point, I was just like, what the fuck am I doing? I just want stuff that’s less loud and more iconic, right? That comes with maturity. I want something that I could wear multiple times, but not something I would only wear for Instagram.

Even with this [Harry Rosen] suit, I sent a photo of the suit to my homie in New York, Ben Levy, who used to work at Drake’s too, and he gave me the idea. He was just like dude, you look like a fucking Dallas oilman in that suitIt seems like you’d wear cowboy boots with that! So I rocked these sick snakeskin cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and no tie. It looked smart. I went out for dinner to this really nice spot in that outfit, and that was incredible.

So now I think I’m on a journey of just getting suits that I can wear forever that are timeless with classic cuts with classic materials and classic patterns. Even with this suit, it’s a beautiful chalk-line blue suit. It’s just like one of those things that looks like your dad would wear to the office –– but it’s just a step above.

Bespoke is a collaborative effort. Our Bloor Street bespoke team worked with Matty to get him into exactly what he was looking for.

That’s the great thing; the styling can pull a suit in a lot of different ways. You were pretty involved in the punk and hardcore music scene when you were coming up. There seems to be a not-insignificant number of former hardcore kids, like your friends you just mentioned, who are drawn to menswear. Why do you think that is?

People come from all walks of life, and I think that’s why. People in punk and hardcore – no one likes to say it but – it’s heavily fashion. People are influenced by a lot of different things –– you’re dressing like you’re a street punk, you’re dressing like…there are so many different kinds of styles and periods from wearing sportswear to wearing vintage to wearing army surplus all the way down to the details like how you wear your socks. I think it’s people that are just into vintage, into looking good, into style as a whole. Some people are into country music, and some people are into menswear. It draws who it draws.

My friends Tony and Ben, they used to play in a band together and Tony is in this band Turbonegro now. You know, it’s an iconic band [in the punk scene] –– their whole thing is fashion. They’re very androgynous, they’re wearing lipstick and makeup, and you don’t know if they’re queer or not. And then he goes and works in menswear, and he’s wearing beautiful Portuguese sports jackets with corduroy and loafers and silk scarves and like, just making it look effortless. No matter where you are, no matter what style; if you see a bunch of people dressed well, you’re just like, damn that guy’s got style! Anyone could buy a suit. But it’s all how you are wearing it, you know?

“I’m not afraid to fail. I’ve closed every single one of my restaurants before. I’ve had no money in my 30s. I know what it’s like to have nothing, so I choose to get up every day and work as hard as I possibly can.”

This year has been challenging for a lot of people, yourself included. You were getting ready to open a new fine-dining restaurant in Toronto and then you had to change course into something quite different by serving barbeque in your hometown of Fort Erie with Matty Matheson’s Meat + Three. What has that been like for you?

It’s been a learning experience for everybody but especially in the restaurant business. The fine-dining restaurant, it isn’t on hold, it’s still being built, but we’re just three months behind. Hopefully, we’ll open in a couple of months and … who knows! Like, legitimately who fucking knows!

Doing the meat and three is this something that kind of happened very serendipitously where I called these guys at Kendale Products (a barbecue distribution company that happens to be in Fort Erie) up like, should we just use some of the equipment you guys have and serve barbecue and make some home cookin’ and sell it out of your showroom? It’s just one of those things where it was just kind of like it happened. You know, it was kind of at the end of lockdown [in late April] so people could travel a little bit. People really wanted to go as there weren’t a lot of restaurants back open serving food yet.

Within two weeks, we were serving barbecue, and people were coming back to work. At one point, we had like 20 employees. It was one of those things where I was amazed that we’re getting people jobs, we’re feeding people, we’re getting people excited. Everyone has been in lockdown for three months. We made lemonade [out of lemons]. And people kept coming and everyone was working hard and the food was good.

It must have been nice to cook in your hometown.

It was amazing. I never thought in a million years that I’d cook food in Fort Erie. It’s one of the coolest things. It’s crazy moving back here. Now all I want is to have a restaurant for my kids to grow up going to. I loved to go to my grandparents’ restaurant when I was a kid. I really want to try to figure out is how to have [my own] place that lasts. And Fort Erie just makes sense. I live here. My family lives here. My wife is from here. I’m from here. Our next kid is going to be born here. Cooking here was and is a special thing.

You’ve always had a lot of projects going on at once. Where does that drive come from?

I think that what I’ve learned in business is that you constantly have to throw three to five balls up in the air because you’re going to land one or two. If you only got one ball up in the air and it doesn’t go, then what do you do? So, I’m always trying to just focus on building out little businesses and little plans and little projects.

And I just keep going. I get ideas, and I want to do stuff. My dad was an entrepreneur. At a young age, I saw the risk of what he was doing –– he was always willing to risk it, and sometimes we had good times, and sometimes we had good times with just a little less stuff. My dad taught me at a very young age –– you’re not special; nobody cares about you, you’ve got to make it for yourself, and you’re only as good as your last idea. I’m not afraid to fail. Not afraid to lose it. I’ve closed every single one of my restaurants before. I’ve had no money in my 30s. I know what it’s like to have nothing, so I choose to get up every day and work as hard as I possibly can.

You’ve got to work hard at it. Nothing’s given to you. You know, that’s why I work every friggin’ day all-day –– but you get what you give.

You’ve managed to have a lot of success while staying true to yourself, which not everybody can do. How do you think that has happened?

I think a lot of people identify with who I am and how I do things. I’m not afraid to talk about real shit. Some people are happy about it; some people aren’t. I’m my own boss. I don’t have any meetings about like, should we be political or non-political? Should we talk about this, or should we not? I just go off the top about everything. I don’t care. And if people don’t want to work with me, then they don’t have to work with me.

I’m not really pushed by money. I’m pushed by doing things. My endgame is not financial; I want to create. I want to write books. I want to open restaurants. I want to serve people food. I want to make clothes one day. I don’t know if they’re going to make money –– you never do. I just want to do the projects. I’m not one of those guys who feel sorry for himself. And I’m not one of those guys who blames other people for their problems.

On that note, tell me about the book. It’s all about home cooking. It seems pretty well-timed.

Obviously, I didn’t have the pandemic planned, but it’s just like something that makes sense. My first book is my story through a culinary lens –– my life, my timeline, my grandparents. Then I was thinking, what’s my next book? Well….most of my fans aren’t expert cooks, or they’re amateur best. Why don’t I give them a book? You’ll learn how to bake bread, you’ll learn how to make stock for soups, you’ll learn how to make sauces and dips, and pickles and vegetable dishes and meat, and learn how to smoke or grill fish and vegetables. I think that this book will allow people to get excited about cooking, and to take their time and to develop recipes and make them their own.

There are a bunch of recipes in the book where I say, here’s a quick tip. Here’s how to make crispy pork belly –– and that’s it. The book gets you to do whatever you want to do. Then you can take one of the sauces from an earlier chapter and use it with the pork belly. The whole idea of the book is you can make your own dinner from 12 chapters. Within these 12 chapters, you literally have 135 different recipes so you can make endless amounts of dinners or lunches or breakfasts or whatever you want to do.

Maybe this book is a book that triggers people to really start cooking. Now that everyone is at home, people are trying to push themselves into cooking more and cook differently and use spices they’ve never used or techniques they’ve never used. I just want to throw my hat in the ring; I’m just trying to get people cooking.

What, for you, is the key to cooking at home?

Cooking at home is planning your picnic. You know, make sure you got everything you need. And at the same time, I don’t understand when people are following a recipe, and they get so frustrated because I can’t find this herb or that spice for this piece of meat. There are so many different options. Maybe you don’t have basil, but you can use mint or parsley. It really doesn’t matter. It does change the dish, but it generally cooks the same. I’m giving people a wheel, and I want them to take the wheel, understand the wheel, and then they can start painting it whatever colour they want.

What’s your favourite thing to eat in the fall?

At home yesterday, I made a white lasagna. Sausage instead of beef, lots of spinach, Béchamel sauce, a little nutmeg, some basil –– so it’s a white kind of lasagna instead of the tomato-based version. We made that, and it was so warming…things like roasts or casseroles or even stews, like a nice lamb stew. I love eating a big bowl of ramen or wonton noodle soup. I’m a broth guy, a soup guy.

It’s been a pretty fraught year around the world. Do you feel lucky to be in your little sanctuary here in Canada these days?

I’m proudly Canadian. I’ll say that I’m very happy that I made the decision to move out of Toronto. I chose quality of life over living in the city. I travel into Toronto every week, but you know I come home, and I’m surrounded by my trees and my garden and my family. There’s nothing –– no city in the world could give me the feels that I feel when I actually come home.

I left the city two years ago, and I was scared. We were in the city for 18 years. The city was my life through been multiple careers. And then just, yo man, I legitimately can’t afford to buy a million-dollar teardown. I don’t think a lot of people can. My money went a lot further back home. And you know, I ended up being able to get something that’s beautiful. It totally depends on where you’re at and what you need, but, you know, I needed a sanctuary. And I got one.

Matty Matheson’s Home Style Cookery is available to buy from Abrams Books.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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