Franco Stalteri on the evolution of Toronto's world-class dining scene

We sit down with boundary-pushing food entrepreneur and operator of the long-standing Charlie's Burgers supper club series Franco Stalteri to discuss the past, present and future of dining out in Toronto

charlie's burgers

Our city's culinary scene has blossomed exponentially in the last nine years. While Toronto was once known for its take-no-risks approach to food, it has since evolved into a world-class dining destination.

Franco Stalteri has witnessed this revolution first-hand – not as a restaurateur, but as owner and operator of the city’s longstanding Charlie’s Burgers supper club series.

Since 2009, Stalteri has hosted top chefs from Toronto and around the world in a series of underground dinners held throughout the city and abroad. With over 50 dinners under his belt, Stalteri has had a conductor’s viewpoint of Toronto’s maturation over the years.

I sat down with him recently at Café Boulud to chat about how far we’ve come as a city of food aficionados, and what the journey forward might look like.

The road to Charlie Burger’s was an interesting one for you.
Very much so. I was born and raised in Toronto, but spent a lot of time in my youth working in France at my aunt’s restaurant in Le Mans. Those culinary building blocks were quickly in place when I was in my early teens. I quickly gained an understanding of the way the industry worked and the people in it.

You wanted to be a chef?
No, not really. I went to university and then travelled for a bit. I became a headhunter in the restaurant industry. I was recruiting talent for luxury and fine dining properties in North America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. I would spend eight hours a day talking to chefs, five days a week. From the Daniel Bouluds to the Wolfgang Pucks, I got to know all these chef personalities. This was in the mid-2000s, and the culinary scene was much different back then.

How so?
There were innovative concepts for sure, but generally speaking there was a mould and everyone would fit in it. Restaurateurs and chefs were playing it safe for the most part.

Once in a while I would work with a restaurant that was experimenting with their food and service program and trying something new. But for every restaurant or chef that was forward thinking, there would be nine others that were risk averse. It was around then, in the mid-2000s, that we started to see the shift in dining as chefs slowly ventured out into new territory. Towards the late 2000s I found myself having regular conversations with chefs in which they would tell me that they’re itching to try something different.

The Internet and social media obviously opened up a gateway to more information and access. A lot of chefs wanted freedom.

I found myself in the middle of these conversations, trying to determine if there was something I could do.

What if I could galvanize these chefs?

But you didn’t want to open a restaurant?

Ha! No, definitely not. After spending so much time with people in the industry, the more you know, the scarier it gets. It’s a very tough landscape, and even if you get everything right, you still need a considerable amount of luck to succeed.

At the time we were already hosting supper clubs with friends. We’d hire a Toronto chef, start an email chain and have regular dinners where the chef would be able to cook whatever he or she wanted to cook. I wanted to see if we would be able to bring that concept to the masses.

What was Toronto dining like at the time?
So this was 2008. We were a very multicultural city but the neighbourhoods were too spread out. But it was a turning point. You started to see the emergence of a young group of chefs that wanted to break the mould. Restaurants like Lucien, the Black Hoof, the Harbord Room and Habitat.

The class of 2008 is fascinating to me because you had a group of young cooks that still had the work ethic instilled in them by the previous generation of chefs like Mark McEwan, Chris McDonald, Claudio Aprile and Marc Thuet, but they all wanted to explore cuisine beyond classic techniques.

Lots of those chefs cut their teeth at Centro.
Centro was the place for mentoring and breeding the next generation of chef at the time. I think there was also less of an influence from the Food Network, and since it was pre-social media, there were less distractions. You can feel that Toronto was going through some changes.

I used to live near the Ossington strip. I remember how bare it was, and then quickly Pizzeria Libretto and Reposado set up. Everything changed quickly.

So what was the turning point for your career as a headhunter?
The financial downturn was the turning point. Suddenly I had more free time to invest in a hobby. I had a conversation with chef Marco Zandona [of Via Allegro] about doing something outside of his restaurant. This was in early 2009 now, and that’s when we hosted the first Charlie’s Burgers dinner for 18 guests.

I remember when people first found out about it. You were purposely vague about the menu, the price.
We put together a website very quickly. We weren’t trying to be vague, we just didn’t have the resources. Initially word started to spread through the industry about the dinner. Then all of a sudden the public found out.

My impression back then was that you were creating a supper club road show. The location changed every time, and the location was always a secret.
It wasn’t a secret on purpose. We noticed that if we announced the address, people would show up at the door trying to get in. So we kept it a secret so we could better manage it. Word was spreading throughout the city and we were just trying to keep up with it.

Eating in Toronto is exciting because we have it all here

What was it about CB that attracted diners from all corners of Toronto?
It was the ethos of creativity. At first it was industry support. At the time chefs were hungry to collaborate with each other, and we met a lot of diners that were craving something different in Toronto. Our format meant that they were going to experience something new every single time.

Were you able to predict what would happen in the next 12 months?
Definitely not. I remember for our spring dinner we worked with Au Pied de Cochon and that was a blast. Chefs were coming to the dinners as diners, and they would all start to volunteer themselves as chefs for future dinners. Then Food & Wine listed us in their top 100 best new food and drink experiences in May 2010. That was the turning point.

This was before the height of social media.
It was all through word of mouth and emails and the press. In a way that’s a good thing. When social media started to take off, we accepted that we couldn’t enforce our no-photos policy. That was a real shift and an acceptance of the modern-day diner. Everyone was taking photos.

Charlie’s Burgers wasn’t just about local chefs – you also had a global vision.
In all my travels, I’ve seen the talent that exists in the industry around the world. Our goal was to try and showcase that talent, whether it’s doing a pop-up in the U.K. with Fergus Henderson, or to bring in chefs from New York. The goal was to continue giving our diners a unique experience.

Garnishing buffalo milk panna cotta at a Charlie's Burgers dinner

How do you think Charlie’s Burgers has contributed to the dining scene?
I think at the very least we’ve celebrated the conviviality of the hospitality industry. Many chefs gave birth to concepts from our dinners, and they have met other chefs or partners with whom they’ve moved on to create wonderful restaurants around the city.

How are these restaurants different from what we’ve had in Toronto before?
There really is a sense of maturation, a coming of age. You look at La Banane, Bar Raval, Grey Gardens. We went from 40-seat restaurants created with less than $150,000 to more complex and finer concepts.

What is it like to eat out in Toronto in 2017?
I love dining in the city right now. Trips to New York and London are less exciting, because there’s more happening here than ever before. Eating in Toronto is very exciting because we have it all here. We just need the rest of the world to understand it.

What about our culinary identity?
We’re also cultivating our own identity instead of always following in other’s footsteps. We are truly a multicultural dining city now, more so than we were 10 years ago. Diners are more receptive to experiences. You can spend money at Fishman Lobster Clubhouse or at Alo. The level of enjoyment is no longer tied to high-end dining.

But we do still tend to copy trends.
That will always exist. I think there’s room for those fun gimmick restaurants, as long as they’re well executed.

You’ve been vocal about where we need to go next as a dining capital.
Culinary tourism really needs to help with the void here. We are also not great at singing our own praise. It’s very Canadian to not be loud or share your accomplishments and accolades. That needs to change. I have travelled all over the world and I think we have great talent here. We need to share that if we want this industry to move forward.