While chatting with Matty Matheson on a video call, I have to turn up the volume. This is not another Zoom faux pas – Parkdale's greatest export is not on mute. "This is me being regular, you know – I don't scream," admits the tattooed, usually loud and booming TV chef through my computer screen from his home in Fort Erie.
That trademark potty mouth, on the other hand, is on full display. F-bombs fly as we trace the Canadian chef's journey from Toronto's kitchens to dining rooms around the world and back again – but the expletives are less punchy, more punctuation for our good-natured, candid national treasure.
The former wild child may appear to be mellowing, but hints of the off-script chef we fell in love with in VICE videos appear between observations about his stratospheric ascent to superstardom and belly laughs about the pitfalls of cooking for his kids.
Matty's Patty's Burger Club – the much-anticipated burger shop located opposite Trinity Bellwoods Park – is what brings us together this afternoon, but Matheson readily concedes that he's not really a chef anymore.
With two cookbooks, an Instagram account teetering around the one million mark, appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and cameo catfishing adventures with Bon Appetit's Brad Leone (just Google it, OK?) under his belt, Matheson might have never opted for a return to brick and mortar. But when COVID happened, the all-caps father of three returned to his stomping ground to flip burgers and buns for the good people of Toronto in his first restaurant opening since Parts & Labour.
Though the homecoming is new, the concept has been marinating for several years. Originating at RVCAloha in Hawaii (the Patty's element refers to co-founder Pat Tenore), the burgers quickly acquired cult status.
The juicy buns, which feature a generous helping of 'Matty Sauce' – an ooey, gooey combo of mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, onions and pickles – staged several encores at popups in Japan and at Matheson's very own MattyFest at Ontario Place last summer, before finally putting down permanent roots.
But this ain't your average celeb-endorsed restaurant, where the famous foodie slaps their name on the sign and collects a cheque. Walk past Matty's Patty's on any given day, and there's a good chance you'll see Matheson in profile at the pass, band tee, unmistakable blonde highlights, beanie hat and all.
Through our screens, across living rooms and over burgers, I chat with the big dawg about his favourite Toronto restaurants, improved mental health in the industry and family fun on his farm down in Fort Erie.
What's it like being back in Toronto for your new spot?
It's truly nostalgic being back. For the last 12 years, I've only had restaurants on Queen Street, it seems. From Oddfellows to Parts & Labour and now Matty's Patty's at Trinity, it's kind of like my culinary home. It made me feel weird, it made me feel happy, it made me feel kind of sad.
It was so nice to put my fucking anchor down again. It was a whole thing. It's also bittersweet because of everything that's going on right now [with COVID]. We still have no real guidance from the government. But I'm very humbled by the amount of people coming for burgers.
Toronto is my culinary home. It's nice to put my anchor down again
You said in your first cookbook that you didn't want to make another cheeseburger again. What made you change your mind?
I won that TV show Burger Wars, and then this restaurant that we loved [Parts & Labour] turned into a burger shop overnight. That was the first time I was on television and suddenly people were coming from Ottawa and Windsor. So we opened P&L Burger on defence, which isn't a great thing to do in business. I was 27 then – I'm 38 now – and I've learned a little bit about business over the years.
This concept [Matty's Patty's] sprouted from love and friendship and giving away burgers at a skate park to local kids. When me and Pat Tenore [founder of clothing brand RVCA] were in Hawaii, I was like, 'Man, I just want to make cheeseburgers and give them away'. Like, we're coming to your part of the world, can we offer you something and not just take? We never charged anybody for Matty's Patty's until Toronto.
During COVID, I wasn't able to make money the way I usually do, through video content and travel. As with Meat + Three [his BBQ popup in Fort Erie], I just reverted back to truly what I do – which is being a chef.
Your first cookbook was autobiographical. What's the message in your new cookbook Home Style Cookery?
I wrote it before I was living on the farm, so it was a natural progression of who I am. In my first cookbook, I told my story through a culinary lens, through my family, through the restaurants, through college. You can see how I learned to professionally cook and then how I cook at home.
I'm not really a chef anymore. I'm more of a business person. All my recipes – in all of my cookbooks and videos – are about home-cooking really tasty dishes that are accessible. It's my family, it's my in-laws, it's my grandparents.
A lot of people told me my first cookbook was kind of difficult. But I think most recipes are difficult the first time. I'm sure if you gave me a book on how to build a chair, the first time I built that chair, it would be difficult. But if I made that chair 25 times, I think I'd probably have a pretty good chair by the end of it.
The industry is pushing for mental health awareness. Do you wish there was more of that based on your own experiences?
My experience was probably the most typical. Mental health was cocaine and whisky and wine and beer and cocaine and cigarettes and every drug in the world. The thing about restaurants is that if you take all the toxicity out – all the alpha male; chef-is-number-one; I say jump, you say how high? – if you take all that out, the task is still very difficult. Cooking is still extremely high pressure and physically demanding.
We're seeing that even at the burger place and we're trying to work on that instantly. We close the restaurant for one hour every single day for a family meal. We're trying to make it better. I am a very different person than I was – as of this November, I'll be eight years sober. Today, I go to therapy. I go to a chiropractor, I drink a lot of water. I meditate – or try to. I am aware of myself always.
On your cooking shows, you let the viewer see when you mess up. Did you always know that's how you wanted to film it?
Not at first. If you watch my first videos for VICE when I'm in our one-bedroom apartment on top of Loga's Corner in Parkdale, that was the lightning in a bottle that sparked all of this. I was somehow able to just be myself. But I've built this kind of persona to protect myself. And I just think that there's so much poppycock out there, you know? I'm one of those guys who thinks life is about those in-between moments.
With the Home Style Cookery stuff [check out his Ricotta Egg Yolk Raviolo recipe], it's like I'm trolling my own book. I'm reading recipes that I fucking wrote a year and a half ago. Now I live in a small farm town and I can't even get cilantro half the time! I want to show that cooking is like music. It may sound cliché, but you're the secret ingredient. The way that you cook, the way you like spice – anything can be interchanged as long as you understand what we're doing.
I'm just trying to get people to a foundational point. I might sear something properly, but I still splash hot oil and burn my tummy. And that's okay. That's how I find those special moments, in my ignorance. I want to be spontaneous. The entire world is uncertain and wild, and unfair, disgusting and brutish right now. I'm just trying to make people laugh and not feel intimidated by cooking a meal.
MattyFest was a huge event last summer. What was that experience like?
I try to live within a 24-hour window – I don't listen to the praise and I don't listen to the trolls. I think MattyFest was an amazing thing that we pulled together within three months. Everyone was complaining about food running out, but we sold over 10,000 units of food. That's a lot of fucking food!
We underestimated that it was a 'food festival'. I thought people would treat it like French fries and just go for the music. I just wanted to get a bunch of my friends to cook.
It was a very weird day for me personally. I'm walking around and trying to participate and you have wasted people running up trying to take selfies while I have my son on my shoulders. My wife was like, 'I'm out of here.' She doesn't like any of this, she just wants to garden. It was a crazy experience. I'm backstage hanging out with Wu-Tang Clan but in my brain I'm just a kid who lives in Parkdale. I really don't drink the Kool-Aid. But I'm very proud of how it worked out – it was a massive success. I would love to do it again, obviously.
Now that you're a dad, have you traded foie gras for fish fingers? Did you try to ignite a love of food in them early on?
I'm just trying to navigate picky eaters like everyone. One day, I made lamb shoulder, fried it up in a skillet and they enjoyed it. Then the next day, I made shitty Old El Paso tacos and Mac said it smelled like zombie vomit. I always try to talk to him about food because I hate that – it doesn't smell, it's cumin. Like, do you understand the complexities of making a good curry powder?
I think you have to just constantly talk your kids off a ledge. And then some days you throw a bunch of chicken fingers in a fucking oven and call it a day.
If I give 100 burgers to people who haven't had a meal that day, that's sick
You've worked in some of the best restaurants in Toronto. Is it nice to catch up with old colleagues and friends now that you're back?
It's funny you should say that, because Shamez [Amlani] and Maria [Litwin], who own La Palette, were walking by and I'm standing in the window, like Mickey Mouse, taking selfies with people. We always have a line and I'm like, 'These are my real friends, you guys can wait!' Then I gave them a bunch of burgers to bring back for a staff meal.
The thing that people don't really understand is that my whole life is Toronto. Certainly my whole culinary life. That's where I came up, where I went to school. From Rexdale to Parkdale. I love seeing my friends. I've spent the last five years travelling non-stop – I think I was in Canada less than 70 days last year. It's very nostalgic, I'm seeing people I haven't seen in years.
And then my homies are chirping me like, 'Yo, bet it's fun handing out cheeseburgers all day!' At the same time, now I'm in a position to feed people too, so it is nice to be in the city. If I give away 100 cheeseburgers to people who haven't had a meal that day, that's so fucking sick.
What are some of your favourite cities to visit for good food?
I don't know, that's a tough one. Come visit me in Fort Erie! Go to Robo Mart, it's a gas station underneath the Peace Bridge. Say what's up to Ilka and Menaj. It's the best city in the world!
Best international? France has got my heart – it's a chef's kiss if ever there was one. Also Sydney, Australia is an amazing city.
What are your fave restaurants to hit up when you visit Toronto?
Definitely Loga's Corner. I always hit up Lao Thai on Gladstone. Everytime I have to go to King's Noodle. With my friends' restaurants, it's been different because of COVID but we've been doing family meal switch-offs with Bernhardt's, Dandylion, Le Swan, Beast and Lambo's Deli & Grocery. It's just so cool to get back into the community. The thing is that I'm doing this solo, right? So it's been nice to come back and have so many friends and so many great restaurants here.