Kurt Zdesar was the European Director for Nobu and earned the esteemed restaurant a Michelin star only 10 months after opening the first Nobu in Europe. It was in London which became the stepping stone for Kurt, who then branched off to open up his own Ping Pong bar and then his first Chotto Matte in 2013. This taste of Nikkei cuisine, an evolution of Japanese-Peruvian fare, is sure to be well received here in Toronto, known for it’s beautiful multitude of colours, flavours and ingredients that merge into one of the world’s most interesting and delightful cuisines.
One-on-One With Kurt Zdesar
With a location in London and now Miami, I caught up with the adroit culinary entrepreneur recently to find out a little more about Kurt, his background and why he chose Toronto for his next Chotto Matte location.
Your first job in the food business was McDonald’s – is this where you found your love for restaurants?
No – (haha) it was not my love at all – my first experience in a restaurant was the riverside racket club which was the first taste of a real kitchen… McDonalds was a short-term stint. My love for restaurants comes from my love for food.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from this experience?
I was interested to learn about the systems and procedures within a highly organised operation, they managed to motivate us to make burgers! It was inspiring and from an operational respect, it has formed a basis of what I have done since.
For all the aspiring restauranteurs, do you recommend starting at a fast food chain like this?
There is something to learn from every type of operation, the benefits of learning fast food are mass production and maintaining quality which doesn’t hurt for you to understand. Many mangers and owners spend far too much on their operations and don’t make sense of their financial model. Broadening your experience amongst different methods, Michelin, fast food, small, large – it cannot hurt. Its all about interpreting and using the knowledge to blend it into your own concept.
What was it like to receive a Michelin star for Nobu?
Fantastic, but to be honest, I was more concerned when I received it and not as focused on the gravitas of the reward itself. It’s hard to manage expectations in our industry as it is, and it makes it so much harder to manage with a huge accolade, we did notice that customers were more demanding and less forgiving. Michelin is great and its an official acknowledgement of the team, that’s the best part of it, we were recognised for our team efforts.
Was this your goal when you opened the first European location in London or did it just sort of happen?
We always work towards a standard that is worthy of a star in the hope that it can happen, the good thing about Michelin is that we work towards the standards that they set – they set the bar and it’s a good benchmark to work towards.
Why do you think you’ve been so successful with all the restaurants you’ve opened up?
I try to create experiences that are memorable and have a positive effect on peoples lives, the effect of the environment, energy and visual stimulus – I try to touch all the senses in the restaurant whilst offering a good deal with a fair price point. It’s about value and offering a first-class experience. That is where my satisfaction lies, it’s not about the money at the end of the day, but it’s watching a persons face light up and react to the food in front of them. Creating a conversation stopper by way of food is my main aim, and watching this from afar is my real pleasure.
How would your staff describe you as a boss/leader?
I would like to think that I am a fun guy to work with, the crazy creative type, I don’t see myself as a boss, I am another part of the wheel, we all pull our weight… I don’t like the word boss, I never have been a boss, we all work as a team and I would like to think that my role is to motivate that team.
Of all your projects, which one was the most challenging? and Why?
Ping Pong – my first restaurant, I thought I knew everything when working high up in other restaurants, but when it was my own restaurant, I realised how much restaurant owners took on… I had to learn very quickly or risk a failed restaurant. Determination and application overcame my initial weaknesses and shortcomings and I learnt a lot for the next time around.
What has been your favourite restaurant project to work on?
Chotto was my biggest investment to date and it was ambitious! It was the largest site in Soho, where no restaurant had succeeded in that exact location, and at the same time, we were trying something that no one had seen before – Nikkei Cuisine. no one knew what it was! I wanted to make an impact, it was exciting to have a decent budget to work with and a talented chef alongside me. We had all the best people and an in-depth knowledge of Peruvian cuisine. We had a stupid confidence that it was going to work and it did…. That is what was truly exciting.
What is your favourite restaurant in Toronto?
Ask me for each category! I can’t choose one when there are so many great cuisines out there to choose from… but if I had to go for one, it would be Dandylion, I was very impressed. I remember seeing confidence in the plates and recognising a chef that clearly understood his ingredients, knowing how to work with them. It was charming, a real restaurant delivering everything beautifully.
Chotto Matte is set to open in May 2019 at Brookfield Place (161 Bay Street) and I, for one, am so excited to try his take on Japanese-Peruvian fare with Executive Chef, Jordan Sclare, at the helm of the Toronto culinary team. And can we talk about the décor? Designed by Andy Martin Architecture (AMA), the place looks stunning. We will sure to keep you posted on any updates or sneak peaks!