Ontario, CAN: Street Food Phenom Finds A Home – A Profile of Fidel Gastro’s Matt Basile

Entrepreneurial chef Matt Basile just opened his first stand-alone restaurant, Lisa Maria, on Queen West last month

By  Karolyne Ellacott | PostCity.com

Entrepreneurial chef Matt Basile just opened his first stand-alone restaurant, Lisa Maria, on Queen West last month
Entrepreneurial chef Matt Basile just opened his first stand-alone restaurant, Lisa Maria, on Queen West last month

Matt Basile is a man on a mission. With his quick grin and boundless energy, the face behind theFidel Gastro’s brand is synonymous with the city’s street food scene.

After wooing foodies with his so-called “extremo” sandwiches at his first pop-up restaurant, Basile quickly made a name for himself. Thanks to his high-impact catering style, a hard-to-miss food truck and a brand new TV show, it’s difficult to escape Basile’s reach. His most recent project — the just-opened Lisa Marie restaurant — is yet another spoke in the man’s rapidly spinning wheel.

Toronto-born Basile’s love for food began early. Growing up, he spent scads of time with his food-cherishing Italian grandparents. Basile learned the ropes from his grandfather, who would make his own tomato sauce and bake bread from scratch. Good food, Basile soon grasped, required a lot of effort.

“I had a different sense of appreciation for food at a young age,” he notes.

Basile’s appreciation translated into a job at Bruno’s Fine Foods. Despite his growing love for food, the gig was merely a way to save up for university. “At no point did I see it as a career choice,” Basile says.

While pursuing a university degree at McMaster, the student worked in the kitchen at the school’s bar. He often found himself teaching friends how to cook, rescuing chicken breasts from an unseemly demise. By this point, Basile had determined that his career would be in advertising.

With his BA tucked under his belt — and a copywriting diploma to boot — Basile eagerly set foot in the advertising world. But the recession hit, and the budding adman was laid off. Adamant about making a return to his chosen field, Basile maintained his contacts and hoped the situation wouldn’t remain dire for long.

A temporary gig at the brand new McEwan at the Shops at Don Mills kept Basile busy and got the wheels turning. “I was trying to figure out ways to make that job work on a larger scale,” Basile says. “I would think, ‘How can I apply my marketing and advertising to this role?’ ”

When a job in marketing presented itself, Basile was back in business. This time, however, he questioned his return. “I’d always wanted to start my own company,” he notes. “I love food so much, I figured I should try and make it work.”

Hatching an idea for a sandwich company, Basile worked steadfastly on the business plan and the menu. The original concept was to open a bricks and mortar spot called Fidel Gastro’s, serving sandwiches that broke all the rules, mixing and matching flavour profiles and cuisines for maximum impact.

Butter chicken met lemon dill aïoli; peanut butter pulled pork fell for bacon jam and pig skin crackling. Basile knew his idea had legs, but on a visit to the bank, the grim financial reality hit.

While doing an impromptu stint in the kitchen at a friend’s party, inspiration struck.

Basile shelved the idea that he needed a kitchen of his own: a pop-up restaurant was just the ticket.

October 2011 saw the first pop-up dinner. November marked Fidel Gastro’s inaugural Toronto Underground Market appearance. Thanks to Basile’s strong advertising and marketing background — paired with his savvy social media skills — word got around quickly.

Basile found himself putting in ungodly hours, sometimes working from 9 a.m. straight through to 5 a.m. “It was insane how we really saw the momentum increase.”

The shape-shifting entity required a structural change. The next logical step — both operationally and financially — was to launch a food truck component.

“I’ve always wanted to establish that I’m not just a food truck. Fidel Gastro’s is an umbrella company that embodies all things street food culture.”

Noting that onlookers may observe the truck to be a well-oiled machine, Basile outlines the various issues with running a truck. “Not all the events get the numbers, and there’s only so much you can charge a customer,  ’cause it’s still street food.”

During Canada’s unforgiving winter, it’s hard to justify the costs of turning the truck on, so Basile focused on the pop-up aspect again.

As the business grew exponentially, an opportunity for a TV show presented itself. Rebel Without a Kitchen, currently airing on the Travel and Escape network, is a fast-paced show that follows the Gastro crew around to different events. With so much exposure culminating in financial success, Basile was finally in the position to do what he’d originally intended to do: open a proper restaurant.

Just weeks old, Lisa Marie remains loyal to the brand’s street food roots. Loosely based on cicchetti, or Venetian street food, the menu includes picks that range from the simple (sugo and bread) to the extravagant (a deep-fried buffalo mozzarella and bone marrow sandwich).

Chef Kris Topping — formerly of Mark McEwan’s Fabbrica — is helming the kitchen. “It’s definitely a different menu,” Basile says. “And the food is fantastic!”

Always on the hunt for new and innovative opportunities, Basile remains a rebel — only now, he has a kitchen.