By: Jessica Nakamoto –
Husband, father, and culinary superstar, acclaimed restaurateur, Kurt Zdesar knows what it takes to make it big in the vast world of international cuisine. Attending nine different schools by age fourteen and living in over four different countries, Zdesar quickly fostered a love for travel and a relentless curiosity for exploring new cultures, and of course, their traditional cooking. Yet, it was his formative years growing up in Sydney, Australia, which truly ignited Zdesar’s passion for Asian food, a style that has served him extremely well in the increasingly competitive restaurant business.
Molded for success since his teenage years, Zdesar quickly scaled the culinary ranks, setting records at each step of his career. From earning the UK its first Michelin-Star for Asian cuisine as the European Director for Nobu, to launching Ping Pong, an original Chinese-inspired concept which garnered recognition as one of the UK’s fastest growing companies, Zdesar has proved that whatever he puts his mind to, is destined for success, and then some.
Now, with his sights set on the latest addition to his globe-trotting culinary ventures, Zdesar’s focus has pivoted to the launch of Chotto Matte number three. Coming to Canada this spring, Chotto Matte Toronto will compliment sister locations already up-and-running in Miami, Florida and London, England. However, despite the restaurants’ shared namesake and focus on Peruvian-Japanese Nikkei cuisine, every site transports customers to a completely different world, using artwork as a canvas for the imagination to roam.
From sprawling murals to towering glass walls, each Chotto Matte location is an artistic wonder that keeps visitors coming back not only for the high-quality yet affordable fine-dining selection, but the vibrant atmosphere perfect for either a special occasion or fun night out.
But, before Chotto Matte Toronto officially opens its doors to the excited Canadian public, we had the pleasure of speaking with Kurt and getting the inside scoop on the latest Chotto Matte design, plans for future restaurant locations, and more!
Between restaurants like Nobu, Ping Pong, and Chotto Matte London and Miami, you seem to have a knack for doing Asian cuisine really well. What is it about this kind of food or culture that you find most inspiring?
It’s a funny thing. I’ve done Lebanese, British, Hawaiian, and Italian restaurants, but you’re right, the bigger stuff has been Asian. To explain, I always talk about my childhood and go back to when I was a kid. I grew up in Sydney and we have a very big Asian population, as well as what I still consider today, the best Chinatown in the world!
My Dad used to say, “what do you want for your birthday?” and I would answer, “I want to go to Chinatown for dinner”. That was my birthday present! It was the best thing I could possibly have.
We had a great Chinese place very close to us, and on occasion…my father was unlike most parents, because in the 80’s, it wasn’t common for kids to go to restaurants… but he used to take us out to really lovely places. All six kids! The Asian food in Australia is some of the best I’ve ever had, and I instantly fell in love with it.
And given that I love food, another aspect about me as a kid, was that I always wanted to choose what friend I would spend the weekend with. I talk about my friends because their mothers and grandmothers were great cooks! George Lui, was a Chinese friend of mine. His mother used to cook the most elaborate meals. All she seemed to do, every time I went over, no matter the day of the week, was cook in the kitchen. The house always smelled of delicious food!
I also spent a lot of time in Singapore. My family had a factory producing electronic parts for cars in Jurong. My uncle married a Singaporean lady and one thing I used to love about seeing them was experiencing her cooking. She’d come, and we, as kids, would ask, “can you cook for us? Not my Mom!” (laughs) Oh my God! Just being in the kitchen with her producing all this food was incredible!
I’ve always been in love with Asian cuisine. As a child, I thought was I going to marry an Italian woman or a Chinese woman because I wanted to eat like that for the rest of my life! (laughs) But I never did. Instead, I opened Asian and Italian restaurants. I get my fix like that! (laughs)
Asian influence is heavy in Australia and the cuisine is very commonplace. I grew up with these flavors without realizing that they came from somewhere else other than Australia. They’re just flavors that I know.
So, coming to London in the mid 80’s, I started to see Asian food that I didn’t think was anywhere near as good as it could be. I saw an opportunity. I worked at some great places and with some great chefs. I aligned myself with people who, I thought, were the best at what they were doing. All of this was educational for me. But it also helped bring out the best of what I already felt and knew about Asian cuisine. I instinctively know how it should be done. I can’t explain. It’s something that I’ve always felt I’ve had inside me.
I think it’s really interesting that you mentioned how Sydney has a large Asian population, because Chotto Matte is based on the Japanese population in Peru, something, like the situation in Australia, not a lot of people are familiar with. That’s a neat parallel!
Exactly! I’m glad you understand that, because personally, I don’t like the word fusion. Fusion suggests that you force two elements together to create one. And the idea of forcing something, to me, is an unnatural occurrence. Whereas, if someone looks at what you mentioned, it’s really about a large Japanese population going to Peru and how the cultures have had an influence on and evolved together to create a new, harmonious cuisine.
The combination brings together the best of what I think are the greatest parts of the two worlds to make a somewhat superior product. It brings all the great, vibrant flavors of Peru and the perfection and cleanliness of Japan. When I came across that, it brought Asian food to a new dimension for me, because the Japanese foundation was being combined with a South American flavor. Oh my God! How good that is! I found this new cuisine that I kind of understood, but needed to learn more about.
So, I had to go and do my homework. I spent a substantial amount of time in Peru, eating my way through every kitchen from street markets to fine dining restaurants. Even home cooking! I needed to understand it and I wanted to bring this cooking to the forefront of dining in London, where it didn’t exist.
That’s got to be the best research plan ever. (jokes) Eating your way through the country sounds pretty good to me! (laughs)
Not a bad job, right?! (laughs)
Earlier, you spoke a bit about your childhood and being immersed in the industry since you were young. As a teenager, you also worked at chains like McDonalds and KFC, and have had an incredible upwards trajectory since. What do you think teenage Kurt would say about where you are now in your career, on the verge of opening a third Chotto Matte?
(laughs) Well, teenage Kurt and forty-six-year-old Kurt are never happy with Kurt! (jokes) He hasn’t done enough and he needs to achieve more! I think in everything I do, I try to be the best that I can be. And I always feel that better can be done. While I have three restaurants, I’d like to have more. But it can only be done at the right rate.
I’ve learned from the past, that if you open too quickly, you make mistakes. You outflank your ability to manage your businesses. So, you have to really make sure that you take things slowly. All the best things take time.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t know what I do now. So, if I had the mind of today as a sixteen-year-old, I think I’d probably be even better at what I’m doing now! I’d have had all the experiences and all the youth to get it right and do it even better. But, I’m still young and I’m still driving the ambition!
I’m curious, when you first envisioned the concept for Chotto Matte, did you originally picture it as a global franchise?
To be honest, yes, I did. You mentioned some of the places I worked for before. I was a part of the first Nobu which grew to sixteen sites internationally. I was part of Hakkasan which grew from one site in London to multiple sites across the globe. I was only involved in the first one. And then, when I opened Ping Pong, I was finally ableto do my own thing.
I thought, “you know what? We don’t need to be running around the world. Let’s just focus on one city. A concept that can open up on most street corners and is accessible, affordable and a great value venue. One that offers great service, food, design, and music. A place that everyone can afford to go to”.
But then, having worked and repeated more than one concept in the city, I realized it’s actually not as enjoyable to only do the same thing. It didn’t satisfy my ego. But more importantly, because we were just doing the same thing, it didn’t satisfy my creative juices. People were coming to new restaurant openings, and while I was very proud to present, they’ve seen it all before. So, there’s not as much enthusiasm after opening the first site
I realized, number one, I missed travelling. When I travel, I get to learn. If I’m stuck in one city, I’m not going to educate myself as rapidly as being able to visit multiple cities, going to multiple kitchens, and meeting multiple chefs. Travelling is really important to stimulate me and to continue my learning because I feed on the knowledge and the learning that I get from eating. I realized how important it is to travel and how much I missed it because all I think about today, is where I can be tomorrow. I just love that there’s so much to see in the world and I don’t want to ever stop.
I’m in a fortunate position now so that I can choose to open a business in a location where I want to spend time, thus getting to travel and being places that are just fantastic. Miami, Barbados, whether it’s Malibu next, these are places I’d happily spend time if I wasn’t working. So, this is a great way for me to have an international expansion. I also know that there’s a whole diverse world out there. Why focus on one little bit of real estate when I can be in Toronto and Miami and who knows where else next. I just love travelling! I have it in my blood.
As a kid, I travelled a lot. I went to nine different schools by the time I was fourteen and that’s because we moved so much.
I lived in Singapore, England and Australia on two different occasions, in Spain for a year and a half, and Switzerland. I’ve always been on the move. So, travel and my work now, that’s who I am. If I’m in a place too long, I would get bored and frustrated. Long answer to summarize in a line! (jokes)
I really like how each location that you have is different…they all have very unique design elements. In the Miami location, you have the marble tiles from Turkey, the timber from Japan, of course the giant boulder from Sicily. Are there any special pieces or features that you’re excited to show off in the Toronto location?
Well, each restaurant is chosen for a multitude of reasons. One is economics. Economically, is it the right location? Will people come to this space? Is it visible or accessible enough? Those are the boring factors. What I look for is a wow factor in each restaurant.
In London it’s a multistory restaurant, lots of glass. All the glass opens up in the center. It sort of sprawls out onto the street, and you’re sitting above. In Soho, they’re all tiny, little restaurants. We’re kind of the monster, a big operator in Soho, probably the biggest restaurant, with 9,000 square feet and 300 covers. We’ll have a thousand people come and go through the space. There’s a really lively corner in Soho now, on a street that wasn’t once as popular. So, we’ve really changed the face of that area but also made an impact with our graphics, our materials and our design.
And now, we come to Miami. Part of my grief in everything we do, no matter what the concept is, I want people to step into my restaurant and feel that they’ve stepped out of where they’re from. So, you step into Chotto in London, and everyone will say it…and it means I achieved what I wanted… they feel like they’re on holiday. That’s what I try to create. I want an environment that feels so fun and so relaxing, that you forget the stress where you’ve just come from. You just relax and let yourself go. That’s what’s happening in all three of my restaurants.
So, how do we make people feel they’re on holiday in a holiday location like Miami? We tried really hard. We’ve got the alfresco dining. We brought in the tropical feeling of the Amazon. We have the boulders reaching up into the opening in the void of the ceiling. All those materials you mentioned are all sort of brand materials. That’s what belongs in the Chotto restaurant design, but it’s really about how we use them and how we work with the space.
Now, in Toronto, we’re in the city which is very different for us because we’re in the city, but also in an area where financial trading goes on. Usually we tend to be in nightlife type spaces. But this location, given its proximity to Union Station, you’ve got the traders above us in the banks and you’ve got all the nightlife with the sporting activities on our doorstep. I just knew that this was the right location for us. What I particularly liked, is that now, we’ve got a blank canvas to work with.
Mainly, a 30 foot ceiling height! We have a massive building that’s really going to become a landmark, visually, in that part of town.
Cities invest in banks and all these sorts of tall buildings. It can become a little bit monotonous and boring. So, I really wanted to inject a massive piece of color and light to this corner of Toronto. We’ll do that with beautiful artwork, floor to ceiling glass panels that reach thirty-feet high all the way along with a beautiful outside terrace wrapped with lots of plants. It’s going to be a beautiful little haven in the city that’s going to make everyone feel that they’ve stepped out of Toronto and are now on holiday when they enter our restaurant.
I love that! And the financial/entertainment district is really booming right now.
It is! Toronto as a whole is just a fantastic place, and to be part of this growth is great!
I heard the Toronto location will include Chotto Matte’s first-ever “true” cocktail lounge. How did the idea for this kind of space come about?
While we have a lounge in London, it’s more of a holding bar. At nighttime, it gets a bit lively, and because it’s the DJ floor, you have big tables having parties downstairs. It becomes a loud sort of venue, but was never really a destination lounge. The same for Miami. It’s more of a location to hold diners before they go through to the restaurant.
But we like to take advice and open our ears. So, when everyone that I’ve been speaking to and who’s been giving me insider information on Toronto, said “you really need to think about the lounge and the bar”, we started to rethink. When they said “people will want to come here and just have a drink after work”, we thought “that’s not what we do really. We’re a restaurant first. The bar isn’t the business, the restaurant is”. But now, we’re looking at it slightly differently.
After being told, “following work, they’ll be a huge demand for people to come and relax”, we decided let’s invest in this. Let’s create this new idea of having a new brand inside of the brand. Our new lounge will be called Akachan, which means baby in Japanese. We’re focusing on the two spirits, sake and pisco. They’ll be prominent. The bar is going to be very comfortable, a very different style, and it’ll create more of a reason to visit.
You can come, hang out, and have a variety of tapas from our menu with drinks and cocktails. We have some great mixologists on board. Or, you come to the restaurant for the dining experience, for the terrace, or a little bit of both! We get to cater to a much wider variety of people’s needs.
So, a mix of restaurant meets nightlife kind of vibe then?
Yeah! Soho is all about nightlife. We trade until two in the morning there and Miami, with a DJ at the entrance. We’ll have DJ’s here in Toronto as well. That’s going to be in the lounge. We made a prominent station for him.
I like that when you visited Toronto in 2018, you did YouTube videos called Jordan [Sclare] and Kurt do Toronto. You guys seemed to have a fun but very packed schedule.
Ah, you’ve done your homework! (laughs) I had forgotten about those.
You can probably tell from my nature, I’m a happy guy! I’ve always been happy no matter what’s going on in life. I don’t think there’s any point to dwell on the dark side of things or to remember negative things that have happened to me.
The secret to happiness, truthfully, is a short memory. And that’s what I’m blessed with. I really get that you have one life and you’ve got to make the most of every moment. I want to enjoy what I do. I love working with food and the people I work with. I love working with Jordan. I miss him when we don’t travel together. When we do, we have so much fun! We’re always working but it never feels like it.
Having myself surrounded with people that are like-minded, and whose company I enjoy, means going to work doesn’t feel like work at all. It feels like life is a holiday. We work extremely hard and deliver a very professional product, but it’s all done with love.
It spills over. The effect it has on the staff spills over to the customer. Everyone enjoys themselves whether they’re working there or coming to experience the restaurant. It’s a fun environment because it comes from the top. That’s important. I want everyone to enjoy being a part of this journey we’re on, where ever it takes us.
Whoever’s part of it, I want everyone to have that same sense of enthusiasm and fun. It has to be part of what we do in our lives. I’m in a position today to be able to create that work ethic. Enjoy first, business second!
You saw us going around in the cars. We have a lot of fun! Jordan likes to film these things. I’m a little more private when it comes to that, but it’s always funny to look back. I’m glad he does it. I would soon forget we did those things because we travel so often.
Another thing that stuck out to me with the Toronto videos was how involved you are in the entire process. You met with public relations, interviewed potential chefs, architects, and more! Is there a specific phase in the overall process that makes you the most excited?
It’s hard to describe. Knowing that we’re going to get a site, that’s super exciting because then you know all the other good things are going to come. Then, there’s the stage of getting the design and the first visuals of what it’s going to look like. And then, we start to see it getting built. How exciting is that! Then, starting to recruit staff. I love every stage! The best part, I guess, is when the doors open and the first customers come in and later leave with a smile on their face. I think that’s what it’s all about.
It sounds strange that all I care about is satisfying a customer, getting them to come in and giving them a pleasurable experience. But I think if I didn’t care about that, I wouldn’t even be in this business, because there has to be a reward for me as well.
The reward isn’t a financial one. If that’s all it was, I’d just keep the money and not open restaurants and invest in stock! (laughs) But how much fun is involved in that, and where is the satisfaction?
The satisfaction for me, is the customer coming through the door for the first time, seeing something that’s been in my mind’s eye and that’s finally being delivered into reality, and then, enjoying it! Realizing that my idea has been appreciated and that people like it is also great!
There’s a balance of business and pleasure and it really shows! We’ve gotten such wonderful reactions to all of the restaurants.
It’s a challenging world in the restaurant market now. People just expect good food and good service. Every restaurant has to provide that or they’re not considered to be worthy. But there’s so much more that’s necessary.
I view it as the philosophy of fun and the enjoyment that everyone has making this place as special as it is. And it comes across in the customers. We see it when they visit for the first time. Because as they’re leaving, they’re already booking to come back the next time. They enjoyed everything so much they want to come back and have that experience again.
Do you happen to have any fun stories from your travels that you could share with us?
There’s been so many! (laughs) I think it was travelling with Jordan for the first time when we went to Peru. I’m a personable person, but I’m actually quite hard to get to know deep down until I spend a bit of time with someone. It’s then, when I really start to personally open up about myself. But at that time, Jordan and I were very recently brought together on this project. I had worked with him before, but more at a distance.
And then, we’re travelling together, sharing accommodations, and we’re travelling around Peru. What I didn’t know about Jordan…because I had only seen the serious chef side of him…is that he’s a joker! He does not stop! If he sees I’m getting embarrassed, he’ll keep going and pushing that. (laughs) It sort of empowers him to be more ridiculous!
So here we are in Peru. And the first thing that I did, was look to see if you barter when you’re shopping. The answer is no. The prices they charge are the prices they charge. But Jordan, whenever he goes on holiday, barters. I find that really embarrassing. Just give them the money and let’s move on. So, we’re going through the shops buying souvenirs for our family, kids, all this sort of stuff. Every single stop and every shop that we go to in these markets, Jordan’s got this half an hour spiel to try to get a pound off. In the end, I realized that what I’m going to do is tell every single person in Spanish, “just say yes to Jordan, and I’ll pay you the difference!”
Oh no! (laughs)
Yeah! And throughout the whole trip, he’s bartering and he’s saying, “you told me you don’t barter. Look at this, I managed to get this half off!” But meanwhile, behind him, I was going and paying everyone the difference just so we wouldn’t waste a half an hour.
The last day, he goes “Kurt, I’m going to pay for the taxi”. Now the taxi ride is about an hour from Lima to the airport and the drivers charge you eight pounds. It’s nothing. Me, I want to pay double. But he says, “I’m going to pay.” And then, he starts this negotiation. Christ! We can’t negotiate, we’re only driving for an hour! (laughs) But, he’s just got it in his nature. That’s why he’s such a great chef, because he barters like that with our suppliers. This is his fun, you know.
So, I had that conversation with the driver and at the very last moment, as we’re getting out, he caught me paying the guy. And he’s like, “what are you doing?!” I said, “what do you think I’ve been doing the whole three months. I’ve been paying half your bills!” (laughs) He was so proud of himself and he thought I had it all wrong.
That was quite a bonding experience! Three months with Jordan in Peru learning his ways, actually brought us really close together. And now, we’re like soul brothers. I miss him not being on this trip, and when I travel without him, we both send messages saying “wish you were here!” (laughs) He’s such a great guy!
That’s an incredible story!
I have another one for you! We went to Malibu and we’re at the pier at Malibu Farm Restaurant and there are guys fishing off the end of the pier. This guy pulls in a huge fish and it’s obvious, he doesn’t know what to do with it. They’re on the side and they’re about to filet it.
Clearly, they don’t know Jordan’s a chef. He’s quite personable and overpowering too. He can just go into a situation and take control. So, the next thing I see, Jordan’s unhooking the fish, and he’s taking it! He said, “give me that knife here”. He sort of moves the fisherman aside and he starts professionally filleting it. This guy’s a Michelin star chef! He cuts every fish perfectly. So, he’s filleting this fish, cutting it, and these guys are blown away! I’m filming the whole thing. Then, he takes the credit for catching the fish on Instagram, like “this is what we just got!” These guys were getting a little upset and I thought, oh Christ! But that’s Jordan to a T!
I just remember that scene where three or four fishermen are watching him skillfully carving with a rusty knife, this huge beautiful fish that they just caught, and Jordan taking all the credit in front of the tourists that were watching! (laughs)
Oh my goodness! (laughs) Well, I’m sure he walked away with the best cut of fish right?
Actually, no! (laughs) He said, “hey guys, who wants the fish?”, like he was giving away his catch!
What a showman, I love it!
He’s a character!
One of the last questions I have for you is, in addition to Chotto Matte Toronto, do you have any other projects in the works that you could tell me a little bit about?
Well, all of them are premature to confirm one-hundred percent, but Boston does look imminent. We’re potentially finalizing a location there. Two that I’m very excited by that we just started talking about and have come up as potentials, is first, the idea of maybe going to Barbados and opening up a beach venue with a lounge, outdoor swimming pool and more, in the sand. A restaurant, bar, and a member’s area are some things we’re working on. Fingers crossed!
Also, opening a beautiful place on the cliff edge in Malibu, not far from the place I just mentioned to you, is another potential location. Really, there’s stuff coming up all the time!
There’s an island outside of mainland China, and Dubai has been offered to me as well. The problem that we have is the timing.
Barbados is good because it’s a two-year lead in. There’s a lot to do before that can happen. So, we would sign it today to work on it without it affecting the opening in Toronto where all our focus needs to be.
Well, I’d definitely be looking forward to that Malibu location!
Yeah! That would be two years off. The bulldozers would go in about eight months and then the build would be another year. It’s a bit of a ways away, but you have to think about these things now if you want to be there eventually. It doesn’t happen overnight.
We’re making a game plan. We just introduced a new position to the company, a managing director who then can focus on building the business and worry about the logistics, which I don’t enjoy so much. I love the creative side. He’ll be responsible and be tasked with making a plan for the next five years and then helping execute it.
I’m getting to the point now where I realize that we all need to start focusing and honing in on things we do best. It’s about not trying to do multiple tasks because we’re getting to big for that.
Well, to wrap things up, I have a few fill in the blank questions. Want to give it a go?
A dish I always make at home is…
Spaghetti Bolognese. Actually, it’s not a bolognese, it’s a duck ragout. I call it spaghetti bolognese because my kids love spaghetti bolognese. But it’s actually a whole duck that I slow braise for twelve hours, turn it into a ragout, and sell to my kids as bolognese! (laughs) And they love it! “We love daddy’s pasta the best”.
(laughs) Luckiest kids on earth!
On my days off, I love to…
Spend time with my family. I’m quite religious about my two days off. I’m forty-six years old and was married once before. I have two children, and when I was younger, it feels like I worked throughout their childhood. I look back and feel I wasn’t present enough, even though I was a great father and we have a great relationship. But I put a lot of pressure on myself to work, and the next thing I know, my children are grown up. Now, I have a three and eight-year-old, and for my own selfish reasons, I want to experience what I felt I missed out on the first time around. So, family is big time for me.
My son, who’s now nineteen, works with me, and my daughter’s going to be a food psychologist. She’ll be working with me in the near future. So, I’ll have all my family around me. I’m becoming very sentimental in my mid-life crisis, I guess! (laughs) Family I realize is so important. They grow up and then they move on and they don’t have time for you anymore. So really, I’ve got to grab all the time I can get with them.
The coolest souvenir I picked up while travelling has been…
There was one from Sweden. I wouldn’t say it was the coolest, but it was certainly the most memorable!
I went to a celebration in Sweden, and it was all about the country and their fish. As a going away, parting gift, they gave me a tin of fish. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this fish, I certainly didn’t know what it was.
When I got back to England, I was in the kitchen with the chefs, and we opened up the tin. The whole restaurant, and I’m not lying to you, the 4,000 square foot restaurant was so foul smelling! We didn’t know what it was! What the hell had they given us! (laughs)
It turns out, it’s a rotting, fermented, stinky fish. [Surstromming – fermented herring] We had to Goggle it to see what it was called. If you’ve ever watched videos of anyone opening it, you know you cannot breathe! It makes your eyes water. And people eat this! That was an insight, I tell you! (laughs)
I can’t understand how anyone was brave enough to try it. Oh, I left this piece of fish rotting in the soil for a year and it stinks like mad. Let me see if I can eat it?! Who decided to put that in their mouth! Someone had to be brave enough to see if it was edible. I eat most things. There’s nothing I haven’t tried in my life, but that was the one exception! (laughs)
Last one for you, (jokes) and I’m sure it’s not the fish! Something I’m obsessed with right now is…
(laughs) The funny thing is, I’m a little obsessed with golf right now! Only because I don’t have time to play and I want to be good. I hit the ball well once, and it makes me think I could get better. But, that’s a very difficult question for me. I think I actually have to say my wife.
You know what’s really terrible? I booked this non-refundable trip to Toronto and it’s only as I’m packing, I realize that, “oh my God! I’m not going to be at home on Valentine’s Day!”
I arranged flowers and was expecting her to say,” I can’t believe you went traveling!” but no, she’s so cool and understanding and didn’t say a word. I spoke with her on that day, and everything’s fine. I’m really obsessed with her because she’s so great!
Toronto will welcome CHOTTO MATTE’s first Canadian location this May.