For those who are familiar with the food truck scene in Canada, the name Matt Basile is one that should ring a bell. He is the owner/operator of the Fidel Gastro food truck and his most recent endeavour, a “brick and mortar with the heart of a pop up”, Lisa Marie on Queen St West.
But in the last two years, Basile has taken on a new journey. Thanks to the Travel + Escape Network, he now spends three months of the year on the road. His whirlwind new show, “Rebel Without a Kitchen” (airs Tuesday at 9PM ET/10PM PT) shines a spotlight on street food scenes all throughout Canada and the US.
The second season just launched a few weeks ago and I had the chance to sit down with Matt to chat about food, television, and creature comforts. We even had time for an arm wrestling match.
FGFS: So how did you decide where you wanted to visit for this season of Rebel Without a Kitchen?
Matt: The whole thing about season one was us building our business here in Toronto. What we wanted to do with season two was take what we had created and bring it to other cities and bring some of that influence to other cities and how does that reciprocate. The cities that we picked were a combination of places that we really wanted to go and that were really setting the stage for street food in North America, the cities who would let us visit and finally was there an event that we could really tap into or that made sense for us to really visit. We definitely hit some really important cities [in season two] that tell a really important food story.
FGFS: In your three-month journey, where was the most memorable and why?
Matt: Are we saying memorable or best city — because I have two for totally different reasons. I would say LA was my favourite city. It was warm and I think overall they just have everything there including an emerging restaurant scene. They are in the midst of really changing how people approach food concepts and also pushing the street food scene. There is this casual coolness with LA but it is also very business-focused as well. It has the best of all these world. I kept thinking, “You know what? I could live here.” It was very cool. It really wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The most memorable stop I would have to say was Cape Breton. From the second we got off the plane to the second we arrived in Sydney, everyone was so helpful and so lovely. Everyone loves what they produce locally there and is so proud of what they do. They are so incredibly local in what they do but are so open to worldwide culture and food. There were people at the street food event I was at from Jamaica and Pakistan and all over. The chef that I was working with was so genuine and we still text to this day. I’d have to say Philly was the biggest food surprise for me. I wasn’t expecting much from there and it was incredible. Great food scene, great bar scene, and really heavy into craft beers. The city was also very musical and historical. I wouldn’t have put those words into my preconceived notions of Philadelphia.
FGFS: Are there any recipes or tips/tricks that you found while out on the road for Rebel without a Kitchen that you have now brought back and implemented into your own kitchen?
Matt: 100% I would say not so much recipes but more so types of cooking. So for example, our trip to New Orleans had a really big influence on our cooking. The sauces that I pushed myself to learn while in New Orleans immediately came back with us to Toronto and played a role with us in the restaurant. Same with when we went to Austin, Texas and learned the concept of BBQ. Bringing it back with Moroccan flavours (like they do there) and then making it something different here in Toronto. It was really easy to say, “Whatever dish I make in this city, I’m bringing back” but in other cases, those dishes sparked new ideas using those influences. I think specifically because I don’t have any formal training, that is how you learn — the more you eat, the more you learn.
FGFS: You left a job in advertising to follow your dream and work in food. What made you do it since you didn’t have any formal training?
Matt: I grew up Italian, so food was always a very big part of my life. I grew up working in butcher shops to pay for school. I went to school for advertising and marketing because I loved coming up with ideas and concepts and connecting with people. I was at a point in my life where I was putting a lot of time and effort into these ideas, but I should have been doing this for myself. By process of elimination, I realized the only thing I really knew how to do was food. When I met my partner Kai, she gave me this extra push to go forward with what I wanted to do. Sometimes you need this perfect storm of the right people around you that help you believe in yourself and that help you create an extension of who you are. If you can make a living — albeit a thin one — of it, then it is something worth going for. If you can make your own job and your own path and a positive contribution, then why not?
FGFS: What prompted you to start Lisa Marie (the restaurant extension of Fidel Gastro)?
Matt: We sat down and said, “We have all this business but we aren’t capitalizing on it the right way”. So we just realized we weren’t running the business effectively and it was very fly-by-night and realized we needed to operationalize. So what that meant was: we wanted a commercial kitchen in this city. Nothing more, nothing less. We were recommended by a friend of ours that someone had a space on Queen West with a kitchen. It wasn’t until this point where it dawned on us, “Wow, are we looking to open a restaurant?”. Thanks to Kai — she handled all the negotiations — we put a bid in on our current space. Originally, our bid didn’t go through. So we just kind of gave up and figured we would find something eventually. But the day after my grandfather’s funeral, we got a call saying we got the space. The rest is history. We didn’t have a concept, but we just knew what it would be. Keeping it on brand, we named it Lisa Marie — since the food truck’s name is “Priscilla” and Elvis is on everything. The menu is constantly changing and evolving. It’s fun and approachable food.
FGFS: What is your idea of relaxation?
Matt: Kai and I love cooking big Italian meals for one another. We also really like going to get massages. Sometimes when we order out, we love getting Vietnamese, Korean, or Thai food and eating it in bed. This concept may or may not be called “picnic,” and may involve watching television. But so much of what we define as relaxation does not include work, as so many of our work days are 22 hours. Anything that is not work-related is relaxation.