After getting into the food world a bit late in the game (his words, not mine!) in his late twenties, Curt Martin put his nose to the grind stone and worked his way up over the years to the point where he now runs THR & Co., with ease as the executive chef, getting the Italian-inspired (more or less) eatery recognized as one of the best new restaurants in the city by Toronto Life back in 2014.
Martin seems to shy away from the limelight in the city, (which is rare in the chef world as most others fight for it) and lets his food speak for itself. Judging by Martin's menu, this is working out quite well. In fact, you'll have a hard time finding a photo of Martin, because most photos of THR & Co. will likely include Cory Vitiello instead, his business partner. Regularly reserved or not, Martin happily chats to me about the fight to stay relevant in a gigantic food scene, food trends and line cook work ethic--or lack there of--among other things.
Fill me in on your cooking history a bit.
It was about 13 years ago when I first jumped into the kitchen. It was a life decision I had made and it was big career change for me. I was in my late twenties, so I started a little later in life than the average cook. My whole journey began when I took the culinary management program at George Brown. That was my first sort of foray into the industry. I worked in a couple of smaller places and then when the Drake Hotel was opening, that was a place that I was really excited to get a job at. I was part of the opening kitchen team there. I was there for about two and a half years and that’s where I met Cory Vitiello, who eventually became my business partner. I worked at our first restaurant, The Harbord Room as the chef de cuisine for five years, and then we went on to open THR & Co. in 2013.
You've helped open a few restaurants over the years in Toronto. What is the intimidation level like while opening a new place in a city that has a very crowded dining scene?
When we opened the Harbord Room--and that was nearly seven years ago now--that was the time when the city really started to transition from big name chefs and [fancy] hotel restaurants to the type of thing that we see more of now, the smaller to mid-sized restaurants. You know, 20-, 30- or 40-seaters run by younger chefs. It’s a little over-saturated, yes, but Harbord Room was one of those restaurants that was ahead of that curve. There weren’t very many places like that then, where as [those kinds of places] are dominating the scene now. Back then, it was quite intimidating, going against the grain. If you weren’t one of the big chefs in Toronto at that time, it was hard to carve out a little something for yourself, but we hit it at the right time.
And how about more recently with THR & Co., after the proliferation of smaller, independent restaurants here?
It was still exciting, obviously, and a lot of work, but you have to do a lot to keep yourself relevant. It is more challenging because there are so many other amazing restaurants around. How do you stand out? What niche do you try to go after? You need to know what your market is, thinking more along those lines rather than just shooting from the hip. I don’t think you can do that anymore, you have to really have things figured out, in terms of identity. With any new restaurant, there's always a bit of an evolution, so to speak, trying to figure out what diners are going to respond to. It’s been two years now, so we know what our clientele is now.
Do you struggle with staffing in the kitchen? That's probably the most common complaint I get from chefs across the country these days.
I would say it is more difficult than it used to be four or five years ago, because there are so many opportunities for cooks to work in so many different kitchens. So, it gets tough trying to find someone who really wants to stick it out with you for two, three or maybe even four years to learn as much as possible. From my generation of cooks and Cory Vitiello included, you wanted to learn as much as you could about a place before you moved on.
Why do you think some cooks hop around to different restaurants so much?
A lot of cooks can have a sense of entitlement and are trying to fast track their career, wanting to become a head chef in only four years. I guess that could be possible for some, but most, not likely. It’s just proven difficult to find cooks that want to just come in and genuinely learn from you. Not to shit on cooks or anything, because there are a lot of amazing ones out there, but there are lots of tempting opportunities for them and it’s difficult to find key people in an interview process, for sure.
Since you went to George Brown College for culinary management, would you say that a student fresh out of school is a better hire than a line cook who has had a few years of restaurant experience?
I think [students] generally have a better attitude. Here, we’ve had some really good success with taking on students. We had a student who did his internship with us over the summer and it got to the point where he really knew how to cook and do things properly and he had no kitchen experience prior to this, so we offered him a job after the internship was complete. We have another student right now and it’s the same type of thing--came in, great attitude and he’s working on his skills and it’s been great.
You always need a couple core people who can really understand and have a great skill set and if you have those two people along with a chef, you can make anything happen. With that base, you can easily take on someone who is a little green or rough around the edges and get them up to speed. It’s easier than correcting a bunch of bad habits from a cook that’s been in the industry for a few years.
Do you travel often?
I travel a lot in the United States because it’s so much cheaper to travel, but that’s one of the weird things [about my travels], because I’ve never actually been westward of Ontario. I have family on the East Coast, so I’ve been out there--and also Montreal--quite a bit. I do keep an eye on things that are happening food-wise in cities like Calgary and Vancouver, though.
Which places do you keep tabs on West of Ontario?
Pidgin in Vancouver is definitely one that I will always go see what they’re doing, check out their menus or read whatever is popping up on the web about them. I know they have a relationship with the guys at Bar Isabel here in Toronto. My junior sous chef used to work at Model Milk in Calgary and our past floor manager used to work there as well. So, some of the chefs from there will pop in here from time to tome/ Then there’s the typical restaurants in Montreal: Joe Beef, Maison Publique, or Raymond’s in St. John's. I’ve eaten there a bunch of times. I'll be checking out Mallard Cottage this summer and Fogo Island Inn. It’s cool to see smaller Canadian food markets [like Newfoundland] growing and thriving.
Toronto is usually a little more ahead of the game when it comes to food trends than other Canadian cities. What's on your radar right now?
There are always a lot of trends, not all of them are good, obviously. One bad trend is the obsession with trash eating. Not just rich food, but the trend of embracing that whole Guy Fieri mentality. Basically, convenience store trash carnival food. Don’t get me wrong, that type of food does have a time and place, it’s not like I really hate it, but it’s just a trend that’s been run into the ground and it’s not very creative. Things like fermentation, though, are still on the upswing and also I see bitter ingredients coming into play a lot more. Bitter ingredients have been in the cocktail scene for a while now, but now they're being worked into food menus. Things like dandelions or super high cocoa chocolate desserts coming into play, meyer lemons with their bitter-sweet flavour. Those are the kinds of things that we're using in our dishes here to give things a little bit of a different profile.
What's a trend that still really commanding the food scene?
Spanish food is still running really hot. Those flavours are still dominating a lot of menus. Grant at Bar Isabel is pushing that and doing a great job of it.
In terms of media, how important is it for you to stay on the radar?
It's always important. There is a point where you can get over-saturated though. Even with social media, I think it's better to do it subtly; otherwise, it can feel like you're just repeatedly hitting people over the head with something and it can get annoying. You can actually start to resent whatever Instagram or Twitter account it is.
In terms of blogs, people don't really read traditional reviews as much anymore and will pay attention to particular blogs or particular [Twitter feeds]. I know there are people who still go out and grab the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail to read a proper review, but people are forming their own kind of opinions. You don't even really keep an eye out for that one particular critic who may come into your restaurant because nowadays, anyone can be a critic.
We all have those days where we are tired and sick of the daily grind. How do you stay motivated in a career that can frequently be extremely draining.
Um, money? Haha... It is the great motivator! But seriously, you do have those days where you're tired and you're rundown and you feel like you need a mental health day--and sometimes you do need those to have a reset--but what keeps you going is your product. You've put so much into something. It's your livelihood, time, energy and money, all put into something you really believe in. It's on you [as a restaurateur or executive chef] to motivate your team in the kitchen to toe that line and get them thinking: this is who we are and this is what we do. You need to be excited about that. It's always a trickle down effect. If I start lose my enthusiasm with the work I'm doing and what we create, it's only going to filter down to my team.