100km Foods and Chef Matt Simpson
Chef Matt would be the first to tell you he became a chef somewhat by accident. He got his first job working at a Kelsey’s in the dish pit and doing prep when he was a young teenager. He kept up with that job all throughout high school, and when he graduated, he made some forays into different areas: for a time he studied to be an electrician, and then business. He had a light bulb moment where he realized he’d been working in kitchens for years and had always enjoyed it, especially as he began to learn how to cook entirely from scratch. He finally thought: maybe I should be doing this as a career?! Matt’s father encouraged him to complete a post-secondary education, so he enrolled in George Brown for culinary arts. After he finished the program, he moved from Whitby to Toronto to work in restaurants, and hasn’t looked back since.
As Matt puts it, working in the restaurant business isn’t for the faint of heart: ‘It’s a really daunting business, it can be really long days and it can be really easy to get kind of down in the dumps.’ What keeps him passionate in such a demanding job? He says at the end of the day, it’s about the people, and there are two sides to that. On the one hand, it’s gratifying to look out on the dining room and see your guests enjoying their meals. On the other, you also get to meet the people growing your food. Their passion, Matt feels, invigorates and renews him in turn. Matt is also one of the biggest fans of the Meet and Greet we host annually for Chefs and Farmers, an opportunity he appreciates to deepen connections. We see him there every year without fail!
Matt Simpson’s relationship with 100km Foods is very special one. How does he source local products and plan his menus?
We also asked Matt specifically about his long relationship with 100km Foods, since as he says himself ‘you guys have a special place in my heart.’ Matt wasn’t one of those who grew up with a strong food history. He doesn’t have a lot of nostalgia or familial food memories that guide many other chefs. Instead, he has come to be a locavore through years of learning in kitchens and building relationships with farmers, and he feels 100km Foods has been a huge component in bridging that gap. When he’s choosing ingredients, he frames it this way: if he were travelling, what would he look for when he is eating out? A dish that gives him a sense of place, even if it’s a specific style of cuisine from another part of the world. At Constantine, Matt has a unique opportunity to do just that. It is a hotel that has a Mediterranean menu, but he infuses the cuisine with Ontario ingredients to showcase the terroir of Southern Ontario. It’s exciting and creates endless possibilities to be creative.
We turned then to the subject of sourcing local, and how to build a seasonal menu. Matt was firm on this: It’s not just about the idealistic picture of a farmer painstakingly harvesting to order, because sometimes that doesn’t always translate to high-quality ingredients chefs look for. It’s about both knowing the story and the traceability 100km Foods provides, as well as the guarantee that the products are excellent. When it comes to planning seasonally, Matt makes a great point: if you are attuned to the seasons in Ontario and plan accordingly, prices will be competitive. And if you find strawberries in the winter that aren’t super expensive, Matt thinks we need to start asking the hard questions: ‘Why isn’t it? Why wouldn’t something that’s grown (…) and then flown halfway across the continent be more expensive? Shouldn’t it be more expensive?’
That being said, he’s happy that today’s diner is more educated about how we source and grow our food, and they are the ones asking questions. Matt is more than happy to tell them the story of the farmers who grew what’s on their plate. He has other great advice for chefs: if you’re paying a premium for vegetables, make them the star of the plate. If you have the room and the means, buy whole animals and serve off cuts to keep your pricing in line. Since traceability is Matt’s #1 priority for sourcing, he makes sure that this translates to the back of house and the front of house staff, who can convey this to the guest. He isn’t exaggerating when he can say ‘I know the name of the farmers who grew this food’ and that is the kind of connection he wants, and one that he sees being appreciated more and more by guests. He says himself: ‘I want to live in a world where the little things matter.’ 100km Foods makes planning seasonally and sourcing local even easier, he says, since at any time he can ask us questions or use the seasonality calendar to help him plan ahead.
What are some of Matt’s FAVOURITE products from 100km Foods?
We asked Matt for some of his favourite products he sources through 100km. Without hesitation, he said ‘New Farm Greens.’ He can still remember the first time he tried them, thinking, oh it’s a handful of lettuce. He was blown away by them and said ‘you don’t even need dressing, it’s SO GOOD.’ We absolutely agree! Matt also loves k2 Milling saying that anything Mark Hayhoe touches is ‘gold to me.’ He loves the Algonquin grits, even making sure he has his own supply of k2 products in his kitchen at home! He also loves the Welsh Brothers sweet corn, citing it as ‘amazing.’ Lastly, he rhapsodized about the Highland Blue from Back Forty Artisan Cheese, saying it was one of his favourites (ours too!).
Naturally, we turned then to discussing what his favourite meals are to cook, to which Matt said ‘anything over live fire.’ Even simple, good ingredients can be turned into something awesome over the grill – asparagus with a little salt and pepper and steak being one of his go-to’s. He also loves making things in a terrine, or different kinds of paté. He really enjoys cooking for family and friends, and hosts a lot of dinner parties in his home.
Next, the hard question. When we asked Matt who he’d have dinner with, dead or alive, he couldn’t settle on one person. His first pick is Geddy Lee from Rush, because he’s a big foodie and eats in Toronto restaurants, and Matt thinks it would be awesome. He’d also love to eat with Alton Brown. And Paul McCartney. And George Harrison!
If it wasn’t clear by now, Matt’s second great love is music. If he wasn’t working as a Chef, he definitely thinks he’d want to do something with music. Matt’s father is a musician and instilled within Matt a good ear for music and a deep appreciation for it.
We loved sitting down with Matt to listen to him talk to us about local food. He’s knowledgeable and deeply committed to the ethos of 100km Foods – he truly walks the walk. We’re lucky to have always had such a great supporter in him, and we are thrilled to have him on board as one of our awesome ambassadors!
Written By: Genrys Goodchild
Pictures By: Sara May