Rebel with a truck

SINGAPORE - When the global recession hit about six years ago, former advertising copywriter Matt Basile, now a food truck owner and a restaurateur, found himself jobless.

To tide himself over, he took on a job in the kitchens of famed Toronto restaurateur Mark McEwan for six months before he found a position in the marketing division of a financial services company.

The 30-year-old recalls how unhappy he was back then, even though he had found a new, fairly well-paying marketing role. He missed copywriting and did not like working in the financial sector, an industry he knew nothing about.

He says: "It was at that time in my life when I thought it was time to start my own business.

"I also knew I definitely didn't want to work in a kitchen on the line at somebody else's restaurant because it didn't match my personality. Not that I'm against structure, but it just wasn't what I was looking for in a career."

The self-taught chef was in town recently to promote the second season of his food show, Rebel Without A Kitchen, which airs on the Asian Food Channel (StarHub Channel 435) on Thursdays at 10pm.

While he enjoyed copywriting, food has always been his first love.

Being Canadian of Italian descent, much of his growing up life centred on food. His maternal grandparents made everything from scratch and his grandfather caught garden snails from the backyard for cooking.

On what made Basile, who runs Fidel Gastro's food truck and Lisa Marie restaurant in Toronto, Canada, change his career route, he says:

"I loved food, I hated my job, I had a good idea, I had some money put aside, why not start a company?"

His initial idea was to start a sandwich shop. But armed with a detailed business plan and savings of about C$20,000 (S$23,113), his request for financing was shot down by a bank's loan officer, who thought the business would not be viable.

Crushed, he pushed the idea aside.

It was only at a party about three years ago that he was inspired to change his business model into a less conventional one - a high-energy pop-up.

He left his stable C$50,000 a year marketing job to focus on food pop-ups, publicised on social media and selling just four types of sandwiches at C$4 each. He had a Cuban sandwich; a macaroni and cheese one; a Toronto Cheese Steak, which was his version of a Philadelphia Cheese Steak; and a spaghetti and meatball sandwich.

He usually served about 250 people at each event and the food sold out every time, he says.

"I would function on three days without sleep. It was the most difficult C$1,000 I had ever earned."

He worked at a friend's butchery for free in the day so that he could use the kitchen at night to prepare food for the events.

Soon, he was inundated with catering jobs and could afford to rent a kitchen of his own, where he finally had access to an industrial dishwasher and did not have to wash dishes by hand.

That was how his catering business began. He started his food truck 2 1/2 years ago and opened his first brick- and-mortar restaurant 1 1/2 years ago. Lisa Marie restaurant, which seats 72 people, specialises in serving more refined versions of street food from various parts of the world.

Dishes there include Moroccan beef short rib with a stout-based dark sauce and pistachios; and a Creole Poutine, the self- taught chef's take on the Canadian dish of fries, gravy and cheese curds, but made with tempura sweet potato coins, a tomato-based sauce of butter, onions, celery and peppers, prawns and Parmesan cheese.

His trip to Singapore with business and life partner Kyla Zanardi, 27, is their first to Asia. They also have plans to travel to Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. They say they hope to get some new ideas to incorporate into dishes back home.

Basile says: "It's a good opportunity for us to get more inspiration to come up with a new menu, to add a new chapter to our food back home.

"I'm on a mission to try everything."

rltan@sph.com.sg

Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter@STrebeccatan

Watch Rebel Without A Kitchen Season 2 on the Asian Food Channel (StarHub Channel 435) on Thursdays at 10pm.

"I loved food, I hated my job... I had some money put aside, why not start a company?"

- Matt Basile, who runs Fidel Gastro's food truck and Lisa Marie restaurant in Toronto, on how his career changed.


This article was first published on September 21, 2014.
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