Where’s the craziest place you’ve ever eaten? What about the craziest place you’ve ever made food? Rebel Without a Kitchen (premiering tonight on Travel+Escape) might have you beat. Whether it’s from his temperamental food truck Priscilla, or off collapsible card tables, get ready to take on underground food markets, overnight bush parties, street corners and over-the-top private events with the boisterous Fidel Gastro, a.k.a. Matt Basile.
Martha Marcin: Do you prefer Matt, Fidel or El Presidente?
Matt Basile (or is it Fidel Gastro?): My mother would kill me if I were called anything other than Matt, so we’ll go with Matt. (Laugh)
How did you come up with the name Fidel Gastro?
Honestly, I used to be a copy writer in an old life, and as a copy writer you write words down and sentences down and sometimes things just kind of stand out. For whatever reason I wrote, like, Fidel Castro on a piece of paper and then I turned the C into a G so I was like, yeah Fidel Gastro!
That is a moment of genius right there.
Yeah, that was like a year and a half before I started the company, so I registered the business name, I bought the URL, and then I started writing my business plan as to what that even meant.
Did you come out of the womb knowing you wanted to be an “extremo sandwich maker” or did you take a year off and find yourself? What happened? What’s the story?
Well, you know food has always been a very big part of my life. I never went to culinary school so I learned how most passionate people learn, like through family and experiencing food at the table, through memories and stuff like that, and that’s how I came to fall in love with food. The actual act of choosing a product to package and sell, that to me, it just seemed that tacos were pretty popular already, and I think sandwiches have always been around but people have been, you know, you’ve seen people just bastardizing sandwiches in massive conglomerate companies, right?
So I was like how can I bring fun back to the sandwich and what I do is come up with unique flavour combinations. I always try to balance a spicy with a sweet, or a crunchy with a soft, or a meat with a spice. I’m always trying to change how people try to experience the sandwich. And every day I use top quality ingredients, that’s how I lay the foundation, and now I’ve had other opportunities to bring in new culinary experiences in still a very street food format.
I was taking a look at FidelGastro.ca and some of the crazy-ass sandwiches you’ve got on there, and besides drooling all over my keyboard I did find myself wondering at the inspiration? In particular, I call to your attention to THE GORGEOUS JORGE. Peanut butter pulled pork, bacon jam and pig skin crackling. Seriously, did you go out, get drunk, come home make a PBJ and then think to your self, “DUUUUUUDE! You know what would take this to the next level? Pig skin!”
“You know what would make this wicked? PIG SKIN! BACON JAM!”
I have to admit, when I saw you skinning the pork belly in the first episode, I kinda fell in love with you a little.
Yeah did you? (Laugh)
Yeah, I was like “Damn the man knows how to skin a pig…too bad he has a girlfriend.”
The man can skin a pig! Well you know it’s funny, so a lot of my inspiration for sandwiches, it goes back to the previous thing, it’s like one of my business mantras is “always be different”. And I thought that was definitely a way to do it and how I create products.
And actually that sandwich specifically was invented two ways. So 1. The reason for that sandwich was because I was doing an event at a bar and these two guys decided to challenge each other to a Fidel Gastro sandwich eating competition. And I told the winner of it whoever got to 10 sandwiches I told them I would name a sandwich after them. So the guy who got to 10 his name was Jorge, so I asked him like “Jorge!” I slapped him out of his meat coma, I’m like “Jorge, what’s your favourite sandwich man, I’m gonna name a sandwich after you.” And he was like “Honestly, man, I like peanut butter and jelly.”
Alright well I can’t just do a peanut butter and jelly sandwich so I went home and I thought about it, and I had beer fest coming up and I was in the product tent so they gave me 90 pounds of bacon to work with and just kind of one day I was like why don’t I do a — cause I already started doing a lot of bacon jam — so why don’t I do a peanut butter bulled pork and bacon jam sandwich.
(Drooling sound) Bacon Jam…what is Bacon Jam and how do I make it?
Basically you dice the bacon into 1 inch cubes, sweat the fat off the bacon. And then in a side pot you cook onions and soy sauce with brown sugar. Once the fat has sweated out of the bacon you pour the soy sauce mixture over the bacon, and you cook it for about 2 hours, turn off the heat and cool it, then blitz it in the food processor. And what happens is when the fat congeals, it basically makes a jam-like mixture.
Well I’ve got my weekend project lined up.
Yeah, and honestly it stores forever because of all the fat that’s in it so you can leave it out, and I find that it’s best at room temperature because it’s easier to spread. But in the fridge it’s a bit harder, but it will last forever. And then I put the pig skin crackling because the peanut butter was intense in flavour, the bacon jam obviously added smokiness to it, but they were still two soft items, so it needed some sort of crunch factor just to get through it, and I had all this pig skin lying around so I said, “Hey, why not deep fry it and make some crackling out of it?”
I wish I had all that pig skin lying around.
I know right? You should see me right now. You know where there are scenes of people bathing in money on their bed? Like it’s just me and pig skins.
Oh that’s fantastic…(Awkward pause)
So, you describe yourself as a “Roaming Gypsy Food Rebel”, why is that and what are you rebelling against?
The concept was a new business model for the food industry whereas before previously people would have invested a lot of money up front in opening a brick and mortar location, and then once you open and invested the money, try and get people to not only know who they are as a brand but also to experience their food.
I took a different approach. I started as a “pop-up” food company, and I kind of travelled from multiple/various locations within the city and I would use social media, kind of get people’s attention and let them know where I was and I used that as an opportunity to like connect with people at a grass-roots level so then knew who I was before I started to grow the company.
So if you ask me what I’m rebelling against, I guess you would say I’m rebelling against the typical way people normally start their food companies. I kind of did it the exact opposite, actually. I started with a very minimal investment up front and focused all of my intention on creating an experience and a brand that people wanted to connect with versus just opening doors to a location and saying hey come out and meet me at this time.
It sounds very logical and for lack of a better word, a safer bet to build up your customer base and brand following before investing heavily.
Right. I mean think of it this way, right, let’s say it didn’t go as it has gone for me, I could have said “Alright, this is a minimal investment and I can start over now,” you know? To me if felt like the only option because my original goal was to actually do the opposite and to invest a lot of money up front, but when I was kind of turned down by the bank originally, I said, “ Ok well instead of just quitting all together is there a way to adapt my concept to the market and the financial climate that I’m living in?” So to me that meant starting up as a “pop-up” food company.
So by a “pop-up” food company are we talking about food trucks and farmers markets like you’ve been doing, or is there anything else involved in that?
Well actually it predates food trucks. Literally a “pop-up” is a concept of I would collaborate with other venues, or markets, or events, or festivals, or spaces. People that essentially wanted me in their space and they weren’t restaurants and didn’t really offer food. And we would kind of collaborate together and I would throw a food party, or food event, in someone else’s space, so that’s how it started. And about 8 months after that when I launched my food truck the demand and the fan base was already there, so it was like it was already expected as far as how is Fidel going to open his brand up next it just made sense that the next logical grassroots approach, to me, was food truck.
I’ve notice the streets of Vancouver have been invaded by an army of food trucks. Is this what you would call the “street food movement”, which is relatively new to us North Americans?
I mean if you look around at the industry, food has been around us in the city of Toronto for example for quite some time now, but the place we’ve seen it in has been kind of only one way, and that’s hot dog carts. And not that there is anything wrong with hot dog carts but it’s actually been city mandated that all that we can actually call street food in this city.
Yeah, right? I mean not every hot dog vendor wants to just sell hot dogs, that’s just kind of because when they were licensing out permits for street vending that was the only kind of thing that they were allowed to sell. So now what food trucks are doing, they’re saying, “Hey, even though we are not getting like city permits to publicly vend, we’re working with private property or festivals, whatever, and were finding ways to kind of figure out legal ways to sell food out of food trucks.” That’s kind of the army approach, or the street food movement approach, and there is resistance, but we’re doing it anyways.
How does this change the game for me the consumer and you the business man?
What it does is it definitely diversifies street food in North America, because if you look at street food anywhere else in the world, street food is the primary way a lot of people eat. You’ll even see the trucks in Portland and Miami and California and really we’re just playing catch up right now up here in Canada. I mean I know our seasons are a little different so it’s more seasonal than in warmer climates, but as far as street food is concerned, I mean it’s the late stages of the game.
We’re actually creating a 360 approach to the food industry, not just like 280 degrees. Before we understood food as either fine dining, casual bars, or sports bars and this-and-that, but street food has been completely neglected in this part of the world whereas in other parts of the world, it is actually one of the primary ways people eat, so I think that from a consumer stand point, it’s allowing people to have a little more fun and take food a little less seriously, and a more whimsical approach to eating.
As a business man it allows me to still create really good quality food in a more accessible way, and that’s what’s street food really is, I mean anyone is welcome.
In the show we saw you go to a farmers market, you used locally sources items and talked about how people want to eat earth to table. Was this incidental to the location or is this a philosophy you embrace in all aspects of your business?
I try my best whenever possible to do that whole earth to table kind of concept. I’ve actually done that market a couple of times. For that event specifically I only used vendors that supplied at that market specifically. In summer I’ll always make a trip to a farmers market and get my fresh produce whenever I can. My butcher is a local butcher here in Toronto. We use grass fed beef and hormone free pork, and I think my biggest reason for doing this, I mean obviously it costs a little more and therefore that cost is translated into the cost of the product itself but it’s all about educating your consumer.
So when people ask me why a sandwich costs what it does, I’ll break it down for them. I’ll say, “Listen I bought it locally from this farmer, and I can tell you the name of the farmer I bought it from, how far away that farm was from me, this is how long it took me to make it. I can tell you every single ingredient that’s in your sandwich. If you want to go to another, I’m not gonna say who, but if you want to go to another large corporation that sells sandwiches they can’t tell you one twentieth of what I’ve told you.” And that’s where the cost is.
There is so much care and thought put into something like just a sandwich, it’s like an elevated version of what you’re already used to. So I think it only makes sense, especially in this kind of economy to support the people that are closest to you, whether that is a local business or a local farm or a local charity or what not.
Pick one word to describe yourself.
The word “really”. With a question mark. Really?
In one sentence, what are you contributing to the world?
Fun business. I think that if I can walk away from anything I think people need to know that you can love what you do and still be good at it as well.
And be successful too?
And be successful at the same time, yeah. AND still have morals and ethics along the way!
You’re shooting for the stars there my friend, but ok.
Yeah I know I’m an idealist eh?
You are but we like it :)
Rebel Without a Kitchen premieres on Travel+Escape, Tuesday, April 9 at 10pm ET/PT.
By Martha Marcin.