Even if you’re unfamiliar with the name Kurt Zdesar, you’re probably familiar with his work. Restaurateur Extraordinaire Kurt Zdesar is the heart and brain behind internationally recognized restaurants brands such as Nobu, Ping Pong and most recently Chotto Matte.
Kurt always had a strong passion for good food. He recalls, laughing, how growing up, he would choose which friend he would visit depending on what their family would be having for dinner.
Born in Australia, at 16, Kurt moved to the UK where he got his start working in the industry at a local McDonald’s. Kurt quickly rose up the ranks and at 18, he confidently accepted a manager position at the KFC franchise, Southern Fast Foods, making him the youngest manager in the franchise.
From fast-food to high-end, Kurt moved on to join Nobu’s launch team to open their first European location in London, UK. Through his leadership, Nobu made history by obtaining a Michelin star within 10 months of opening; becoming the UK’s first Asian-cuisine restaurant to ever obtain this recognition. As the director of operations at Nobu, Kurt orchestrated an additional seven restaurant openings – all successful.
After years of opening restaurants for investors and other partners, that it was time for him to unleash his entrepreneurial spirit and open the first ever Chotto Matte in London in 2013.
Chotto Matte was an ambitious and unique concept – the first restaurant of its kind. Kurt had discovered Peruvian gastronomy during a research trip in Asia for the opening of Ping Pong – another concept he has since sold. The entrepreneur was inspired by the explosion of flavours he tasted. Needing to know more, he jumped on a plane to Peru to study the local cuisine.
While in Peru, Kurt learned about Nikkei cuisine. About a hundred years ago, Japanese refugees fled their country, landing in Peru. With them, they brought Japanese cooking techniques that they used with Peruvian ingredients. A fusion between these two very different cuisines naturally happened over time creating what it known today as Nikkei.
Kurt tapped Jordan Sclare as head chef, a young and talented cook he had met six years earlier at Nobu. With Kurt’s spotless management chops and Jordan’s hyper-skilled cooking, Chotto Matte, with its Nikkei cuisine conquered the hearts and stomachs of London’s culinary scene. Strong from this success, Kurt decided to bring this concept to Miami in 2017 and has now found a new adventure for Chotto Matte in Toronto.
Located in the heart of Toronto’s financial district Kurt’s new endeavour is designed with a strong focus on service, design, and offering authentic food and drink. Expect to see bold street art on the walls and a unique bar lounge with a mix of fusion cocktails and classics. The restaurant will be able to welcome up to 600 diners per night and an additional 160 people at the bar.
Before visiting Chotto Matte, we sat down with Kurt and asked a few additional questions:
I kept hearing good things, a lot of good things about the city, so I came to check it out.
There is an interesting opportunity to bring something new here and there seems to be a great culture of eating out.
I have opened restaurants in Europe before but the economy, the language barrier, the taxation and the currency makes it very difficult to thrive. Developing this concept from England to another English speaking country is definitely an easier process. At least the language and mindsets are similar.
I think what I love the most about Toronto it that it is a big city that doesn’t know that it is. Walking around gives me the feeling that people here still have time to be human and sociable. The city is clean, safe and there is a friendly feeling in Toronto.
My staff loves it too! I bring the core of my team when I travel to open a new restaurant and one of them, after only two days in Toronto, asked me to move here for good!
How do you open a successful restaurant?
I always believed in doing the best I can no matter what the task is and to successfully open a restaurant I need a team that thinks the same way.
How do you have good food and good service? The answer is – with good people.
But you also need to provide an experience where the customer knows that what they paid for was worth every dollar, if not more. I am constantly looking at every cost so my patrons will only pay for what they get and don’t have to cover the cost of poor management.
Many managers and owners in high-end restaurants end up spending too much money and just transfer the price to their clients. That’s something I never want to do.
When do you know that you’ve opened a successful restaurant?
I know a restaurant is going to be successful when a guest is already booking their next meal with us, before they’ve finished their current one! That is something pretty common at Chotto Matte for example.
What do you remember from the craziness of running a restaurant that just obtained a Michelin star?
Getting a Michelin star is a great recognition for the team and it is an amazing accolade to achieve, especially for an Asian restaurant in UK.
However, it is always a challenge to meet restaurant owner’s expectations and after that, it got even harder. When you get a Michelin star you need to live up to the expectations and all of a sudden they are way higher – even customers became more demanding and expected more from there experience.
You’ve opened over 30 restaurants! What keeps you going?
I am a people person – I was born to serve. It sounds cliché but giving pleasure is my pleasure.
I love having diner at my restaurants and sit down incognito with my customers. I observe, listen, learn – my favourite thing is to watch their reaction as they have their first bite.
Opening a restaurant is the most terrifying period of my life, but once you get it working, it is so amazing – it’s like jumping out of a plane!
There is a strong creative aspect to it and it feels really good to be a market leader, to become the bench marker people look up to. I wanted to make a name for myself and work for myself, rather than for others.
That’s why I created the NZR group with a growing portfolio of three restaurant concepts: Back Roe, Fucina and Chotto Matte.