Joseph Shabason is a Toronto-based saxophonist. His new record, The Fellowship, is out April 2021 via Western Vinyl.
Fresh Pepper is the new collaboration between Toronto artists Andre Ethier — formerly of Deadly Snakes — and saxophonist Joseph Shabason; Matty Matheson is a Toronto-based restaurateur and chef and, most recently, one of the stars of Hulu’s The Bear. Fresh Pepper’s debut self-titled record is out now on Telephone Explosion, so to celebrate the three friends got together to catch up about the similarities of life in the kitchen and on the road, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Andre Ethier: I wanted to ask you about music and restaurants.
Matty Matheson: I know a little about both.
Andre: As much as you’re associated with the restaurant business in Toronto, I’ve always thought of you as a music guy. I mean, I know you were in a band, but also as a supporter of music or through going to shows, and also employing musicians.
Matty: Yeah, well, the thing about music and the thing about restaurants — restaurants is where I work, where I’ve built my career. Restaurant people, most of the time, are losers.
Andre: Right. [Laughs.]
Matty: So I never wanted to hang out with chefs. I like hanging out with cooks and stuff like that, but I like riff raff. I come from a small town, and growing up going to punk shows in Buffalo, all I wanted to do was move. I wanted to move to Toronto to go to shows, and my way of getting to Toronto was culinary school. And I was just very lucky — my first job out of college was at Le Sélect, which was next to the 360.
Joseph: So many good shows there, especially for punk. I would come in from Caledon, because I feel like every weekend they were having some sort of a punk fest there. It was awesome.
Matty: Yeah. You know, there was the first time seeing Sharps and playing reggae and hearing Trojan Records bands for the first time… I think that was a really cool thing. And then it just being down the street from the Rivoli.
Andre: The Horseshoe — it was all in one block. The band loop.
Matty: And then the Vice store was across the street. And so it was just all of those things. That block at Spadina & Queen was kind of a cool thing, actually, 15, 16, 18, 20 years ago.
Joseph: And the Shanghai was just up the street for a while, and Dan Burke was booking that in the ‘90s, which was fucking awesome.
Andre: Oh, my god.
Joseph: Did you play there?
Andre: Yeah. My old band, Deadly Snakes — I think we were supposed to be the first band, Dan Burke chose us. He read about us somewhere and was like, “They’re going to be the first band that plays the Shanghai.”
Joseph: What happened?
Andre: We had played Max’s [McCabe-Lokos’s] brother’s birthday party in Kensington Market, and afterwards we would all swim at that swimming pool at Scadding Court at, like, two in the morning. The cops came, and as we were running away escaping over the fence, Andrew [Moszynski], our drummer, caught his hand on the wire fence at the top and sliced his thumb, and all the skin like was flipped over. His hand was all messed up and so we couldn’t play the show. But then, thinking about it recently, we had the greatest press that the Snakes ever had in the paper the next week, about the cancellation of that show — “Snakes injured running away from cops, forced to cancel show.”
Joseph: Bad boy press. “The city weeps.”
Andre: [Laughs.] It was fun back then.
Matty: I think like the first time I saw the Snakes at the Horseshoe, everybody that was still working at Le Sélect was all like, “come out” — I wasn’t, like, a rock & roll dude, I was still young enough where I’m like, “No, I go to hardcore shows, I go to punk shows. They sound like the Stones?” I didn’t understand what that shit was. And then I remember going and seeing the Snakes play and it was just sick. And then that was a transition into adulthood, Toronto. I was so deep into the punk hardcore scene in Buffalo — emo bands would play, but there would never be a mix-match thing, I never felt energy. Because it’s about the energy, right? It’s about going to a show and you can see a band like the Snakes play and be like, this is way fucking cooler than a punk show.
Joseph: I have a question about growing up in Toronto, because what you’re describing is pretty similar to what I grew up with in Brampton in terms of small shows, like lots of emo hardcore shows in community centers and church basements and shit like that. But because you grew up in the city, did you instantly get slingshot into playing cool clubs?
Andre: I started off in high school playing at a place called Classic Studio, which was a reggae club in the basement at Osington and Queen, right around the corner from where your restaurant [Prime Seafood Palace] is now. It’s not there anymore, but it was a basement place. Hardcore shows used to get booked there. My high school band opened up for Shotmaker — I remember telling my dad, “There must have been almost a hundred people!”
Matty: [Laughs.] “65 paid five bucks.”
Andre: [Laughs.] “10 paid, hundred people.
Matty: “Lotta zines were passed around.”
Joseph: Oh, my god. The guy with his fucking merch Tupperware.
Matty: Somebody reading a book in the middle of the floor.
Andre: That energy of a hardcore show — does it remind you of the kitchen?
Matty: Well, it reminds me of touring. It reminds me of when you’re in the van, you’re touring, you’re like, “I’m out here for a month, I’m out here for three weeks, I’m out here for a week.” I feel like there’s that kind of energy where it’s like, you’re all in this situation, you’re trying to make something great every night, there’s a lot of pressure, how do you get there? Getting to the show is the excitement, right? That’s like the prep. You’re working all day trying to get this stuff, there’s all these problems, you overcook your carrots, you blanch your fries wrong, you butcher a fish and you fuck it up. A tire blows. And then you show up and then the magic happens. You have service and then there’s the after party.
It’s very similar. Oddfellows was just me, Mattitude, and a dishwasher. I was 26 when I opened that place — that place was magical, and it was just mayhem. It was actually an insane business, and that’s why it only lasted two years. I think with the music and being an outsider and just wanting to be a part of whatever the hell is going on out there and having our little worlds — I think that’s what brings us all together. Everyone starts in their little niches, their little cliques, and then you go to these bigger cities and you travel and you get experience, and I think you just kind of open up and that’s the beauty. Like seeing the Snakes, I was just like, Oh, sick, what is this? And then all of a sudden you’re like, Oh, I can listen like the Black Lips and go to a Jay Reatard show… All of a sudden, there was a whole world.
Andre: I can relate that in your personal story — like you learned French cuisine first, so that’s like the New York hardcore of cuisine.
Matty: It is.
Andre: And then you’re like, “Maybe there’s other stuff to know…”
Matty: “What’s this Portuguese chicken doing over there?” [Laughs.]
Andre: You slowly open up and branch out and learn. As you mature, you gotta stay open. You don’t get more closed as you get older, you try to stay open and learn.
Joseph: I was going to ask you, because this record that Andre and I made is kind of about a cook having an existential crisis, or just a tough time in a kitchen and everything that goes along with that. Because it’s pretty punishing, right? It’s the same as touring, where it’s very fun and exciting, but also oftentimes people have a shelf life. Or you have to find a way to do it that is sustainable versus the way you were touring when you were younger, which was…
Joseph: Yeah, wasted. Did you have that moment in kitchens where you were just like, How can I keep doing this? Because clearly the way I have been doing it is insane.
Matty: Yeah, that’s my entire story. You know, having a heart attack at 29 at Parts & Labour [Matty’s former Toronto restaurant]…
Andre: Were you working at the time?
Matty: No, I had it after my shift. After my shift, I punched out to go die. [Laughs.] No, it was after a three-day no sleeping bender kind of vibe. And then I went home, and it was one of those things where I think it was the end of the road. You know, it is tiring, working 12 hours a day forever. You finish at midnight and then you party till 6 or 7 or 8, go to bed to at like 11, get to work by 11:30 and do it all over again.
Andre: But even without partying…
Matty: Yeah, take out, the partying, working 12 hours a day — the thing is, you’re working with perishable items, so you’re working with things that are constantly getting worse and your goal is to make them better, and then serve them to people perfectly. It’s just stressful. And if you have people in control like a chef that doesn’t know how to articulate to their staff what they need to do, that’s when things get messy. That’s when things become unmanageable. I’ve always said, if a chef is yelling, it means that they didn’t tell that person what to do. A lot of chefs think that you should read their minds and know how to do things, and it’s that arrogance that is the whole catalyst of this toxic workplace. Whenever it’s like, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” It’s just like, “Well, your job as the chef is to teach me how to do. I need you to show me once at least. ‘Plate it like this.’”
Andre: Yeah, talk me through it.
Matty: Yeah. A lot of chefs are like, “Make me a paté.” A paté is wide ranging thing. A chef can just be like, “Make a classic French paté,” and you’re like, “OK, well, how do you cook your shallots? How do you use brandy? How do you deglaze? Do you want me to poach the chicken livers? Do you want me to sear the chicken livers? Do you want me to use salted butter, unsalted butter? Do you want me to use lemon zest so it doesn’t oxidize the chicken liver mousse? Do you want me to add nitrates to keep it really pink? Do you want me to pass it through a tamis?” There’s so many things that you can go through. Chefs just say things and they don’t know how to articulate, and then all of a sudden they blame the cooks. And then the cooks are like, I’m never good enough. I don’t know what the chef likes. They’re kind of trained to think that they should know what the chef thinks. But it takes years.
Colson, who’s my executive chef of all of my restaurants, knows what I mean when I talk. He understands my food language, my culinary language. I’m still working on how to articulate my vision through food to him, but he knows. I’ll say something, and then it’s like broken telephone. He’s taking something that I’ve said loosely via text or we’ve had a quick conversation — I could just be like, “Yo, chop that up fine, and do this and do that.” I could talk to Colson that way, but then he needs to go and articulate that to a chef, and then that chef is making five to six different components.
Andre: But is there a magic also in that, the variables of miscommunication — in the humanness of that? Like music, sort of like the way that what he’s hearing and what you’re saying, somewhere together something new is made and it’s OK that there’s not total control. That’s where the magic happens.
Matty: Absolutely. Letting go. Being free, being like, “I’m giving you a starting point.” And that’s the thing that a lot of chefs can’t do.
Joseph: Is it ego, or is it just like a lack of ability to relinquish control?
Andre: That’s the same thing.
Joseph: Have you worked with people who are unwilling to deviate? Who aren’t even willing to relinquish any control?
Matty: Most of the chefs I’ve worked under.
Andre: Is it a problem with chefs, like within the culture of chefs?
Matty: Yeah, it’s like the chef is the only person that matters. We’re all cogs, we’re a spoke on the wheel. He is the rim, without the rim, we’re just flapping around. But truly, without us, he’s a bent piece of shit.
Joseph: I have friends — and I’m not going to say who the band is, but — they toured with this guy, and the way that he wants the songs to be played every night is kind of what you’re talking about. It’s like, there is no deviation. The drums, the bass — the way he recorded it is exactly how he wants it to be played. And the measure of success is how closely the band played it to the album. And that would drive me insane, because I feel like I come alive, and I also come from a background that’s more free and improvisatory musically. I feel like every night, if it changes, it’s better for it, for the musicians [and] the audience. But have you ever worked in a kitchen that has that similar spirit, where people are more equal?
Andre: Like a free kitchen. Would it work, though?
Joseph: Well, that’s my question: Does it exist?
Matty: There are certainly dishes at all of my restaurants that aren’t my dishes. They’re our dishes. Rob made a ponzu sauce at Prime Seafood Palace, and it’s way better than my ponzu sauce so, like, let’s run it. Every single recipe is measured to the gram once it’s finalized. So once we’ve said that that is the dish, then we work backwards and we remake it perfectly and weigh every single ingredient to the gram. Then anybody that works at — because we switch stations at most of our restaurants. That’s the other thing — working grill isn’t the most important station. I’ve stripped all of that ideology, that kind of hierarchy within the kitchen. Pastry is just as important as grill, dressing a salad is just as important as cooking a $200 steak. It doesn’t matter, the price point doesn’t matter. Everything is just as important with kitchens. The hierarchy is, can you do all of the stations?
You may start at different levels. You may start just on prep. We have a full prep team that comes in and does knife work and gets everything to a level where I can walk into the walk in and just grab stuff. I guess prep is like guitar tech, where if you have a good guitar tech, it’s incredible. You have a shit guitar tech, it’s very difficult. Like if your pedalboard does something and you’re trying to like entertain a whole crowd, and that guy runs out in the dark and tries to do something and it doesn’t work, he doesn’t know how to problem solve — you’re kind like, “Well, that’s your job, to understand all of this component and to be able to problem solve to get it perfect at any moment.”
Andre: Yeah. I think what you’re doing is breaking down just philosophies of teamwork. Which is just like teamwork being one of the most basic levels of being a person, right? Like how people interact with each other, what makes them happy, how do you get good work done collectively? Bands work that way. Even if you’re a really rough band in a in a van and you’re just teenagers, or bands that have been together for 30 years, they’re always having to rethink how they work together.