Interview with Chotto Matte founder Kurt Zdesar
Chotto Matte has captured the zeitgeist. Here customers enjoy fresh and organic Peruvian Nikkei cuisine and they sample crafted cocktails – all in stylish, edgy urban spaces filled with original art and to live culinary performances. Be it in London, Miami, Toronto or Doha, the restaurants provide a full sensory experience – extraordinary experiences in settings that capture the local textures. If the luxury of consumption is more and more rooted in the concept of ephemeral and experiential moments, then Chotto is at the vanguard of the restaurant scene. With Spinach having completed the recent rebrand, we caught up with the restaurant founder and managing director Kurt Zdesar to find out more.
Chotto has clearly been a success, expanding the restaurants from the original location in London, to Miami, Toronto, Doha and soon Riyadh. Do you recall that very first day when you opened the Soho restaurant?
Oh absolutely! We purposely decided to open our first space in Soho on 18 September 2013 to coincide with the final day of London Fashion Week. We hosted the Dazed & Confused party, who brought with them the fashion crowds, and from the next day the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
From bringing Nobu to Europe, finding the Ping Pong chain, setting up bespoke fine-dining restaurants in London and now Chotto Matte – you clearly have a passion for food and restaurants. Do you recall your earliest food experience?
Growing up in a Sydney suburb in Australia, the families living around us came from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. There was an Indian family on one side, a Greek and Chinese on the other, and I would hang out with kids according to their mothers’ cooking! My mother fed us well, but it was basic food, so I remember going around to my friends’ homes to watch their mothers or grandmothers in the kitchen preparing elaborate and delicious meals. I still recall the exotic smells and tastes. These food experiences were all so exciting.
What drew you to working in hospitality?
I was always entrepreneurial and left school early to work in various restaurant kitchens. I didn’t take any formal training, but instead learnt the trade through working my way to Europe. I was really into cooking and instinctively knew if a dish wouldn’t work out. My parents understood my entrepreneurial personality. The best thing my mother ever taught me was the ability to think for myself and this stupid confidence! It has served me throughout my career.
Your real break came with Nobu. How did you become European director for one of the most groundbreaking and prestigious restaurant brands at the time, and at only 25?
I was managing restaurants by my twenties, realising that being a chef is never going to pay much. Nobu in New York had caused a sensation – it was such a new concept in 1997 and everyone was talking about it – so I was so excited when they offered me the chance to help open the first restaurant in Park Lane, London. The general manager then promptly left and I was put in charge. Nobu, as you know, became big – so much so that we opened 16 new restaurants within 10 years. Working directly with Nobu (the founder Nobuyuki Matsuhisa) himself, and with the architects and interior designers on this fantastic brand taught me so much.
Then in 2005 you formed Ping Pong. It couldn’t have been easy leaving one of the most respected careers in the business at Nobu to set out on your own.
I began questioning my lifestyle. Working on the restaurant floor in such hours is damaging to your personal life, which I sadly experienced. It wasn’t easy to leave all that though. You have to understand, at Nobu I lived the Rock Star lifestyle. But I knew I needed to set out on my own and create my own nest. This is when my mother’s confidence training came in.
Ping Pong went on to become a phenomenal success before you sold the franchise. Where did the idea come from?
The concept was around democratising fine-dining for a young urban audience. The average customer at Nobu in Park Lane was around 60; it is an expensive place to dine. So I wondered where do these customers’ kids eat since London didn’t offer anything for this group. There was (the original) Itsu with a conveyor belt in South Kensington, and Wagamama had great food, but the service and setting were too functional. It so happened that I had just flown to New York with the then new Virgin Airlines and was so impressed with how it could offer a better-quality service at a lower price than the more established BA. So I thought, similarly why shouldn’t customers get the full fine-dining experience but at a lower cost?
How did the business model work?
The trick was to cut running costs without sacrificing on quality. I had worked with enough companies to understand how the system works and what can be done to improve it, and my early experiences observing their automation systems at fast-food chains like McDonalds and KFC really paid off. The Ping Pong restaurants operated through a centralised kitchen in the outskirts of London to capitalise on lower rents. This way the restaurants could make maximum use from their spaces to serve more customers. This model reduced labour cost and produced zero waste.
And what about the restaurants themselves?
We made sure the Ping Pong restaurants were stylish – they had solid oak floors and we used great material throughout. The food was organic and of great quality too. Most importantly, we introduced a house champagne – a high-quality Crémant which we could sell at an affordable £22 a bottle. It was a huge hit with our customers who often came to Ping Pong on a date. The restaurants were so successful that we were doing six turns a day.
Which brings us to Chotto Matte. What made you adventure in the direction of Peruvian Japanese Nikkei cuisine?
It was on a trip to Shanghai when I first ate Peruvian Ceviche. The taste stayed with me. I then researched Nikkei cuisine and its incredible history and knew I had to do something with this. The food is fresh, healthy and delicious and can be eaten daily.
Chotto’s isn’t your standard Nikkei restaurant though. How did you envisage the cuisine being served in an original way?
I wanted to create a whole new experience. I also didn’t want to open the restaurant in the typical fine-dining areas such as Mayfair but rather in Soho, an area with such a rebellious vibe and sexy history with its strip-clubs, musicians and artists. I knew from the start that Chotto Matte needed to be an urban environment – the materials and textures, the oak tables, lavastone, Japanese slate and bespoke graffiti art, the lighting and music – all adding to this urban vibe. Working with our executive head chef, Jordan Sclare, we created a menu that stays true to the Nikkei stables – Ceviche, Tiradito, Robata Grill, Sushi, Sashimi and Tempura – while ensuring the ingredients are organic and sustainably sourced.
Music, art, materials, textures and colour – the sensory elements are pivotal to a Chotto dining experience be it in London, Miami, Toronto or Doha. The experiential side is increasingly pivotal to your restaurants. How exciting is it to conceive these spaces?
The experiential side is going to become even more important and we have to keep pushing the boundaries and be innovative. One of our brand philosophies is ‘discovery’. The graffiti wall in Soho is mounted on distorted glass so, depending where you sit, you may only see fragments or rippling bubbles of colour. The design teases – Chotto is full of surprises.
Chotto venues promote social occasions – they are sexy and full of life. How have you operated during the pandemic restrictions?
Our Soho restaurant was full during the period between the two London lockdowns. Our customers were so excited to come back and we extended the seating area outside to make up for social-distancing measures. We also introduced a ‘dine at home’ service whereby we send a food package with all the ingredients, and customer create their own meal with instructions via Zoom. They remain hugely popular and have become a bit of a social event.
Post-pandemic, customers are probably going to want to be in even more exciting environments. Do you see more of a focus on providing unique dining experiences in the future?
Eating out is a social event and that is largely why people dine out. And you are right, the experiential side will likely become even more important going forward. We are offering new all-inclusive packages. For the ultimate exclusive experience, you can reserve our executive head chef to come to your table, consult the guests and design a bespoke menu. There is the ‘sushi package’ and the ‘romance experience’ whereby the table becomes almost a dish with everything dedicated to love. We’re very excited about these new ideas.
What is your current favourite Chotto dish?
This is a difficult one! Possibly the lamb chops which is prepared three ways: first smoked in a cold smoker, then marinated which does a little of the cooking, and finally sizzled on a BBQ and dusted with coriander. It is crispy on the outside, and slightly pink and juicy inside. It really is a sensational dish.
Images: Chotto founder Kurt Zdesar, textures from the restaurants, new branding by Spinach, and food photography curtesy of Jamie Lau/Studio Lau. All photography strictly © Chotto Matte.
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