Interview: Joe Friday of Underground Chef Co., Entrepreneaur & Chef
Chef Joe Friday may not be from Toronto, but he is certainly a Chef about town. A king of tasty pop-ups, his Underground Chef Co. battle series and a brick-and-mortar spot called Calii Love, the guy keeps busy and this weekend is a big one. What does a battle entail? Well, usually it’s two chefs throwing down their best dishes with secret ingredients Joe Friday tailors to their strengths and weaknesses. Having been to a couple myself, the atmosphere is electric and best part is that they use different locations with new players, judges, etc.
Come Saturday, Joe Friday is taking a UCC battle to new heights at the Gentleman's Expo, so we caught up with him last week to get the low down.
When? Saturday, November 12th
What?6pm – Openly Discussion: A culinary roundtable with Matt Jones, Ted Reader, Jeff Dueck, Krista Faist, Kevin Brauch, Rob Rainford, Amanda Ray, Marcus Mariathas, and surprise guests
7:30pm – UCC Battle: Ted Reader vs Jeff Dueck
Hosted by Joe Friday & Mike Ward
Where? Gentleman’s Expo at 222 Bremner Street, Toronto, Canada
Danielle Finestone: What is Underground Chef Co. and what got you into it?
Joe Friday: I’m an ex-athlete, but I have been a chef for a long time as well. So I was thinking that we needed to have a competitive playing field out there. Before it was “Underground Chef Cartel” but now it’s just me and Devin (Rajkumar) with Underground Chef Co. We decided to do things a bit different than the championship format; instead we have these cool one-off battles to showcase chefs' skills. The chefs we pick aren’t ones that you’ll find doing magazine stuff- most of them are shy. I find that makes the competition more real, because some guys are showmen and some aren’t. We don’t use that as criteria. If you want to cook and you want to battle, that’s it. But this battle at The Gentleman’s Expo will have some bigger names, guys that have been doing it for a while - Ted Reader and Jeff Dueck.
DF: Yes! What are you most excited about?
JF: The whole opportunity. The Openly Discussion panel format, where we speak to industry leaders and talk about food and what we do in our culture. We started these sessions with Mogo Lounge on Queen Street and it something truly unique. We have all these amazing people on the panel and the audience will be able to ask questions. I genuinely think that culinary students should come. I’m also super excited about the competition. We have Chef Reader and he is a showman. He loves it. We have Chef Dueck. Both of these guys are going to be a great competition. They're buddies, but there are two different paths here. Before the battle, these guys will drink a beer and it's about camaraderie, your respect for your fellow chef. I hope we can have the same atmosphere as we do in restaurants.
DF: What’s the setup like?
JF: Untraditional. We have a stage. People can stand and sit, and for the panel we’ll have Mike Ward as the moderator. We changed a few things. The chefs will share the same tables. I like to see the chefs sharing ingredients, so we can see what comes out of it.
DF: Anything you can tell us about the secret ingredients?
JF: We’re leaving it in the hands of Afrim (Pristine) from the Cheese Boutique. Usually I would choose the secret ingredient depending on the chef. Both these chefs are good with meat and grilling so I’d pick something totally opposite, but we’re leaving the secret ingredient up to Afrim.
DF: Alright, so probably something cheesy… What do you think about social media these days and how it impacts what you do?
JF: Social media is interesting. It helps a lot of people in the industry. Period. Some people, you don’t know their face but you see their food online and you want some. I love that. And then there’s a negative part where people can say what they want to say, without having a face. I’m from the old school. If I have issues, I like to tell them to their face. I’m a constructive criticism-type person. I like when someone lends their criticism with room for improvement. But social media is helping shape the industry as is it is right now. It’s good and bad.
DF: Can you tell me about your new spot, Calii Love and why you thought of bringing poke to Toronto?
JF: When I first got here, it didn’t’ seem like the scene was progressive enough. Me personally, I trained in Italy and France, was raised in Japan and lived in a Hawaii for a long time. I first moved here five and a half years ago, because I have a son and his mom was studying at the University of Hawaii, where I was living. But she’s from Guelph, so we came here. I did feel like there was tons of potential and 5 years later, it’s amazing and it actually has a lot to do with social media.
DF: Agreed. And now it’s interesting to see food trends and how things pop up in waves, so how does your poke spot stand out from the rest?
JF: This is what makes us different: we are preparing ourselves for winter. Poke is really, really healthy, right? Other poke places are doing poke, no other options. We’re doing a bone broth starting next week. We’re doing oatmeal bowls and healthy, hearty food and it’s not just Hawaiian-only. Hawaiian is a theme behind it but so is California, the healthy Venice Beach life. This is the first time that poke has hit the East Coast in the winter. There’s going to be a transition and you have to innovate. Poke is not exactly a dish you think about in the middle of December, maybe you’re thinking about a stew. I also worked at Disney World and in menu testing and seasonal testing, it’s all about being prepared, not just reacting.
DF: So how do you do it all? What are your keys for success?
JF: First and foremost, I just like to work. I think it’s about surrounding myself with people that I can work with and trust that are honest to me. It’s hard because I’m not from Canada, and I had to earn my way. Social media did help that. So, I multi-task and I stay busy. Me working hard lends to me making sure that I have the capability to sustain a lifestyle and a living for my kid. And you can’t just do that opening a restaurant; you can lose so much of money. With UCC, we hadn’t made a dollar until last month. It was all out of our pockets and now we’re seeing a business plan that works for us, and we stuck with it because it was such a passion project.
DF: What’s coming up for 2017?
JF: 2017 is about where UCC will go, Calii Love and where that’s going to go. For me- I don’t live with my son, so my hard work is for him and for more stability so I can see him more often. So I’m looking for 2017 to be the year that everything pays off and gives some more clarity to everything that has been done.
Catch Joe Friday and the Underground Chef Co. battle this Saturday at the Gentleman’s Expo!
Pictured: a build-your-owl poke bowl from Calii Love!
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length