I met Franco while attending a Charlie's Burgers dinner a few years ago. Despite consuming each of the wine pairings offered that night, I remember it clearly. I was completely in awe of every aspect of the experience. From the delicious food and drink to the incredible
energy of everyone present, nothing went untouched by the passion that seemed to float through the room. Afterwards, I typed up an email to Charlie himself - Franco Stalteri, and offered to shoot future dinners in hopes of getting to be a part of the experience again in whatever way possible. Years later, we are still in touch, and I was delighted when Franco agreed to catch up and have me check out the thriving community garden he recently brought to life alongside Pilsner Urquell. Introducing: the most
interesting man in the world...


Describe what brought you to what you're doing now.
I think I got to what I’m doing now mostly through chance and circumstance and just following my passion. When I started, there was no real clear cut plan or direction, and through fumbling and learning along the way, Charlie's Burgers eventually evolved into what it is now.

Let's talk about that. What has Charlie's Burgers become?
Charlie's Burgers has become a few different things over the years. At it's core, it still is exactly what it was when we started, which is a series of dinners with chefs from some of the top restaurants in the world. The premise is that there are no limits in terms of what kind of menu the chefs can put together. We’ve always imported most of the wines that we serve at our dinners, and that gradually became the Charlie's Burgers Wine Program, which is a monthly wine delivery service across Ontario where we send our members a different case of wine from a unique producer from somewhere in the world every month. We also send a full write up on the producer, why we think they're interesting, it's bio, tasting notes on the wines, and we feature two different restaurants every month where our members are able to take the wine that we send them and go have dinner or lunch and not pay corkage. Lately, we've been collaborating with Cheese Boutique by having them select different cheeses and items that go with the wines every month. If people want to buy them, they can email the owner Afrim, and he takes care of them directly. He’s basically the youngest cheese master in the world, so it’s kind of exciting that they get to deal with him personally.


I find the culinary industry is so full of passion. How important do you feel it is to love what you do?
I think that if you’re able to follow what you’re truly passionate about and make it your profession, then that really is a great blessing. In my eyes, the definition of luxury is doing what you love every day. It doesn’t come without its challenges and compromises of course. We started Charlie's Burgers nearly seven years ago, and for the first five years it was something I did part time. I still had a profession and a career and I did this in the evenings and on weekends and whenever I had a spare minute. It was tough and gruelling at times, but I always enjoyed doing it, and eventually it became large enough to sustain me and become a company.

I am really interested to know more about the journey that brought you to running such a unique business, so out of sheer curiosity, what was your very first job?
Oh, ok! *laughs* My first job...are we talking high school?

Sure! Like, first paycheque.
My first paycheque, it would have been...I was a dishwasher at Swiss Chalet.

Yeah, I started at Dufferin and Lawrence, so if you ever dined at Swiss Chalet in like, 1994, I would have washed your dishes.

That's so funny.
I also sold shoes for a period of time in high school at boutique in Yorkdale, and I worked for relatives that had bars and restaurants both in Italy and in France, I worked in restaurants throughout university, and then after university, when real work started, I was a headhunter for the top hospitality headhunting firm in Canada where I specialized in fine dining and luxury lodging. That kind of expedited my passion for food and wine. I got to work with some of the top chefs and hotels in the world from Daniel Boulud, to Wolfgang Puck, to Four Seasons Hotels, to Ritz Carlton Hotels, and learned a lot of what we’ve applied to some of the areas of our business from some of these people and places.


Like what?
Well, part of the whole questionnaire you fill out when joining Charlie's Burgers has some influence from the Four Seasons Hotels, which tries to compile as much information about their guests before they arrive so they don't actually end up asking them any questions when they get there. And we do the same with our guests. We’ll sometimes bring things up in conversation and mention the funny stories they included in their bio and they’ll always ask “how did you know that?”…well you did fill it out. Even if it was years ago someone did read it. They’re always shocked that someone remembered.


Speaking of the Charlie's Burgers questionnaire...describe your perfect meal.
I’ve been asked to do this many times, and I probably have the worst answer. I don’t think I have anything spectacular. To be perfectly honest, it would be something as simple as tomatoes from the garden with some burrata, basil, olive oil, salt, and bread. That’s it. I’d be pretty happy with that as a last meal.

Delicious! On the topic of meals, I'd love to know more about what criteria you look for when choosing chefs to host dinners with.
There are a few different avenues we go down in order to find chefs. There are the well established chefs that are extremely well known and successful and that have massive followings, and as long as their food is exciting and they still spend time in the kitchen and are passionate about what they do, that’s kind of the prerequisite there. Then we also have the
up-and-comers. The ones that are making noise, usually within whatever city they're in. They're starting to bubble up to the surface and have already done amazing things that people might not know about. I really like to find those chefs - that next generation of chefs that basically will be dictating what we’re eating in 10-15 years down the road. We try to create a balance throughout the year.

You've managed to build such a great community around CB. How does that feel?
I absolutely love that what we've done resonates with people and that we are able to be a part of their lives and show them our passion for food and wine. The community grew slowly over time, and kind of took on a growth of its own. In terms of people getting "I ♥ CB" tattoos, it’s kind of beyond me, but it was extremely flattering and a lot of fun to see the lengths at which people have gone either because they love what we do or love the dinners. I've seen really crazy things happen, which is always fun and interesting. The community is a mixed bag of people which we really, really love. A mixed demographic of people from various income brackets and age groups. I mean, were talking anywhere from 21-70 years old and everything in between. People from all walks of life. The only thing that unites them clearly is that their passions are the same as our passions.



Toronto really seems to be on the rise when it comes to food and drink these days. What are your thoughts on the industry here?
I love Toronto first and foremost. I was born here, I grew up here, and I will inevitably die here. In terms of our culinary scene and bar scene, it's a very exciting time right now. We’ve seen a massive diversification in terms of the style of food, types of chefs, the sizes and scopes of restaurants, the ethnicity that they cover, as well as the broadening of restaurant neighbourhoods. We have a lot of extremely passionate, young, well-financed people in the industry that will be able to do great things for the city and really broaden our offerings and hopefully attract more tourism to Toronto. Torontonians generally know we have a great city and that there are great restaurants and places to go, but I think it is very poorly communicated to the outside world, unfortunately.

Where are some of your favourite places to eat these days?
There are old favourites and new favourites! I recently had a great dinner at Alo, a new restaurant at Spadina and Queen. It hits a lot of marks. The menu is a tasting menu, which isn't going to be for everyone but it's interesting. The space itself is not a conventional space, but I think these guys are on the right track of exploring unconventional spaces for restaurants. It's on the second floor, accessible by elevator and off the beaten track, which is not typical for Toronto. Everyone wants frontage and corner units, however, those are far and few in between these days. We need to start finding alternative or less conventional spaces to open restaurants in, whether it be basements, second floors, and floors other than main ones. As for old favourites, I'm still always a fan of what the guys at 416 Snack Bar have done and I have been going there since they first opened. I like simple food. Terroni is still a staple and a great pizza. And Le Sélect. I'm an old man at heart. It's a great bistro that you will never tire of. That's the reason they've been there for the upwards of twenty years. You can visit at least once a month for your entire life and never get sick of going there.


What are some of the challenges and struggles you've faced?
There are small challenges on a daily basis and then you have your long term ones. I think that staying true to what Charlie's Burgers was about when we started is always the main focus and of paramount importance. In terms of challenges, you only learn through failures and tough times. I gave CB all of my attention when we started the wine program and it was scary because we started with just a few members and I had no idea whether it was going to click or resonate with people or not. So you kind of invest yourself totally and do everything you possibly can and hope it works. I think that one of the biggest challenges is to never be complacent or stop and say "this is good enough". If you take your eye off the ball or lose passion for what you do, then so will whoever it is that is associated with you. You need to constantly be the most engaged and passionate person and remember why you started in the first place. When we started we were really just a bunch of young punks with no plan and no real vision as to what this was going to become, so seven years later we look back at it and we’re like “wow we’re kind of old guys now". *laughs*

...who are good at what you do! Is that not the tradeoff?
I guess so! For the dinners, we’ve had the same core staff for the past seven years and everyone involved really knows the concept inside out, so every now and then we bring on younger staff when we need more help and whatnot, and they're always amazed at how seamless and fluid and interesting the service is. We have to remind ourselves of how much fun it is, because like anything eventually you forget. It only really resonates when you have this new staff come up to us and say “This is so much fun. I’m so thankful you guys let me do this and work with you.” and we all kind of look at each other and are like “Oh yeah, this is fun”!

What's the best advice you've been given?
Not to compromise on quality or on beliefs. I think that has been extremely valuable. There’s always some kind of compromise that is needed at some point, however, if you have a very clear vision, you should stick to what has been working for you. Really staying true to what your original vision was, and what your original success was built on is really important. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I actually know. It's a constant learning process and it's important to never stop and say “I'm an expert at this, I don’t need to know more." because that’s absolutely false. I think anyone who says that is lying. 


Published on August 11, 2015
Interview & photography by Marlee Maclean


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