Q&A: @ChefGrantSoto, the social-media satirist who’s become the TMZ of Toronto restaurants

Q&A: @ChefGrantSoto, the social-media satirist who’s become the TMZ of Toronto restaurants

He’s not really a chef, but comedian and screenwriter Taylor Clarke has a lot to say about the way we eat

Editor’s note: Taylor Clarke, the creator of the @ChefGrantSoto persona, died in early March 2019, according to social media reports. A memorial fund has been created through GoFundMe.

For a fake chef, Grant Soto has been making some very real waves on the Toronto culinary scene. In August 2017, @ChefGrantSoto (who is actually a comedian and screenwriter named Taylor Clarke) used his Instagram account, with its nearly 8,000 followers, to call out “IOUs” being taken from employees at three Susur Lee restaurants: Individual workers were allegedly having their tips garnished to cover a spilled drink, a broken plate, an unpaid cheque or other restaurant-industry incidentals, a practice the Ontario Ministry of Labour outlawed in 2016. The story went viral, sparked a 14,000-signatures-and-counting petition and resulted in a policy change and an apology from Lee and his sons, Kai and Levi, who promised to repay their employees. Clarke has found a niche casting side-eye on ridiculous food trends and rattling the cages of local restaurant royalty. We spoke with him about becoming the TMZ of the Toronto restaurant scene, and why his upcoming benefit will be like his Instagram come to life.

How did comedian/screen writer Taylor Clarke become parody chef and cultural critic Grant Soto?
In 2012, I wrote a script about an obnoxious celebrity chef, Grant Soto, and I started a Twitter account to go with it. I was working as a server at Marben at the time, and it started as a joke between me and my friends in the industry. I could say the things that they couldn’t say—jokes about Toronto’s stupid food trends, and some of the big names like Susur, Jen Agg, Grant van Gameren. The name “Grant Soto” was taken from van Gameren, and I thought Soto matched. Afterwards, people thought the last name was after Sotto Sotto, but it wasn’t.

When did you first feel like people outside of your friends in the industry were paying attention?
El Furniture Warehouse had posted this photo that they thought was a funny joke about Caitlyn Jenner, but was actually really offensive. They took it down really quickly, but I had a screenshot, so I reposted it on Instagram. After that, people started coming to me with stories.

You were the first to post a story about the IOUs policy in effect at the Susur Lee restaurants—where employees are expected to pay for mistakes out of their tips— that has since become a huge story. How did that come to your attention?
I have known people who work there who told me the tips are terrible, and I had been hearing about the IOUs for a while. A couple of weeks ago someone sent me a photo of an envelope that showed that she had worked something like one hundred hours and made a hundred dollars in tips. I posted that juxtaposed against a photo of Kai and Levi showing off their new $20,000 Louis Vuitton spring wardrobe. After that I started getting messages from people who had similar experiences with IOUs. The Lees are not the only people in town that screw people over. Maybe it seems worse because they’re always showing off their wealth.

Susur, Kai and Levi apologized for the IOUs. They say they are going to stop the practice and pay back the people affected. Does that make you feel victorious?
I don’t really feel anything until I know people are paid back. [Kai and Levi] have never had to live off tips. They’ve never had to worry about rent or food or whether your phone is going to get cut off. They think, oh big deal, but it is a lot. Toronto is an expensive city to live in. Ha! Now I feel like some kind of class warrior.

Levi has responded to the allegations that he and his brother are entitled brats, saying that they didn’t choose who their father is and don’t deserve to be targeted. What do you say to that?
I’ve been criticized for making fun of them. My stock answer is always—I’m a comedian, they’re posting this stuff online, I’m not harassing private citizens, I’m commenting on YouTube videos that have 50,000 views. How about [Kai] posting a video of himself cutting off a line of cars waiting to make a left turn and bragging about it?

What about someone on the Toronto food scene who is worth the hype?
There are lots of great people. I don’t think Jen Agg gets the credit she deserves. The attention to detail in her restaurants is amazing. And she isn’t afraid to stick her neck out. I think she’s very brave.

Agg talks a lot about the toxic bro culture of the restaurant industry. Do you see that getting better?
Maybe there is more attention now. Every once in a while someone will get in trouble for something, but will anything really change? I don’t know.

Last spring you got a lot of attention for an Instagram story about the cutlery-free Caesar salad at 416 Snack Bar. Why do you think that became such a big thing?
The thing is that you never really know what is going to take off. #SaladGate was one of my proudest moments because it was a complete invention. It was one woman complaining about the 416 Caesar on Instagram. I was sitting on my couch and I made it into an Instagram story and it went crazy: I was pitting restaurants against each other and people were going into order the salad and it got covered all over the world. It was a bit of a wag-the-dog moment. It showed you how much the Internet is kind of bullshit. And then after all that, 416 quietly took the salad off the menu like the snakes that they are. They replaced it with some watermelon salad.

What food trend are you currently rolling your eyes at?
Food trends these days come and go so quickly. Look at charcoal ice cream. There was a weekend where that was all you saw on Instagram and now it’s gone. Social media makes trends so much shorter. Tacos were a thing for three years!

Tell me about your party. Why is it called “El Bogo Fring’s IOU Warehouse”?
Ha! Well it’s mostly references to the things that I like to make fun of—Instagram influencers, the Lees, El Furniture Warehouse, the Toronto fashion scene. We’ll have DJs, food by Smoke Signals. I’m going to have a face painter that will only do Supreme box logos—if you follow my account, you get the joke. I just thought, let’s do an event, raise some money, have some fun. It’s going to be like my social media come to life.

The El Bogo Fring’s IOU Warehouse party was held on on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. The fundraiser benefitted the Northern Cancer Foundation.