“No matter how long you take, you can’t be prepared for something like this”: After six years and one pandemic, Matty Matheson’s Prime Seafood Palace is finally open

“No matter how long you take, you can’t be prepared for something like this”: After six years and one pandemic, Matty Matheson’s Prime Seafood Palace is finally open

More Memoirs

In 2016, Matty Matheson decided he wanted to open a restaurant that would embody his ideal of hospitality. Teaming up with former Canoe chef Coulson Armstrong (now culinary director of Our House Hospitality Company, which owns Prime Seafood, Cà Phê Rang and others), he designed a steakhouse menu that would treat ingredients with reverence and steer clear of gratuitous complexity. Matheson’s plan was to open on his 36th birthday, in 2018, but as he says, “Life ain’t a straight line.” Six years and a global pandemic later, Prime Seafood Palace, Matheson’s dream kitchen on Queen West, is finally open. Here’s the how the culinary and architectural gem came to be.

Matty: I’ve had a wild life. Earlier in my career, I was executive chef at various restaurants—Oddfellows, Parts and Labour, P&L Burger—and when I left all that, I was able to start a whole other career online and on television. I got to travel the world, eat at all these amazing places, and meet all these amazing people. But years went by and I still didn’t have my own restaurant. Finally, I got to a place where I didn’t want to be someone who used to be a chef and now just does the media thing. So, in 2016, I decided I want to create a restaurant that embodies my idea of a beautiful thing.

The main concept hasn’t really changed from day one. It’s a steakhouse. Steakhouses, to me, are top-tier restaurants around the world. They never fail. Even if they’re shit, you still love them. I knew from the start that I wanted a space within a space. On Instagram, I saw a church in South Korea that’s a windowless concrete brutalist building on the outside, but on the inside, it’s this wooden cathedral where all the illumination comes from a skylight. I thought it was beautiful and really profound.

I was adamant about trying to find somebody who didn’t design restaurants to design mine, just to have a fresh mind on the project. In July 2016, I reached out to architect Omar Gandhi—his career was established in the Maritimes, where I’m from, so that drew me to him. We met up for a really beautiful breakfast—a couple of fried eggs, crispy bacon and a few honest cups of coffee—and we just got each other.

Coulson: I came on board in 2017. At that point, I was 33 and had spent a decade of working in kitchens and not taking any time for myself. I wanted to go see the world. I travelled through Southeast Asia for six months and eventually landed in Australia, where my brother lives, ready to work again. I saw that Matty happened to be in Australia too, so I sent him a message. We had met once but didn’t run in the same circles or anything. Matty got me in the door at some amazing restaurants in Australia: Saint Peter, Bray, Ester. The two of us sat down and had coffee one day, and Matty said, “Listen, I’m doing something special. Maybe it’s in a year.”

Matty: Maybe it’s in six years.

Coulson: Exactly. I was on board right away, but he told me to take another year and keep travelling. I went to New Zealand and worked at Pasture, the hardest place I’ve ever worked. Meanwhile, I was still in touch with Matty, and he was always so friendly and helpful. He was like, “Why don’t you go to Noma?” Next thing I knew, I was in Copenhagen spending four months on the grill at one of the best restaurants in the world.

Matty: We broke ground on Prime Seafood Palace in 2018. The foundation was put in poorly and it flooded a couple of times, so we had to redo it. It took engineers six months to figure out how to safely hang the ceiling vault, which is 12,000 pounds of wood. How do we hang that safely? How do we install steel beams that weren’t in the building when we first built it? There were a lot of problems.

Coulson: In 2019, Matty was like, “Okay, we’re getting close on Prime Seafood Palace.” And then, all of a sudden, a global pandemic happens, and we’re like, “What do we do now?”

Matty: We serve food out of windows.

Coulson: Cheeseburgers. I spent a year working on Matty’s Patty’s, first at a little pop-up, then at MattyFest on Echo Beach and then at the flagship store on Queen West across from Bellwoods. It was a time when nobody had jobs. It was scary. But we were really busy, doing something we loved, and we were able to hire 40 people in that space. It was lighthearted, and we didn’t take it too seriously, but it allowed us to move on to the next step. In the background, Prime Seafood Palace was getting built, almost as a side project.

Matty: I initially planned to open on my 36th birthday, in 2018, but life ain’t a straight line. During the pandemic, the cost of everything skyrocketed and everybody was backed up. With Covid, we went through a period when we could have only one trade in at a time. The electricians would have a day, but then there would be a problem, so they’d need another day, and no one else could be in the building until they were done. There was constant back and forth with scheduling. And, with the lockdowns, there were times when the building just sat empty for months.

This was supposed to be my only restaurant. Now I’ve got a couple, and I’m very proud of what we’ve done. But this ain’t overnight. From financial issues—the budget nearly doubled—to structural ones, there were a million delays, but we pushed back opening by only one month once we took the space over. We had planned to open on April 20, but it’s tough hiring people right now, and we needed a large team. Then there’s the supply chain for our equipment—we opened without a glass washer. No matter how long you take, you can’t be prepared for something like this. But you have to jump off the cliff and do the best you can.

Coulson: Before we opened, we had every recipe down to the gram, cooked, tested, and laid out for the staff. We wanted to make this place feel like it’s been open for a year.

Matty: We did a friends-and-family night first. And I mean really friends and family: no influencers, no VIPs, no bullshit—just people we love. I’m in a nice place because I don’t really need the influencers to come. I’m the influencer. What was most important to me was that we got to open on a very special night: my mom’s birthday. She and my dad got to come, my wife and her friends came. Our families have heard us yelling about this for six years, so I thought, let’s just do it chill and relaxed. We were fully booked for the first 30 days instantly.

Coulson: Really, the biggest concept here is restraint. One time Matty and I were in Austin doing a barbecue for Hot Luck, a food-and-music festival there, and I was asked to make cheese sauce for a sandwich. I was like, cheese sauce, got it, no problem. I started working on a recipe with 35 ingredients. And Matty was like, no, you just take a brick of cheese, melt it, and add milk and mustard. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be overcomplicated. And that’s what we do here.

Matty: It’s about stripping things back. There’s not really a lot of composed dishes. It’s steak on a plate. It’s crab in a crab shell. We focus a lot on sauces and on taking parts of an ingredient and making them accoutrements to that same ingredient. Like the crab: we take the head guts, make a tomalley, take the shells, make a chili oil, pick the crab perfectly, and dress it lightly with a bit of butter and salt. That’s it. You have a beautiful, creamy, crab-infused sauce and a chili oil made from the crab.

Coulson: Or take the scallop. The questions we ask ourselves are: How do we get the best scallop? What are one or two elements we can add? Matty loves Szechuan, so we paired that numbing Szechuan pepper with beautiful hand-dived scallops.

Matty: I think people get confused with good cooking. It’s not about how many things you can put on another thing. Can you just prepare a carrot good? Can you gently roast it, steam it, or serve it raw and have somebody enjoy it? Can you manipulate that ingredient as simply as possible to impact the flavour the most?

It’s the same with the room. There’s no art, there are no sconces, there’s nothing. It’s a monolithic space: just gorgeous Canadian maple, brass, and leather. Everyone glows in here. It’s warm. It’s like the whole thing is humming. It’s the complete opposite of other steakhouses, which are all red leather, dark tables and tuxedos. This space is angelic and soft. It’s a true juxtaposition with steak, which is very masculine. I want the space to be neutral and inviting.

This is what I think is beautiful. This is how I feel on the inside. It’s a way I’m able to show people what I really am. Some people may not understand that, but this room is how I feel hospitality should be. This is me. But I only set the stage, and that’s just 10 per cent of it. This would be nothing without everyone else in here. Because it’s so relaxed, beautiful and simple, everyone who’s a part of this shines. We often think we need to overcompensate and do a lot of bullshit to make something great, but we don’t.

Coulson: I think this place would be different if we’d opened it four years ago. We’ve grown and matured as people.

Matty: Who I am has changed a thousand times. I didn’t have kids before this started. The biggest thing about this space is, I just want people to feel welcome. Truly, that’s it. You’ve got a kid in a stroller? What’s up, let’s do it. You’ve got ripped jeans? What’s up, let’s go.

The beauty is in the imperfections. It’s funny having rich dudes come in here and see me walking around the room, and I’m not trying to be anything I’m not. Guess what? I come from a working-class background. This can happen. You have to work really hard, but it can happen. It took me 22 years to get here, not just six. I went to culinary school just to get out of Fort Erie, the town I grew up in, and now I’m back there and I love it more than anything. It’s full circle. My reputation is out there, but I’m 40 now. I’ve got three kids, and I want to eat at nice restaurants. This is my nice restaurant, and it’s for everybody. Come here in swimming trunks and flip flops. Or wear a tuxedo, I don’t give a fuck—you’re the same as everybody else.