Taylor Clarke has parlayed his satirical, Twitter-based chef persona into a TV development deal. To get to know both of them better, I tagged along for a night on the town.
If you’re not yet familiar with the Chef Grant Soto meme, I’ll sum it up succinctly: A budding screenwriter creates a Twitter account to send out quips about Toronto’s culinary scene under a pseudonym; people are amused; his identity is revealed; a television show is now in the works. Tonight, we’re painting the town Soto-style, and I’m not entirely sure what that might entail. I’ve made no plans except to act as some sort of wingman.
10:15 p.m.: It’s a Wednesday night, and I’m in a suite at the Hyatt Regency on King West. There are empty cans of Moosehead and PBR strewn about, luggage and socks scattered everywhere. Seinfeld on mute. “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” on iTunes. I empty the last of my Grey Goose cherry vodka from my flask and steal a Diet Coke. I’d totally feel like a high-class rent boy if Songs & Cigarettes scribe Braden Rosner—who is way prettier than me—wasn’t joining us. Rounding out our party is my pal Sabrina, the fairest of us all.
Thunder Bay native Taylor Clarke launched the Soto account in January 2012. Its modest popularity snowballed thanks to his ceaseless teasing of chefs and restaurant trends. Clarke originally thought Twitter would be an interesting forum in which to build a character for a script based on his experience in the industry. He hoped to use the account’s audience for feedback.
“But I didn’t think it was going to work; it was just for my friends and I initially,” he admits. His account wasn’t supposed to be a “secret,” but when pubs like Toronto Life started speculating on his potential identity—they guessed a local “celeb” chef—and the whole act became quite the parlour game, Clarke decided to roll with it. I met him at the height of that tiny hoopla, when he introduced himself to me at a party after we exchanged mutual LOLs online. We exchanged numbers, and met up again at a friend’s house party, where we drunkenly crafted a Twitter feud and I found out just how many people had opinions about him and his seemingly aimless attacks.
10:45 p.m.: To start, we decide on drinks at Marben, where Clarke was last spotted working the scene rather than laughing about it. C-Daily photographer Ryan Emberley joins in. Now it’s a party. It’s interesting to see Clarke return to his old gig, the place he landed after working at a little restaurant on Little Italy that “thank god” is now a bank. Many restaurants make me feel that we’re trying to be the Toronto that other people want to be in, not the Toronto we want to be in, but that’s what drew Clarke here: the promise of the surging scene. Everyone here still knows his name.
After studying film and English at UWO, he moved here in 2007 and found the city completely unremarkable. Yet when he returned in 2010, he perceived that a different story was beginning to unfold: “People are excited about their neighbourhoods, their communities, and their food.”
So, I wonder, how would the man behind Soto describe Toronto’s food culture at the moment? “I don’t want to say something like ‘exploding,’ but it’s still figuring out its identity.” How does it feel? “It feels like Toronto is going through these growing pains, but everyone’s so passionate about it. We’re only just now getting attention.” He cites Anthony Bourdain’s recent visit as a major benchmark. “I like that we’re a good food scene, but, in a Torontonian way, I feel like we’re always trying to over-define ourselves in this city. Can’t we be the best Toronto? The show I’m trying to make is about this city, with characters based on people [who] rose through the ranks here.”
11:45 p.m.: We roll up to Brassaii, where Clarke says he’s “tight with the manager” and that there’s a booth waiting for us. A mash-up of Coldplay’s “Clocks” with Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones” is wailing over the speaker system. I’m both horrified and mesmerized to see the back room packed with hump-day bumping patrons. I spot a producer who tells me Wednesdays are the new Gay Days here. Suddenly, things are looking up.
I talk to Clarke, who revealed his identity in June 2012, about how the transient restaurant industry, judging from my own trench tales, never seemed like a place anyone would want to be. But now, it seems like people can’t wait to work, or especially own, the hottest new place. “That conflict between the front of the house and the back of the house I always found interesting,” says Clarke, noting that chefs view food as their passion and their career, but servers dream of becoming actors or writers or musicians. “They don’t treat it the same. You can always sort of see this resentment or conflict between the two. [Servers] usually make more money, they’re out there interacting with people all day instead of staying in the back making pasta all day. I think the industry needs more career servers.”
Clarke works by the “write what you know” mantra. The reason he didn’t get torn apart by Toronto’s chefs, he says, is that they gave him “a pass” out of mutual respect. The Soto account is never a cheap parody—he’s never actually dressed in chef’s whites for the sake of cultivating an image. (He’s also worked every job in a restaurant except the role of chef.)
When we talk about the restaurants we’ve been to (his favourite is Campagnolo, and Pizzeria Libretto is always a contender), I ask if he’s been to Bent yet, the new restaurant from the sons of Susur Lee. “I haven’t been to Bent because I’ve made a lot of jokes.” A fun fact, as it turns out, is that the restaurant job that pushed Clarke out of the food world entirely was a stint at Lee that barely lasted a shift. “I had dealt with the sons, and I had enough.” I press him for more details, but though he’s grinning, he’s reluctant to talk. “What do you want me to say?” He trails off. “It’s a family business, [Lee]‘s training them. Whatever, it’s fine. It wasn’t my first job—I knew it wasn’t going to work out.” And if you look back on Soto’s tweets, you’ll see he’s been even harsher to the great pony-tailed one.
Admittedly, the voice of Soto has changed considerably in recent months. The account has shifted focus, and it functions not only as a public brainstorming session, but also as a way to stay connected to what’s going on in the trenches of Toronto’s food culture. Twitter, in many ways, remains Clarke’s biggest muse. But how does he reconcile being friends with some of the people that ultimately serve as his material? “People like to be made fun of. People message me all the time saying, ‘Hey, can you make fun of me?’ It turns me off a bit, but it’s like people want to be part of the club. At first, some people really didn’t like it if I made a joke about them, but if you’re not going to have fun with it, then why bother? I’m just going to stop. If you want to call me a troll—which is ridiculous—then I’m not even engaging you.”
Currently, Clarke is in development with Just For Laughs TV on his first show, Chef Grant Soto, with another crime-based series on the table. The premise almost feels like the aftermath of the Twitter account: “He’s just become this giant celebrity chef, he’s on The Shopping Channel. He’s basically driving his business into the ground, and has lost the respect of his peers. He’s kind of a joke. He parties too much, he has an ego.” Basically, he’s an insufferable megalomaniac.
Clarke is not going to be playing the title role, but he hopes to write a part for himself. For the lead, he hopes to find someone like Adam Scott; I counter with Jason Alexander. As for the tone? “[The food industry] has always been glamourized. I want to make a show that’s funny, dark and honest, that shows how restaurants and kitchens run.” So how do they run? “Do they? Do they run?” he laughs. “Often with great difficulty and drama.”
1:30 a.m.: The producer is pouring vodka straight into my mouth. As much as I would love to eat tacos off the hood of Charles Khabouth’s car with Clarke and co., the last thing I remember is waking up the next morning with a dime of weed in my bag. I don’t know who from. I don’t know how come. And no one has any answers. As for Clarke’s future? “I just want to pay my cellphone bill,” he laughs. “In Canada, that’s a good measure of success.”