I first met Charlie Burger a year ago, in England. Word had spread that the elusive host was holding one of his guerrilla dinners at St. John, chef Fergus Henderson's justifiably renowned London restaurant. The opportunity was too good to miss. I was a serious fan of Mr. Henderson's no-nonsense, nose-to-tail cooking, and also of the concept of Charlie's Burgers: unique not-for-profit dinners staged every month or two in a different, secret and unexpected location. Selected guests were sent the menu and wine list and told how much cash to bring and where and when to show up - at a street corner, perhaps, or a shady bar or a public phone where other instructions would lead them to the actual venue.
In the two years since its inception there had been more than a dozen evenings, all held in downtown Toronto; this was the first international venture for Charlie's Burgers and for once the rendezvous was an actual restaurant. This time Charlie would be sitting with the guests and we were all on our honour not to tell the world who he was.
A great deal of speculation already surrounded his identity. Guesses ran the gamut from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay to Toronto sommelier Jamie Drummond. One foodie forum declared there was no Charlie Burger, just a posse of industry insiders; another one had even fingered me. The whole thing went global in May, 2010, when the American magazine Food & Wine named Charlie's Burgers number 3 out of its 100 best new food and drink experiences in the world. The CB website was flooded with 4,000 e-mails from 27 different countries - all eager foodies hoping to be invited to an event.
That night in London, however, our group was barely a dozen, mostly Canadians either living or staying in London. Punctually at 8 o'clock, Charlie arrived and shook my hand - a good-looking man of 30 wearing Marc Jacobs jeans, Bruno Magli loafers and a crisp, white shirt, and sporting designer stubble. He looked vaguely familiar - oh yes, he had been one of the waiters at the only other CB event I had attended, a year earlier in Toronto.
The St. John dinner was a merry one. Mr. Henderson's meal wowed us all - huge, messy devilled crabs that we ate with our fingers, ramekins of unctuous jellied pig's trotters, perfectly textured tripe and onions, a watercress salad with capers and shallots, a peppery buck rarebit of toasted cheese with a poached egg on top, and a finale of ice cream made with Fernet Branca and crème de menthe. I was dying to find out more about Charlie's Burgers but appreciation for the food hijacked the conversation.
"That always happens," said our host, with the broadest of smiles. "The evening may start with people talking about the mysterious way they got to the event and wondering who Charlie is but it quickly becomes all about the food and the wines and the chef. That's mission accomplished for me."
Meet the real Charlie
Charlie's real name is Franco Stalteri and his day job is director of experiential marketing for Your Brand Integrated Marketing Communications. He puts together high-end events for banks or luxury car companies or other prestigious clients such as Dom Perignon Champagne.
Food has been a lifelong passion. Though he was born and raised in Toronto, his mother is French and his father Italian and young Franco grew up fluent in both languages, as well as English. Summers were spent on his great-uncle's farm in Normandy - "he had rabbits and made his own Calvados, his own foie gras" - or on his grandmother's property in southern Italy - "she pressed her own olive oil and I remember getting up early every day and going outside to pick fresh figs."
Mr. Stalteri got a degree at the University of Toronto and then joined Lecours Wolfson, a firm of executive headhunters that specialized in finding chefs for top-quality establishments. His days were filled with conversations with and about North America's leading chefs - Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Boulud, David Lee in Toronto, Rob Feenie and Pino Posteraro in Vancouver. He also spoke to the best sous chefs - men and women with extraordinary talent who were often the driving forces of their restaurants but frustratingly unable to express themselves while cooking another chef's menu. That's where the idea for Charlie's Burgers was born - offer a great sous chef an opportunity to create a liberatingly imaginative dinner for, say, 50 guests, with perfectly chosen wines in a private venue, not a restaurant. Guests would pay only food and wine costs; waiters and cooks would all volunteer their services.