Ethel's Lounge 114 King Street North Waterloo, Ontario N2J 2X7…
If you’re a fan of the zany and obstreperous culinary-travel cavalcade that is Viceland’s Dead Set on Life with Parts & Labour chef Matty Matheson, then you may have seen Matheson’s mentor, Rang Nguyen. What you may not know is that Nguyen is currently doing some cooking and managing in the kitchen at Stark & Perri in Waterloo.
First, a bit about Matheson
He has lots and lots and lots of tattoos. He does You Tube videos like “Guarnteed to Get You Laid” lasagna. He swears a lot. I mean … a lot. Simply put, Matheson’s persona is one that lives large and loud; Nguyen, on the other hand, is a bit more quiet when you speak with him at Stark & Perri. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t passionate about food — and perhaps possessed of a hint of the rebellion that motivates Matheson.
Second, some Waterloo history
Stark & Perri, located on Princess near King Street, Waterloo, is former rum-runner territory. Located in what was once McMullan’s (which is now on Highland Road), the building, during the Prohibition era, was used for boot-legging.
It went down something like this, according to Stark & Perri owner-operator Devon McKenzie: Under the guise of being a business called the Dominion Tire Company (a company partially funded by Seagrams), cars were rolled in, had fake gas tanks filled with hooch and were shipped to the U.S. There were, apparently, tunnels beneath the roads in the vicinity and connections with the Huether, then Kuntz Brewery, across the street that facilitated all of these shenanigans. (You can read more in a story by Greg Mercer in The Waterloo Region Record.)
“There were armed guards out here at night, and, apparently, Al Capone kept one of his cars here,” McKenzie says, a Waterloo Region native.
As for the name, that comes from two popular mobsters: a Calabrese “macaroni salesman” out of Hamilton named Rocco Perri and his cumare gun moll partner-in-crime Besha “Bessie” Starkman. At one point in their rise to infamy — Starkman was eventually whacked (having likely been mistaken for Rocco) while Perri walked out of his home one day in the mid-1940s never to be seen again and was presumed assassinated à la Hoffa — the pair were purportedly pulling down a thousands and thousands of simoleans a month in revenue from a variety of illicit mafiosi commerce, including proceeds from a brothel.
That is the myth — and it is a damn good one.
McKenzie says the selection of the name Stark & Perri situates the building and the restaurant in that wonderful myth and history of the city as well as the larger social and economic context of the Prohibition era, which ran roughly in the ‘teens and 1920s. It tries to capture that sort of Capone or Bonnie-and-Clyde history that we all love — though all the liquor is legal, I’m sure.
A new menu perspective
So that leaves the food and Rang Nguyen: the chef came on board at Stark & Perri about six weeks ago. He has classical French training and is a Red Seal chef who learned the craft in the rough-and-tumble of decades in the Toronto restaurant industry. A mutual acquaintance brought the chef and the restaurateur together in operating Stark and Perri.
McKenzie owns four other hospitality businesses in the downtown of Waterloo and has had Stark & Perri for about a year-and-a-half. He says he’s weathering the construction, barely: business plummeted 40 percent immediately the minute the fences went up, he added. We all know that well here in LRT-stressed Waterloo Region.
The basics of McMullan’s remain, according to McKenzie. “We still sell great pizza, and have a pitcher deal. Same thing, but we’ve elevated our menu,” McKenzie says. “We wanted to give the place a new, fresh face and try to stay on trend with where pubs are going when it comes to food.”
A good cook is about passion and hard work. It’s about love, man. — Nguyen
That’s where Nguyen comes in. The kitchen has moved to using a wider range of suppliers with an eye to more fresh cooking and some local produce as well. Nguyen has re-directed the menu to include new items and approached classics with a new perspective.
“You can have deep-fried food. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we’re trying to make that home-made, more tasty and with more variety,” says Nguyen.
The Scotch egg, for instance, is new and popular and the deep-fried calamari does really well, he adds. “We’re trying to have a classic pub, but take it to the next level.”
That means pub meets some classic bistro fare and a range of cuisines and techniques: a chicken pâté, ratatouille and chicken Dijonnaise, as well as spicy mango salad, duck confit and duck poutine. “The whitefish mousse we smoke with wood chips from Jack Daniels barrels.”
Local beers on tap
The bar has 25 taps with between six and eight of them rotating local breweries. Customers include families visiting on late-afternoon weekends, business folks at lunch, and then young professionals at night.
Nguyen counts among his resume places such as Le Paradis Brasserie Bistro and Le Sélect Bistro where he met and began his culinary relationship with Matheson. He also did and does restaurant consulting work. Kitchen life has consumed him. “I’ve been cooking all of my life,” he says. “Vietnamese and French.”
That’s a very rich combination of food cultures, and Nguyen draws several comparisons between cuisines. “There are similar Vietnamese dishes for bouillabaisse and steak tartare,” he points out.
I do my own thing
As for Matheson, Nguyen takes a certain pride in where his student has gone, including as a panelist at the recent Terrior Symposium 2017. “Matheson was my student, my apprentice. He’s a punk rock guy. When I met him, I gave him some training, like tough army training. I poked him with a hot tongs and that’s why he’s so bad now. He’s very successful.”
Perhaps like the wilder student, Nguyen’s a more tame version, but one no less passionate. “Everything I do with food is a passion, from the simple French fry to classic Beef Wellington,” he says, intimating that perhaps he’s in part like Matheson’s persona in that he doesn’t necessarily follow rules.
“You don’t just cook. It’s about being creative and cooking outside the box. I do my own thing. I take from Asian, French, English, and I put everything together and create my own food. A good cook is about passion and hard work. It’s about love, man.”
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