By Aja Arnold
Matthew Basford always knew he was headed for a career in the restaurant business ever since he took his first restaurant job as a teenager in his native Australia.
Once he committed to his culinary journey, he won second Place in Tasting Australia two years in a row and placed in the Nestle Junior Chefs of Australia Competition, which honors the top apprentices in the country.
He completed his four-year apprenticeship in Australia and became a qualified chef, a traditional educational path to become a chef in Australia, then moved to the United States in 2002, landing in New Orleans. There he worked at Dominique’s in the Maison Dupuy Hotel until disaster struck three years later when Hurricane Katrina hit the city and flooded the levees.
He and his wife decided to leave New Orleans and move to Atlanta in 2005, and within a few weeks he had already found himself in the kitchen at Canoe, where he’s been ever since.
There, he started as a line cook and worked his way through the ranks from sous chef to executive chef to chef de cuisine. In 2013, Basford was named executive chef of Canoe, where he continues the restaurant’s legacy of fine dining using fresh, seasonal ingredients along the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Vinings just outside of Atlanta.
The restaurant has racked up numerous accolades, including Best Brunch in Georgia by Southern Living in 2017, and has also been featured in publications like Bon Appétit, Wine Spectator, Newsweek, Modern Bride and The New York Times. In 2016, Town & Country named it the Most Romantic Restaurant in Atlanta.
It’s also one of the few restaurants in Georgia to serve kangaroo – a nod to Basford’s Australian roots. The peppercorn-crusted kangaroo loin with pickled peach, blackberry, pistachio and strawberry Romesco joins other items like roasted Berkshire pork chop with black-eyed peas, Nueske’s bacon, forbidden rice and pimento butter; slow-braised rabbit with swiss chard-goat cheese ravioli; and wood-roasted duck breast, bok choy, red curry duck leg and cashews with ramen noodles on the menu, showing Basford’s flare for mixing Southern and Pan Asian influences in his dishes.
Canoe’s beautiful setting along the banks of the Chattahoochee naturally lends itself to special events like weddings, corporate events and private dinner parties. In April, Canoe hosted the Georgia Restaurant Association’s Barbecue and Brews event to support the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Political Action Committee and the GRA PAC, which helps advance a pro-restaurant, pro-business legislative agenda, fight onerous legislation and address the issues most important to its members in Georgia.
Following are edited highlights from our conversation with Chef Basford. – Christy Simo
RI: What was your first restaurant job? Biggest takeaway from that job?
MB: My first restaurant job was as a dishwasher in a hotel. I actually went there for a workplace experience as part of my high school education. Once they saw I had a desire to work in the industry, they hired me.
My first cooking job was at Pear Tree Cottage in the Barossa Valley. I was hired as an apprentice and was part of a pilot program to help students that wanted to get into a trade and not go on towards a tertiary education.
What I got from my first cooking job was a wealth of knowledge and how to work in a small team environment. I also had my eyes opened to [the fact that] if you want to learn, people in this industry are happy to teach and pass on all the information that they have.
I have also taken on this approach to my kitchens. If somebody shows me that they want to learn, I will happily teach them all I know.
RI: What moved you to pursue cooking in restaurants as a career?
MB: I enjoyed cooking at home from a young age. It was always the happiness that people can get from your artwork. You get instant gratification from all the work that you put in.
RI: You first moved to the states from Australia in 2002 to New Orleans. What drew you to New Orleans?
MB: The travel to New Orleans was to take as much from the history of the cuisine and the culture that the city has to offer. In my three years in New Orleans, I barely scratched the surface and still am enamored by how much history the city has to offer.
RI: Where did you stand in your career when Katrina hit? What was that experience like?
MB: When Katrina hit New Orleans, I was lead line cook/sous chef at the hotel in which I worked. The removal that Katrina forced on myself and wife was a blessing in disguise. It gave me the motivation to take my career to the next level and progress into my cooking career.
RI: You got your job at Canoe pretty quickly after moving to Atlanta. What led you to Canoe, and what did you know about Canoe before you started your work there in 2005?
MB: It was about a month after Katrina hit that my wife and I decided that Atlanta would be our new home. Once we came to that realization, the job hunt began.
A friend that accommodated us during relocation time informed me of a great restaurant in the city and that I should apply there. I did some research on the restaurant and discovered the culture and history that it had. It was the cuisine that drew me to Canoe.
RI: What changes has Canoe undergone since you first started? What things have always stayed the same?
MB: Canoe has remained to its core goals and culture that have been in place since the day it opened. The changes that occurred is a slight leaning toward a Asian-influenced cuisine, but still staying true to our Southern heritage the city has.
RI: Canoe is one of Atlanta’s longest-standing fine dining staples in Atlanta. Are there any trends in the restaurant industry today that have posed a challenge to Canoe? Any trends that Canoe has embraced?
MB: We try not to overreact to the trend of the moment and always sit back and evaluate how things can help improve the restaurant and our guests’ dining experience. We have always tried to support as many local Georgia farmers as much as we can.
RI: What do you like to cook for yourself in your time outside of the kitchen?
MB: I love to grill on my Big Green Egg at home. It’s always a fun experience to try new things and different ways to use the egg.
RI: What do you think are some of the greatest challenges the restaurant industry in Georgia is facing right now?
MB: The greatest challenge facing the industry is staffing. Every restaurant is only ever as good as the people who work there.
We work in a people-driven industry. As much as technology advances, restaurants will always need people to differentiate themselves from each other.
RI: Who do you source local produce and products from? Do you work directly with them or through other resources to get enough produce for your menu?
MB: We, as a restaurant, have a great relationship with numerous farmers across Atlanta. Our oldest supplier of local produce has been Moore Farm and Friends. We work directly with them as they source products from Anderson, Alabama.
I also use the Farm’d website. … This also gives me exposure to a number of different farmers across the state. We have a great relationship with Royal Foods. They are always looking to Georgia farmers as much as possible, and then moving to surrounding states when needed.
RI: You’ve been in Atlanta for a long time. What’s your favorite thing about ATL?
MB: Atlanta has a little bit of everything you could need. I feel the greatest part is you can drive an hour – depending on traffic – and be in the middle of a forest and surrounded by nature. My wife and I love to hike and be out in nature.
RI: Who is the biggest influence in your work?
MB: I have always taken influence from the chefs who have trained me. This starts with Mark McNamara and Peter Clarke in the Barossa Valley and Carvel Gould [former Executive Chef at Canoe] when I arrived in Atlanta. I also take influence from people who have worked with me in the trenches of line cooking throughout my career.
But I have always taken my work ethic from my parents. They definitely showed me that nothing is given and hard work is required to get through life and to be successful.
RI: How is the restaurant industry and culinary culture different in the states than in your native Australia?
MB: There are a lot of similarities and some differences. In Australia, you were always forced to work within the seasons.
As an industry, we always associate with very similar types of people no matter what part of the world you live in. The industry itself in Australia is full of Mom and Pop-style restaurants and are always specific to different cuisines.
RI: Canoe recently hosted the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA)’s PAC event, Barbecue & Brews in April. Why do you think it’s important to support the larger restaurant community through the GRA?
MB: As an industry we need to stick together and support each other to be successful. This is where I feel Atlanta is different. … The restaurants help each other. We all have a common goal of giving guests the best experience possible. The GRA is a way for smaller restaurants to be sure that their word is heard and have the support of an organization for our common needs.
RI: Canoe also participates in some high-end food festivals, such as Taste of the Nation and LDEI-Atlanta Afternoon in the Country. What are some of the benefits and challenges of participating in food events like these?
MB: Food events are a great way to expose our restaurant to new guests. It’s also a great way to help those less fortunate than ourselves. The biggest challenge is logistics and being able to execute the dish that best shows what Canoe is all about.