You take the short walk through the hotdog shoppe, careful to follow the directions with the utmost precision. You see the phone booth at the back of the room, just as described. You pick up the receiver. “How many?” asks the husky voice on the other line. You timidly reply, “four.” Moments later a secret door opens. It worked! You’re in. This was the memorable experience at a post-prohibition cocktail lounge in New York City that motivated proprietors, John Vetere and Tania Ganassini-Vetere, to move from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake with a business plan in hand to start a secret dinner society.
Over 10 years ago, Vetere and Ganassini-Vetere were both roughing it in kitchens across Toronto. Yet, neither one had any intention of becoming a chef. Ganassini-Vetere, who started cooking 10 years ago, was inspired by a journal her parents “forced her keep.” “I was lost career wise. I began reading my journal and I realized the ongoing narrative was food. I never considered it a career path. The journal saved me,” says Ganassini,
Vetere was also uncertain of what he wanted his career path to be when at the age of 16 he began a co-op in a restaurant. “It was an eye-opening experience. It was my first time in a professional kitchen and I was hooked after the first night,” says Vetere.
When the two met in the Culinary Management Program at George Brown College it was a match made in heaven both personally and professionally, but the couple were placed in different parts of Italy. “We were thrown around the country, but most of us were lucky to be in a Michelin Restaurant,” says Vetere. Ganassini-Vetere, who was placed in “Nona’s” kitchen in Alma, near Parma, learned in traditional Italian cuisine. “Sounds like a cliché experience, but it really changed me,” says Ganassini-Vetere.
Vetere, on the other hand, was placed in a less traditional environment reminiscent of Gordon Ramsay’s role on Hell’s Kitchen. “I had an intimidating chef and there was a language barrier. I did my best to fit in it, but it changed everything I knew about cooking,” says Vetere.
The pair returned to Canada and continued to gain extensive culinary experiences. Ganassini-Vetere spent time working in establishments that demanded high quality at every table turnover. “Canoe was the first really serious kitchen I worked at where I started at the very bottom and worked my way up,” says Ganassini-Vetere. “There was 150-200 people a night and I was putting the finishing touches on the plates with tweezers.”
Once again Vetere had a different experience than Ganassini-Vetere. “I worked at Scarpetta for two years. The chef there was opening a restaurant called I’m Yours with a tasting menu that changed daily; I joined him as sous chef. After one month of being open, we won best new restaurant by Toronto Life. We went from seven to ninety people a night,” explains Vetere. “It was a new experience for me.”
All the while the couple kept thinking about a business model built around their experience at Please Don’t Tell in New York. “We had heard about Charlie’s Burgers but we wanted to be different by taking the idea of a speakeasy, but instead of cocktails we created a way to bring it to food,” says Ganassini-Vetere. They found a house in Niagara-on-the-Lake and in December of 2014, Norton Underground hit the ground running.
Although the couple admits their family and friends didn’t hold back when it came to giving their opinions about the quick move to Niagara, Vetere and Ganassini-Vetere describe the change as the best decision they have ever made. “We had no friends and no connections here,” says Vetere. “I think having no prospects and distractions is what forced us to focus and open as rapidly as we did.” They were immediately charmed by the town and the warm welcome they received by fellow restaurant owners in the industry. “Not to throw Toronto under the bus, but it is cut throat, while everyone here is willing to help,” says Vetere, who is also the sous chef at Ravine Vineyard.
The instant your purchase your ticket online, the theme of mystery that embodies Norton Underground begins. “We send you a hand written letter in the mail that has a key sealed to the envelope with wax. You need to bring the key with you. The invitation also gives instructions on what time and where to meet,” says Ganassini-Vetere. “You will be greeted by a person with a lantern, but that is not the actual location it is the drop off and pick up spot,” she says. Next, participants are greeted with a cocktail or champagne at the meeting place and driven to the dinner location where the Norton staff greet them. The transportation is another aspect that makes Norton unique. “We wanted to provide transportation which no one was doing,” says Ganassini-Vetere, who uses a variety of preferred vendors and the type of vehicle depends on the theme of the dinner party.
“The menu could be three or five courses, family style or plated dinner,” explains Ganassini. Guests are treated to a top notch meal prepared by Vetere and Ganassini-Vetere. A pairing of wine or beer accompanies the meal. Guests are then escorted back to the drop off point, but not before they are given their own special surprise. “Everyone gets a take home gift in vintage milk carton which is usually a sweet snack,” says Ganassini-Vetere. From monographed cookies to biscotti with tea, each gift is carefully thought out. “It is personalized,” explains Ganassini-Vetere. “We put a lot of thought into it and we feel strongly about detail.” With the evening already prepaid, guests can leave their wallet and worries at home. “There are no added costs,” says Gananissi-Vetere.
The Niagara Region is full of unique locations for Norton Underground to set up for the night and the couple loves the challenges that this poses. “Our dinner parties can be anywhere,” explains Ganassini-Veter. They do have a set of criteria when selecting a location. It cannot be an existing restaurant, but an existing kitchen for them to cook in is preferred. “One location didn’t have a kitchen so we rented equipment, but the stove didn’t fit through the door,” explains Ganassini-Vetere. Although the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre in Niagara-on-the-Lake was by far their most spectacular event, the couple had to adapt quickly to cook for a party of 20 outside on four burners. “Everyone loved it,” says Ganassini-Vetere.
We measure doorways now,” laughs Vetere.
Norton Underground planned and executed an unforgettable evening at a secret off-site location in a peach orchard serving up a special batch of Oast House X Momofuku Peach Ale at the end of August. “We dreamed up the concept of a dining room where there is no dining room among the vines,” says Ganassini.
What makes the experience special is the idea that a restaurant is being created from scratch solely for you. “We start fresh every event. There is so much that goes into planning one night and not being familiar with the set up and the kitchen. It stifles your efficiency a bit,” says Vetere. “It is new every night, but that is what I love about it,” says Ganassini-Vetere
Despite the logistical challenges of a secret pop-up dinner, Vetere and Ganassini-Vetere are committed to driving forward with their idealistic business model. “It is the risk you take when you are trying to do something new, but when you do find it, it is special,” says Vetere. The couple now focuses on one or two private parties a month and hosts one open to the public event in October. “Do them less frequently and do them well,” he adds.
In the roaring twenties there were thousands of speakeasies across Canada, and now, thanks to Norton Underground, Niagara has their own high quality spin on the concept.
Written By: Jill Tham