12/01/2014 04:27 EST | Updated 01/31/2015 05:59 EST

From claw to tail, Matt Dean Pettit demystifies lobster in new cookbook

TORONTO - One of the reasons Matt Dean Pettit fell in love with lobster as a child was that it was a food he could eat with his hands.

His love affair with the crustacean has continued, and in the last 2 1/2 years the 35-year-old has opened three Rock Lobster restaurants in Toronto, developed a line of seafood products and written a cookbook. He's also collaborating with Food Network Canada on a new series.

Pettit's mission with "The Great Lobster Cookbook: From Claw to Tail" (Appetite by Random House) and his restaurants is to "demystify lobster and bring it to the masses." The book has more than 100 easy recipes, from chowder to stir-fries, brunch specialities, lasagna and even Vanilla Bean Lobster Ice Cream. And of course there are his famous lobster rolls and creamy lobster mac 'n' cheese.

He includes "Lobster 101" for those unfamiliar with the crustacean's anatomy, lobster lingo and advice on how to buy, store and cook lobster. There's a primer on how to crack the shell and remove the delicious sweet lobster meat.

Pettit, originally from Midland, Ont., spent his summers around seafood with annual family car trips to Wolfville, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine. The youngster was fascinated to see freshly caught lobster unloaded from fishing boats and be able to eat it almost immediately — with his hands.

At 13 he began working a few hours a week as a bus boy in a local eatery and helped with food prep as he got older. "I always loved it, the action, energy of the kitchen," he says.

After university, he worked in the alcohol and beverage industry in sales and marketing.

When attending a wedding in Miramichi, N.B., a few years ago he was struck anew by the prevalence of shellfish in Eastern Canada and a lightbulb went off. While there were oyster and seafood establishments in Toronto, he felt lobster and shellfish were given short shrift, so he decided to launch them in a "fun and approachable way."

"I wanted to highlight the fact that living in Canada and being in North America we have the best lobster in the world, which we do, and that's because of where we live, because of our waters and because they're so icy cold. Lobsters grow faster in warm water, so in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, spiny lobster grow to be the size of a dog. They're huge, but all tail, no claws.

"The meat in those tails is less sweet and less tender, where our meat because it's cold and the lobster grows slower — takes around six to seven years ballpark to get to a pound — and so the lobster meat is a lot sweeter, it's a lot tenderer, a lot more flavour right into it."

Pettit bought a "crappy food truck" and started doing pop-up events, beer festivals and catering.

"I didn't go about it as a normal restaurateur and if you notice most people don't. I started with the Toronto Underground Market. We had done 80 events, maybe more, prior to opening," he explains in an interview at one of his popular Rock Lobster locations.

"I would post on social media and have 1,500 people show up at Trinity Bellwoods (park) and would sell 4,000 lobster rolls and end up with $7,000 cash in my pocket.

"It's too competitive. Any market is too competitive to just open the door and be, like, my name is X bar or X restaurant and hope people will come in. If you don't have an established name — (U.S. celebrity chef) Bobby Flay could be cooking in here tonight, but if people don't know about it it doesn't matter and so you need to build that reputation or you need to build that presence."

His mentor and friend Claudio Aprile, chef-owner of two Origin restaurants in Toronto and a judge on "MasterChef Canada," provided advice and also a recipe for Pettit's cookbook.

"My truck is rotting in a junkyard in Lindsay, Ont., now," Pettit says with a laugh.

Other high-profile chefs gave Pettit recipes for "The Great Lobster Cookbook": Mark McEwan of Bymark and a "Top Chef Canada" judge, Robert Gentile of Buca, Roger Mooking, formerly of Kultura and Nyood, and Rocco Agostino of Pizzeria Libretto.

For home cooks new to lobster, Pettit exhorts: "Never be intimidated."

When buying lobster from a grocery store, the tank should not be murky and the lobsters should have room to swim. There should be no odour.

"If you flip a lobster over on its back side, right near the top where the meat is exposed on the back, if it's nice and soft it means it's nice and tender and fresh."

It's been found lobsters have no central nervous system so they do not feel pain, says Pettit. When you drop a live lobster into a pot of boiling water, the sound is air being released from the shell.

You can lay the creature on its back for about 10 minutes, which puts it into a catatonic state. Or stick it in the freezer for 15 to 30 minutes "and it will just numb it right to sleep, then just pop it into the boiling water."

Don't overcook lobster. The rule of thumb is seven to nine minutes per 500 grams (one pound) to boil. When steaming, tack on another three to four minutes.

Lobster turns bright red when cooked. Pull at a leg or antenna — if it comes off easily it's done.

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