As visitors from every corner of the globe flocked to our doorstep for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, another medal-worthy stir spotlighted Vancouver on the global stage. Mark Schatzker’s article in the February edition of Condé Nast Traveler singled out our city as “home to the best Chinese food in the world. Period.” A bold assertion, indeed, but it joins the growing list of plaudits fêting the variety and calibre of our local Chinese restaurants. Celebrated food writer and television personality Mark Bittman declared in The New York Times that “Vancouver is to Asian food what New York is to European: a place where a cuisine is often as good, and sometimes better, than in its country of origin.” Nearly one in five of Vancouver’s two million residents is of Chinese descent, and Schatzker opines that our city’s ethnic demographics married with its “legendary seafood” offers fertile ground “for an outsize number of extremely good Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Szechuan restaurants.”
Now in its third year, the Chinese Restaurant Awards (CRA) celebrates this wealth of choice and showcases the benchmark of excellence that is consistently attained by Vancouver’s Chinese chefs. The Diners’ Choice component of the awards encourages the public to choose their favourites across a total of 15 categories ranging from Best Northern/Shanghainese to Best Taiwanese Restaurant/Bubble Tea Café and Best Cantonese Dim Sum. In 2009, a flood of nearly 10,000 votes was cast online. The Critics’ Choice Awards are selected by a panel of 13 esteemed judges. Appointed for their passion and expertise in Chinese cuisine, these judges bestow 24 Gold Signature Dish Awards recognizing singular menu items that define a chef’s skill and creativity.
Yet all great things often come from humble beginnings. Stephen Wong, founding chair of the CRA, reminisces, “Most of my memories of Chinese food in Vancouver from the late seventies through the eighties were from Chinatown—very few restaurants were located outside of those boundaries. Restaurants like Kam’s and Gain Wah were the places to eat, and Richmond basically didn’t exist as a culinary destination.” A respected chef, cookbook author and food and wine journalist, Wong is a well-regarded authority on local Chinese cuisine. “Back then, earthy rustic Cantonese-style cooking was still prevalent and regionalism wasn’t particularly defined. Dishes like Alaskan black cod hot pot and singing chicken were very popular with far less emphasis on high-priced items like abalone.” Wong recalls that, “freshness was key. Live seafood like clams, swimming scallops, Dungeness crab and rockfish were always available.” When it came to dim sum, push-cart service was the norm, a trend that began to disappear more acutely as Hong Kong–style service began to increase in scope.
The period from the late seventies through the mid-nineties saw a diaspora from Hong Kong with people anticipating the repatriation of the colony to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997. Émigrés, among them chefs from Hong Kong’s finest restaurants, capitalized on the Canadian government’s accommodating regulations of the day and rode the immigration wave to Vancouver. They transplanted wealth in the form of both assets and culinary expertise and were responsible for a new generation of restaurants that expanded the breadth of cuisine available to local diners. Accompanying the influx of new Hong Kong immigrants was a shift in culinary approach, heralding the rise in popularity of more subtly nuanced cooking techniques and sophisticated plating and presentation. “It was a heady time,” says Wong. “Immigrants were looking to establish a new sense of place and discover what their adopted home offered in terms of regional ingredients.”
“The best Cantonese cuisine is akin to Italian with its focus on clean, simple preparations. … Authenticity isn’t defined by the inclusion of specific ingredients. Rather, it’s about approach and rigour.”
Lee Man remembers Chinatown as the nexus of both Chinese culture and dining during his childhood years. “When I was growing up, coming together to eat was more than just about having a meal—it was about being part of a community, and food was integral to that identity.” A CRA judge and food writer with an exceptional scope of knowledge on Asian cuisine, he reflects on some of his early dining memories. “While schoolmates celebrated birthdays at the Old Spaghetti Factory, my family marked special occasions with banquets at New Diamond Lounge. Dim sum at Ming’s was a weekly ritual, and picking up chilled red bean soup at Hon’s was a summertime treat.” He adds that restaurants like Hon’s were “value-for-money driven … We ate to get full in a way, a motivation that people are stepping away from now.” Yet at the same time, there was an emerging desire to explore local seasonal bounty. “I remember foraging for wild watercress with my parents, fishing for rock cod and digging for geoduck and oysters. And when we brought the ingredients home, it was all about applying Chinese cooking techniques to our new finds.”
Man pauses to collect his thoughts as he peruses the menu at Golden Paramount Seafood Restaurant. Its nondescript location in a Richmond strip mall belies how well the restaurant exemplifies current Chinese cooking trends in the Lower Mainland. “The best Cantonese cuisine is akin to Italian with its focus on clean, simple preparations. Paramount reflects the Chinese understanding that authenticity isn’t defined by the inclusion of specific ingredients. Rather, it’s about approach and rigour.” He sees Paramount’s dishes as a celebration of the Chinese love for fresh regional ingredients. “It’s about the Chinese chef looking into the local larder, really loving what he sees and preparing food in a way that enhances the intrinsic ingredients with minimal alteration.” He singles out the unusually named “fried milk with pan-seared oysters” as an example. “The chef air-dries local oysters to remove their flabbiness and concentrate their seafoody flavour. He then cooks them in first-draw soy sauce to further amplify their taste.”
In Man’s eyes, immigration over the past 15 years has brought with it both sides of the equation: highly skilled chefs and restaurateurs as well as astute diners with sharp palates. “What’s driving the ever-increasing prominence of our local Chinese dining scene is this hyper-discipline that has come to Vancouver and the incredible competitiveness that it has spawned.” Indeed, this creative climate prevents stagnancy and complacency while encouraging alternative expressions of Chinese cuisine. He cites Bao Bei as being “like the Chinese kid who grew up in Vancouver, spent some time travelling and now wants to interpret Mom’s home cooking in his own way.” Bao Bei’s menu focuses on regionally sourced ingredients with pinpoint accuracy and draws upon a range of international cooking techniques to create original dishes that are still completely recognizable to an old-school palate. Their version of beef tartar imparts a classical French dish with Chinese flavours and local ingredients, incorporating preserved mustard root, crispy shallots, ginger and burnt scallion oil with Pemberton beef tenderloin.
Vancouver native Robert Wong is part of this new vanguard of innovative Chinese chefs. He brings nearly three decades of culinary expertise to the CRA judging panel, having recently returned to Vancouver after six years of living and cooking in Hong Kong and traveling through mainland China. His storied résumé is a litany of success: youngest honouree as one of Hong Kong’s ‘Top 100 Chefs’, winner of Hong Kong Tourism Board’s Best of the Best culinary award in the Signature Dish category and chef/co-owner of Michelin-starred Chilli Fagara in Hong Kong’s SoHo district. Wong’s culinary skills are bred in the bone—a fourth-generation chef, he began learning the trade in his family’s restaurant kitchen at the age of 13. “I never wanted to be a chef after watching my parents work such long hours,” he admits. “But I started working with my father after school and on weekends. It wasn’t long before I became the fastest on the line at stir-frying noodles and vegetables.” His true love of food, though, blossomed under his mother’s influence. “I got my sense of playfulness in the kitchen from my Mom. We traveled throughout China and Southeast Asia, across North America and the Caribbean, trying different food and flavour combinations and learning about different cultures.”
“I think you’ll see our Chinese fare increasingly move away from false luxuries such as shark’s fin soup in favour of really embracing seasonality.”
Wong currently dishes up his brand of fiery fare at the helm of his family’s Szechuan Chongqing on West Broadway while simultaneously working toward opening a restaurant of his own in early 2011. “I’m hoping to replicate and expand upon the foundation I established with Chilli Fagara. Based on the time I spent in Hong Kong, I think that Vancouver is still about four or five years behind in terms of the speed at which its Chinese cuisine is developing. Menus there change daily and chefs crank out original signature dishes on almost a weekly basis.” Wong seeks to foster an adventurous culinary culture that motivates Chinese chefs to push the envelope and perhaps cater to a different customer base. “My goal is to reach out and educate people—especially Western diners—more about Chinese food, but I’d like to incorporate local ingredients and exotic meats into my menu and mix it up a bit.”
Wong’s culinary ethos dovetails with Lee Man’s assessment of what characterizes Vancouver’s Chinese cuisine: “Chinese food is made to satisfy the local diner. We cook to please ourselves and we’re seeking out new and sophisticated points of view.” He remarks that the influence of Northern Chinese cuisine with its deeper, often smoky flavours and sharp, piney heat of Szechuan peppercorns has been injecting new taste sensibilities into the local dining scene, “opening up even Chinese palates to a different way of tasting food. I’m really looking forward to someone who takes these influences and really marries them to the local preference for fresh, clean flavours without diluting the punch of heat. Already you see many Northern Chinese restaurants dialing back on the heaviness and muddiness that can mar some of their cooking.”
Man also notes that Vancouver’s Chinese chefs are only just scratching the surface of exploring local ingredients. “Many Chinese tourists come to our city looking for Vancouver-specific delicacies such as Dungeness crab and geoduck. King crab and spotted prawn seasons are already firmly entrenched on the Chinese dining calendar, and I think you’ll see our Chinese fare increasingly move away from false luxuries such as shark’s fin soup in favour of really embracing seasonality.” He observes that ingredients such as local wild mushrooms along with winter vegetables such as kale and cabbage are still absent from local menus. “And of course there’s local game such as farmed venison that’s a little too rich for Cantonese-style lightness. But Northern Chinese cookery is used to working with cold-weather bounty and transforming it through braising and stewing.”
Vancouver truly is one of the most reciprocally interactive, culturally diverse cities, and the calibre of our Chinese cuisine on an international scale bespeaks our success as a multi-ethnic society. “What we’re seeing isn’t a slavish re-creation of homeland dishes,” Man says. “Chefs are moving forward with an unparalleled sense of confidence.” It’s a wide-open culinary road with the promise of a delicious ride ahead.