Eastern Promise

From secret kitchens to celebrity chefs, the face (and taste) of Chinese food in Canada is changing for the better.

When Toronto’s Momofuku Shōtō opened in 2012, it took a mere eight weeks for The Globe and Mail’s food critic to declare it “the best restaurant in the city.” Since then, diners have continually been blown away not just by the quality of the food, but by the restaurant’s ability to bring together such a diversity of global cuisines into one seamless experience. At Momofuku’s Toronto location (which includes a noodle bar and a bake shop), there’s European technique, a North American emphasis on local ingredients and inflections detectable from places as disparate as Japan, India and Colombia. But, arguably, many of the best dishes served at Momofuku Daisho, the restaurant’s third-floor communal-dining concept, are notable for one reason: They are influenced by Chinese cuisine.

Momofuku’s celebrated chef, David Chang, is a Korean-American New Yorker, but there’s a significant Chinatown touch to many of his most successful dishes, from his trademark steamed pork buns to the Chinese chicken noodle soup featured in the first season of the PBS series The Mind of a Chef.

When I last ate at Momofuku, the standout dish was a combination of broccoli florets with lap cheong sausage, black vinegar and tea egg. “It’s our take on a Chinatown classic,” Jed Smith, sous-chef at Momofuku Daisho , told me. As perfect as it was, he admitted that it didn’t taste exactly like it would if I ordered it at a real Chinese restaurant. “If we tried to do it straight-up traditional, we wouldn’t be able to do it as good as they do it in real down-and-dirty kitchens. When it comes to Chinese food, you can never beat the real thing.”

Smith and the chefs at Momofuku are always looking for “the real thing” in Toronto’s Chinese food wonderworld – and it is increasingly easy to find. Many top chefs from China have immigrated to Canada over the past few decades in search of a new start and better lives, though the fame they had back home doesn’t always follow them. For the past few decades, up to 12 percent of immigrants to Canada have come from the People’s Republic of China, making it this country’s number-one source of new arrivals. A surprising but fortunate side effect: Some of the best food in Canada today is actually Chinese.

Hidden gem

I first learned about this food-related phenomenon from British Columbia sushi master Hidekazu Tojo, an omakase pioneer (and self-proclaimed inventor of the California roll).

“China’s best chefs keep coming here,” he confided over dinner at his eponymous Vancouver restaurant. To see (and taste) for myself, Tojo suggested I have a meal at one of his favourite restaurants in the city, but one I may never have discovered on my own: Shanghai Lu (formerly Golden Great Wall) on West Broadway. The space itself is only a grade or two above a hole in the wall, but I ended up having one of the best meals of my life there. The menu lists 353 items; fortunately, Tojo told me what to order. I started with marinated cucumbers and Shanghai-style soup buns, handmade by a xiao long bao dumpling guru imported from Shanghai. Then came cod with Chinese celery, the thin, crisp slivers of green flavour bursts perfectly complementing the delicate white fillets. (It was prepared, Tojo informed me earlier, by Qing Zou, a chef who’d risen the ranks in Shanghai prior to his almost anonymous arrival in Vancouver.)

Next, some Peking duck arrived on the table, joined by fried green beans and mapo tofu courtesy of chef Rui Yang Xie, who devoted his life to Szechuan technique before immigrating to the New World. Everything was utterly sensational. Even the rice was superior to any I’d ever tried before.

China’s most talented kitchen teams aren’t only appearing out west – they’re also the secret ingredient in Toronto’s Chinese food scene, which is heavy on Hong Kong-style Cantonese. The reason for this is straightforward: An influx of immigrants who left Hong Kong in the 1990s, when the British colony-turned-Special Administrative Region’s fate looked to be in limbo.

China’s most talented kitchen teams are the secret ingredient in Toronto’s Chinese food scene.

Karisa Lui, a Toronto-based member of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, told me that the single best place to try authentic Chinese cuisine in the GTA is Fung Lam Court, a tip I can heartily affirm. Like Shanghai Lu, the setting is deceptively simple and the food, magnificent. The restaurant, located in the suburb of Markham (where many of Toronto’s premier Chinese restaurants are currently found), is helmed by Wing Lai, who came to Canada in 1974 as a chef and has been wowing diners with his specialty – braised crab in rum sauce – ever since.

“I’ve been cooking in kitchens since I was 13 years old,” Lai tells me as he selects a couple of massive crustaceans from the tanks in the main room. He then leads me into the back of his restaurant to watch the woks in action. “When I’m cooking,” he adds with a smile, “I still feel like a teenager.” It’s easy to see why: Entering the kitchen at Fung Lam Court is like being transported to an amusement park. The flames are so wild and ferocious that you feel your face grow flush every time Lai tosses seasonings into the baby bok choi or sautés some garlic and ginger with the lobsters. Lai knows how thrilling it is to see this kind of high-wire cooking, and he relishes every second of the performance, tilting his high white toque back and adjusting the height of the wok fire using a lever he controls with his knees. He makes sure I notice the licks of flame that dart out from the firepit and through the food itself, adding that essential component to proper Chinese cuisine: “the breath of the wok,” or wok hei.

That flame-licked, heat-seared quality is one of the things Momofuku’s chefs admit they can’t quite replicate in their own, more Westernized kitchens. Not that they need to: They aren’t aiming to do straight-up Chinese food, they’re crafting their own personalized take on global cuisines.

Lucky break

Part of the joy of a truly excellent Chinese restaurant such as Fung Lam Court or Shanghai Lu is the immense level of skill and know-how that goes into what seems like the simplest dish. The surroundings and decor may be humble, but the flavours are unparalleled. Those looking for a more high-end version of Fung Lam Court also have a new option in Toronto, started by celebrity chef Susur Lee, perhaps the brightest star to have departed Hong Kong for Canada. After apprenticing at the historic Peninsula, he emigrated in search of culinary fame in the late 1970s. His accomplishments are legion: Not only has he appeared on Iron Chef, Chopped and Top Chef Masters, he has also opened a string of lauded restaurants, both at home and in Singapore, with plans for an upcoming venue in the newly built World Trade Center.

Lee’s latest venture, Luckee by Susur Lee, located inside the SoHo Metropolitan Hotel in downtown Toronto, focuses on “Nouvelle Chinoise” cuisine, in which classic Hunan and Guangzhou dishes, as well as dim sum, get updated and enhanced by Lee’s kitchen staff. And therein lies the winning formula: Luckee’s staff consists of a dream team of many of the best China-born chefs in Canada, cooking in a sleeker version of a classic Chinatown kitchen under the aegis of one of the best chefs in North America.

Luckee aims to present Chinese cuisine at its most sophisticated levels – and they succeed with aplomb. Meals start with an amuse-bouche of edible flowers scattered over watermelon cubes and fried tofu soaked in mirin. That delicate prelude sets the tone for the rest of the meal, which boasts everything from shrimp cheung fun to eight-spice slow-braised beef with lo bok (it cooks for 72 hours at the lowest heat imaginable) and dishes far daintier than those usually seen in Chinese restaurants.

French twist

There are more flavours awaiting discovery across the country. Even as immigration from Hong Kong has slowed, new waves of prowess have been arriving from the mainland – a culinary exodus that is already altering the nation’s kitchens. This is quite evident in Montreal, a city that doesn’t attract anywhere near the amount of Chinese immigrants as Ontario or B.C. (there are currently about 710,000 and 460,000 people who identify as Chinese living in each province, respectively), but is still home to several great Chinese chefs. One of them is Beichuan “David” Yang. Originally from Beijing, he is now chef de partie in one of Montreal’s most acclaimed kitchens, Maison Publique, co-owned by local Derek Damman and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Yang’s most notable personal touch on the menu is his XO sauce, a homemade take on the spicy Hong Kong staple.

It is a culinary exodus that is already altering Canada’s kitchens.

The team at Maison Publique also lead me to Andy Su, chef at a new Szechuan restaurant called Gia Ba, opened earlier this year in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood. “I opened up this little shop – this petite maison – because of my passion for Szechuan cuisine,” says Su. His first restaurant, Cuisine Szechuan (co-owned with Norman Fei Peng), has gained a cult following for its hot-pepper-heavy dishes like chili beef and spicy tofu.

While Cuisine Szechuan’s downtown location is barely noticeable from the street and the look is standard wipe-down tables, Su’s new spot is located in Monkland Village, a quaint suburb-within-a-suburb that’s brimming with young families. The decor at Gia Ba is more sleek Asian bistro than Cuisine Szechuan’s student-friendly basement. Su is also trying out new dishes, including some Quebecois and Canadian takes on Szechuan and Taiwanese classics (like sweet and sour ribs with maple syrup). Still, he says some dishes accept no substitutes – for example, he still ships his beloved lantern chili peppers in from China.

When I ask him why so many of the best chefs in China have come to Canada, it’s clearly something he’s thought about before. “The answer used to be simple: It was all about money,” he explains. “You could make triple the amount here for the same hours you’d do over there. But now it’s changing. People realize it isn’t really about coming here for a better quality of life anymore. As a chef, all you can do is work all the time, so what it has to be about is passion. You have to care about what you do – and finally, I’m able to do that here.”

Where to Stay

Start your day with a taste of Toronto's Chinese food scene at the Shangri-La Hotel in the city's financial and entertainment district. The Hong Kong-based hotel brand's roots are visible throughout the property, from lithographs by Shanghai's Wang Xu Yuan to Asian-influenced dining options. Have breakfast at signature restaurant Bosk and you'll find, alongside pastries and omelets, steamed dim sum and traditional congee (rice porridge) topped with garnishes like shaved ginger, scallions, toasted peanuts and Chinese donuts. To get a taste of Chinese culture and cuisine on the other side of the country, try the Shangri-La Hotel in Vancouver.

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