This is my late uncle Jess. He was a hard worker, serial entrepreneur and the reason I’m happy working 100 hours a week so I don’t have to work 40 hours a week for someone else.
My first job was working after school at “Sooper Kleen” his laundromat and dry cleaning shop in Acadia when I was 13. Later, I worked for him in his roadside diner/gas station in Cardston one summer when he told me about his dreams. He told me of the humble beginnings of places like KFC and how he wanted to do the same thing. Though I wasn’t into cooking at the time, something stuck.
I never got used to being a white collar worker. The del Corros were always getting their hands dirty, doing the heavy lifting, and working overtime to save a little more money every month. I really tried during the years to get myself interested in the corporate life, my longest stint being 11 years, but something was always calling me back. I always knew I had a creative streak from my mother. She had gotten me into music and art at a very early age, taking me to nice restaurants downtown, telling me how to put my napkin on my lap and which fork to use.
I sincerely believe that passion can make you endure anything. It’s the driving force behind some great endeavours. When the time came for me to step up and do our thing, I wanted it to be special. I wanted not only to share Asian culture through food, but to also give people a dining experience that only a family could give. I can still remember today the rapport that my uncle and aunt had with the community back when they had their businesses, and today we’re forming those same bonds with our customers. It’s truly a beautiful and remarkable thing that nobody can take away, no matter how slick your marketing is.
Most importantly, I want a legacy for my children. Whether they decide to pursue the restaurant later in life, I can only hope that they learn and appreciate the value of hard work, community, and passion.
Papa Jess, I miss you. I have learned so much from you. More than you’ll ever know.
These quick pickles are incredibly versatile and take only minutes to make. I love them with rice or sweet shiitake and they go well with just about anything. Best thing is that they last for weeks in the fridge. Let’s make some pickles!
You will need:
- 1 cup hot water
- ½ cup rice vinegar
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 2 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 English cucumbers, carrots, daikon, or whatever you like
Slice your veg into ⅛ – ¼ inch slices and add to a large mixing bowl. Add the salt, mix well, and set aside for about 10 minutes.
In a plastic container or jar (750ml), combine the water, rice vinegar, and sugar. Mix well until the sugar is dissolved.
Take the veg out of the bowl, shake off the excess moisture, and add to the liquid. Cover with the lid and refrigerate overnight.
Pickles will keep in the fridge for about 3-4 weeks, if they last that long!
What is your favourite pickled vegetable?
Fish sauce is one of my favourite weapons to have in the pantry. It packs a powerful umami punch and can be used from simple dressings or to bring dimension to soups and braises. Today, I’m gonna show you a simple Vietnamese pork recipe that combines fish sauce and caramelized sugar to achieve an incredible flavour in a short amount of time. Get ready because it’s gonna happen right now on The Aimless Cook!
You will need:
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 pound pork belly or boneless pork shoulder (skinless or skin-on), cut-into 1-inch cubes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 large shallots, chopped
- 1 scallion, green part only, thinly sliced
- rice for serving
Line the bottom of a medium sauce pot with the sugar. Place the pot over medium low heat. When the sugar melts and becomes amber-colored, add the water and fish sauce. The darker the sugar turns, the more bitter the caramel will taste so be watchful. Add the cubed pork belly or shoulder and stir until coated.
Add a pinch of salt. Simmer on medium-low heat for at least 25 minutes or until the pork is fork tender.
Stir in a couple chopped shallots and and cook until translucent, another 5 to 7 minutes. The sauce should now be thickened. If that’s not the case, turn the heat up a little and simmer for another few minutes.
Serve on steamed rice and top with chopped green onion and fresh cilantro. This dish goes well with rice vinegar pickles to cut the richness of the pork.
What’s your favourite dish with fish sauce?
There’s nothing better on a snow day than staying indoors and digging into a hot and hearty comfort meal. This Shortrib Kimchi Jjigae is just that. Meaty, mouthwatering, fork-tender beef shortribs braised in a kimchi broth with caramelized onions and chewy tteok. Add some fresh steamy rice and prepare for a meal that will make you wish every day could be a snow day.
You will need:
- 2 lbs yellow onions, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 – 3 lbs beef short ribs (4 ribs)
- 2 cups kimchi
- 700 ml anchovy stock (or Japanese dashi)
- 2 cups tteok (Korean ricecakes)
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- salt and pepper, to season
- ¼ cup mirin
- fresh bean sprouts
- julienned carrot
- green onion
- white and black sesame seeds
In a large pan on high, heat the canola oil and butter. Add the onions, turn the heat down to medium, and slowly cook until the onion get caramelized and brown. When the onions are done, put them in the bottom of a pressure cooker or dutch oven and set aside.
Season the shortribs with salt and sear in the pan on high heat with more oil til they are browned. When they’re brown, place them on the onions.
Deglaze the pan you just seared the ribs in with the 2 cups of kimchi. Stir the kimchi around until all the fond comes free from the bottom of the pan. Place the kimchi over the ribs.
Finally, add the anchovy stock to the pot with the other ingredients. Cover and pressure cook for one hour, or bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 2 – 2.5 hrs or until the shortribs are tender.
Near the end of the cooking time, heat a pan with the sesame oil and saute the minced garlic for about 30 seconds. Add the tteok and continue cooking until they are lightly browned. Add the tteok to the pot of jjigae and let simmer for about 5 minutes until the tteok is done.
Taste the jjigae and season with salt if you need it. Add the mirin, give a final stir and get ready to serve.
Ladle the jjigae into individual serving vessels with one rib per serving. Place under a broiler for 5 minutes to give the meat a little colour. Garnish the servings with fresh bean sprouts, carrot, green onion, and sesame seeds. Serve with steamed rice and enjoy!
What is your favourite winter meal?
Red curry paste is a great ingredient to have handy. It lasts practically forever in the fridge and is extremely versatile. I use it in many different recipes, including this one for my version of the famous Indonesian fried rice, Nasi Goreng. There are so many varieties of Nasi Goreng depending where you go and who’s making it.
I love this dish because it’s flavourful, aromatic, spicy, and it’s the perfect way to use up leftover vegetables. Throw in some bacon lardons or sausage, top with a fried egg, and you have yourself a delicious breakfast. So what are we waiting for? Let’s cook Nasi Goreng!
For the sauce, you will need:
- 1 tablespoon of red curry paste
- 1 tablespoon kecap manis (sweet soy sauce, ABC brand is the best)
- 1 teaspoon (or more to taste) sambal oelek (garlic chili paste)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon fresh minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
For the rest:
- 2 – 3 cups of cold leftover rice
- 2 tablespoons fresh minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons chopped shallots or red onion
- some vegetables (julienned carrots, mushrooms, etc)
- some leftover meat (bacon lardons, sausage, bbq pork, prawns)
- fresh cilantro or chopped green onion
- lime wedges
- a touch of salt
In a bowl, combine the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.
In a hot wok, add a couple tablespoons of oil. When it starts to smoke, add the garlic and shallot and fry for about 30 seconds. Add the rice and continue to cook, breaking up the clumps with your spatula. Cook for a minute or 2, before adding the sauce.
Once you add the sauce, continue to mix everything until the sauce is well distributed. At this point you can add your vegetables and meat (totally optional) and cook until they’re done.
Top with fresh chopped green onion or cilantro and squeeze some fresh lime juice over top just before serving.
Also, dont forget to top your nasi goreng with a sunny side up fried egg. There’s nothing like digging into that first bite with that lovely runny yolk. Enjoy!
What is your favourite rice dish?
It was August of 2012. We had just told my mentor that we would be doing the restaurant thing with her in Millarville. It was a chance for me to get my food off the small screen of The Aimless Cook out to a brand new audience. More importantly, it was a chance for me to validate my cooking skills to people that were going to actually pay to eat it. This wasn’t the first time I’ve made food for people. I’ve done it for a long time through the years. The difference was that this time, it was my brand of food, my style, and my place. Jo always tells me she thinks I’m very critical of my cooking and it’s true. I am my own worst critic, but the fact is, I have to be. This isn’t a dinner party for a few friends. These are strangers that have nothing to lose from telling you what they really think of the dining experience you’re about to give them. It’s about putting your best foot forward, facing the people, and giving the best damn thing they’ve ever eaten. Isn’t that what every chef aims to do? If the answer is no, what’s the point?
We felt that if we were going to be committing ourselves to this venture, we should check out the place we’d be working out of. So we drove out to the country to check out the market. It was a hot and sunny day and the drive was a pleasure with its rolling countryside, galloping horses, and serene farm houses on this picturesque slice of rural paradise. As we approached the racetrack, volunteers were out on the highway, directing cars to the parking area like we were at the Stampede grounds before a hockey game. Seriously? That moment, it clicked in that Millarville had a huge following. Friends have always told me about this place, but I would never have believed it until I saw it with my own eyes.
When we approached the concession building, what we saw was a shitshow. Basically it went down like this: People lined up to order their food, which was relayed to the kitchen which was abuzz with what looked like 20 teenagers, running about to cook and expedite with no logical system in place. It was every man (or woman) for themselves. Somewhere along the way, the orders were brought to another window where another line of people waited to pick up their food. It took anywhere from 30-45 minutes to get anything to eat. When all was said and done, you were left with some cheap pre-cooked, pre-wrapped crap in a bun, wondering what would happen if you spent your last 45 minutes differently.
Immediately a smile came to my face. I thought that if we can deal with this volume, crank out some good food, and make it affordable, we’re gonna kill it here. Listen to last-year me. haha.
A few days later we were talking about what we saw. Ms. Mentor had previous experience as a vendor there for a few years so she had an idea of how the volumes were throughout the season. Basically she said the same thing – we have to make sure that waiting time is minimized and that the expediting is efficient. With no previous kitchen of my own, this was brand new territory for us. Managing a place of our own, creating a system in the kitchen that could be operated with a minimum of staff and serve huge volume was going to be a special feat.
With the whole food truck movement going on, it was apparent that street food was gaining traction and popularity in the food world. At the time, I was reading some great books like David Chang’s Momofuku and Anthony Myint’s Mission Street Food. They not only proved that great things can happen to people that love what they do, but also proved that you could do it outside the box. These books couldn’t have come at a better time. I was inspired to make my own story.
Let’s Tarantino back to the first day after the changeover. It was a cold October morning and the crowd was mostly made up of locals, vendors, and hardcore shoppers. A lot of them had no idea what happened to their familiar concession, and on top of that, the menu prices had been the same for the past 10 years. We all knew that if we were going to be going in there, that our food in addition to the drinks would be in need of serious changes to make any money for the Millarville Racetrack and Ag Society (MRAS). To add to the confusion, the concession was now shared by 5 independent vendors, each featuring their own menu. I wouldn’t say that the morning was utter chaos, but there were a lot of old-timers, locals, and regulars ordering pancakes at the wrong window, or asking why coffee was up to $3.
The tell-tale signs that a customer coming to Eats of Asia is brand new:
- awkward movements toward the menu board with an air of trepidation
- non-commitment, or half commitment to standing in line – the ‘one foot out’ stance
- the silent perusal of the menu board, the glance to Jo, and the second perusal
- they order Breakfast-on-a-bun
Jo’s role at this point is crucial. She breaks the ice with our customers with her unique (white) perspective on our brand of food. If I had a title for what she does at the front of house, it would be Impromptu Culinary Cultural Liason. Since it was Fall, our specials were Curry Laksa and Bibimbap. Our regular rice bowls were Coconut chicken adobo, Kalbi (Korean short rib), and Kalua Pork* (Hawaiian-style pulled pork, traditionally made in a pit called an “imu”). Our snacks were Chicken bites (basically Japanese style fried chicken karaage with a choice of 3 sauces) and Shanghai rolls (aka lumpia).
Top 3 questions a new customer will ask about a new cuisine experience:
- Is it spicy?
- What’s in the _________?
- Is it spicy?
I remember at one point in the afternoon, a local rancher was eyeing an order of laksa I was bringing to the pick-up window. He said it looked good and asked me what was in it.
“Well, it’s a Malaysian rice noodle bowl with a coconut curry broth. It’s topped with fish balls, chicken, tiger prawns, fried tofu, bean sprouts, fresh cilantro and lime.”
“That sounds good, but TOFU!? This is Alberta, man!”
To my surprise, the most popular item of that day was the Curry Laksa. We had an unbelievable day that surprised the hell out of me. The dishes I thought would do okay, did the best. Bibimbap was our other star dish. During service, Jo would always yell the orders back to me at in the kitchen. Everytime we had an order for for Bibimbap, she would yell, “Bibimbap!!” followed by Ms. Mentor cracking up next to us at her window. This still continues today. To my utter surprise, the Kalbi bowl didn’t do as well as I thought it would, as we were in the heart of cowboy “cut me a slab and I’ll ride the rest home” country. Jo did a fantastic job connecting and engaging our customers. I would say that she was our 3rd star of the day.
Throughout our relationship together, she has slowly been converting to eating like an Asian. Since moving in together, the cupboard has steadily been going through that change where the number of plates decreases and the number of bowls radically increases. The cutlery drawer has an extra slot packed with chopsticks. The dishwasher also exhibits the need to be Asian-friendly with it’s homemade chopstick holder made from a yogurt container with holes cut in the bottom. Also, her tolerance for spice has increased from Frank’s red hot, to sriracha, to the full strength of a Laab Gai with it’s fiery bird’s eye chilies. I think it’s safe to say that her perspective on Asian cuisine is unique in the way that she can translate her journey of discovery to people that ask the same questions she did.
Our first day of service was far from perfect. In a short 5 hour span, the perception of time is warped. The only time that exists is NOW. The past is too late and the future is not soon enough. Waiting 2 minutes for something becomes an eternity in the mind of a cook. Waiting 3 minutes for something on the grill becomes a marathon as the tickets start to stack up and you look at the growing line outside your window. On the other hand, adrenaline starts to build up in your system and you start to feel ‘high’. No kidding. Many chefs love this feeling and just roll with it. It’s probably why the kitchen always brings us back. Emotions at this point are heightened, patience grows short, and every question or reasonable request becomes an annoyance.
“Can I get that last order well-done?”
You ever see menus that have no substitutions? I’ll get into that can of worms in another post.
*apparently, I later found out that people thought that Kalua Pork was some kind of ‘boozy’ pork that I had braised in the famous coffee liqueur. Sorry folks, that’s Kahlua.
If you’re still gung-ho about getting into the restaurant business after that taste of everyday kitchen life in the last post then congratulations – You are one sick fuck with a special fetish for punishment. Still reading? Good. It takes a special ilk to be able to weather the storms, see through the stupid, and forge on. The good news is that when you come from a background of less-than-ideal conditions, you learn to be resourceful, you realize you can re-invent your destiny, and most of all, you can be unorthodox about it all.
Don’t get confused here. This is not one of those stories where the main character threw all caution to the wind to do it his way. If anything, I’m one cautious person. I have a lot on the line here. I have children, a stable corporate job, benefits, a yearly bonus, and most of all, the piece of mind to know that no matter what, we’ll be ok. Being 41 has a lot of perks (extra long nose hair NOT being one of them). For an individual wanting to get into a business, you are still in a good position to get into doing something you love. You have experience, you have perspective, and you also have the sensibility of a rationally functioning human being (or at least you’d hope so).
In my case, I also had a little money set aside. Not anything to write home about, but enough to make me re-think my position in life with a new and determined sense of enthusiasm.
So there I was, standing there on the crossroads scared as hell, but hungry for much much more. The success of The Aimless Cook gave me a newfound sense of confidence in knowing that I could achieve whatever I put my mind to. It was also proof that my passion for food could make some remarkable things happen. Could I take my love of food deeper down the rabbit hole and actually open up my own restaurant?
Jo is a very important player in this game. Having a partner that believes in you is the most important part of your foundation. She’s there for moral support, she helps prep in the kitchen, she sells our food fervently, and when the smoke clears, she’s the first one I crack open a beer with to celebrate. A long time ago, she was convinced that I could do whatever I wanted to. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but now I realize how much a belief like that means to a businessperson.
Think about it this way – a business is conceived like a *baby. It is carefully fed, cuddled and treated with such care and love to bring it to the point where it’s starting to stand on its own. That baby needs nourishment, care, support, knowledge, and the resources in place where it can learn and develop as it grows into a strong adult. Where do you think that comes from? That’s right – that baby needs a family. A business owner needs to be like a proud father, always praising that baby, reinforcing the good, being careful to see the bad things and make sure that baby doesn’t pick up any bad habits. But as a father (or mother), you can’t do it all on your own. Often as parents, we have to look to others to deal with the day to day issues that may come up. That’s where our partners come in. Other times, we pick up the phone and call our parents to get some sage advice. In business – same thing. If you can’t get all the answers to the problems from your partner, you ask your mentor.
During the development of The Aimless Cook, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people in the food industry. My vision was to make more than just a cooking show. I wanted to support small local business, highlight and focus on the incredible people behind them, and in turn have some fun and learn even more about food. It was around this time where I met my mentor. I had former partner at the time that was doing a lot of cold calling. We would drop in on businesses, restaurants, networking events, wherever food was to meet people. It was at one of the city farmers market where our fateful meeting began.
We had just gotten a deal to produce an online series for the market. It was a brand new market in the city that was looking for a new and refreshing way (aka cheap) to promote itself via social media and online video. We were stoked to be on board as it was a new frontier for us. As we were introducing ourselves to the vendors, we met this crazy, incredibly warm, and friendly woman that ran a small stall that sold frozen and and ready-to-eat food with some sandwiches and coffee. We ended up talking to her for most of the afternoon. She was so enthusiastic about the market, developing the business community and just being part of something special. Today, we are still good friends and I bug her everyday for business advice.
My mentor has a quality that I think is very necessary when it comes to getting good business advice. She’s honest, blunt, and doesn’t hold back to make things sound more pleasing to your ears. If you have an idea that sucks and will probably drive your business into the ground, forcing you to live in a tent and eat cat food because you’re an idiot, she’ll tell you precisely that. She’s a mother figure through and through. She’ll be there to support you, love you, but be just as quick to slap you in the head if you’re doing something stupid or half-assed.
It was about 2 years I’ve known her, after I met Jo when she asked me one day in her kitchen about a very unique opportunity. She had recently taken over food services for another farmers market out in Millarville. I’d heard of Millarville before, and even attended their famous Christmas Market that they have every November long weekend. Basically, after seeing the show, watching all my Asian recipes before her eyes on the small screen, and being intrigued by it all, she was convinced that I could bring that food to a new audience. So she asked me.
“It’s the Millarville Farmers Market. A 30 year old market that brings in hundreds of people every Saturday from 9 to 2. I’m gonna be selling the burgers, fries and Western food. I need someone that can make really cool Asian food. It’s on the weekend, so you’ll have to find a sitter for the kids.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s the only thing.” It was at this point that I almost said no. “I can talk it over with Jo and see what she thinks. It’s a great chance to get into something of our own.”
The minute I told Jo that same evening, she said, “uh, yes!”
“What about the kids?”
“We’ll make it work.”
That was the gist of the conversation. A couple weeks later, we went to the market to spy on the current operation and get an idea of we were getting into.
I’ll continue this story in the next post. The whole idea behind this post up to this point is that you need to surround yourself with the right people. People that believe in your passion as much as you do. People that are willing to follow you on your journey, and help you along the way should any challenges or obstacles present themselves. Get out there and meet people that think like you, share your interests, work in the same industry, and most importantly meet people from all levels of the struggle.
It’s important to be part of a network of like-minded, driven individuals that support each other. Someone that has already had the experience of going through a hardship that you’re about to go through will have some great advice for you, and someone just starting out may be facing a dragon that you’ve just slain. Pay it forward. Be there for your new family and they’ll be there for you.
Passion. You hear that word all the time. It’s the cornerstone of success according to almost everyone who’s ever talked about climbing their own personal mountain to the pinnacle of their professional or personal lives. Like I said in my last post, there’s nothing wrong with passion. In fact, I am fuelled by it, but the key is not to let it get you stupid. It’s like the hit of nitrous you see in the Fast and the Furious films that shoots the car into a blurred haze. It can rocket you to victory, so long as you can still steer the car and not end up as a burning heap of twisted metal and charred flesh. You can have the fastest car, but if you can’t drive it, you’re fucked.
Before the race, before strapping yourself in, before even getting in the car, you have to understand something. Passion is like love and it comes with all the things that make you feel good, but also all the things that make you mad, frustrated, sad, disgusted, sickened, discouraged, and everything negative as well. Like a relationship with a person, you have to take the bad with the good. You have to ‘like’ what you do and not just say you ‘love’ it. Does that make sense? I hope so, it’s just the rest of your life we’re talking about.
You might be a good cook, hell, you may be a great cook. As you flip that chicken breast in your Jamie Oliver T-Fal to the amazed gasps of your friends, and expertly plate up the evening’s meal like something you saw on Food Network, you’re feeling pretty good. People may tell you all the time that you’d have a successful restaurant and that you should open up a place of your own. As you take a moment to bask in the compliments of your guests and consider that thought, pause.
“Wow, you are quite the chef.”
“Thanks for the delicious eggs benedict, chef!”
Chef is a ubiquitous term. In everyday life, it carries the same weight as when your barber calls you, “Boss”. If you are seriously entertaining the thought of opening a restaurant to feed your ego and expect your friends to come in and make you successful, you’re probably delusional, from the fumes from that T-Fal teflon coating.
I’ve been working in kitchens on and off for over 20 years. Though I spent a big stint of time in the corporate world, I was always brought back to the kitchen. Divorce brought me back to the kitchen. Relationship breakdown brought me back. When I was young, the kitchen was a way for me to bring food to the table, go to school, and buy diapers for my daughter. It was a necessity. More recently, it was a way to get away from the despair of feeling lonely or depressed. It was a way for me to learn a business, learn a cuisine, learn a new language, and earn money. It was my education. I owe my life to the kitchen.
The kitchen doesn’t judge you. It doesn’t care about your credit score, your grade point average, or your tattoos. You work hard and you come back tomorrow, you slug it out together as a team and you gain yourself some brothers. There is no place for political correctness or tact in the kitchen. If you are offended by f-bombs, jokes about your genitals, jokes about your sexual persuasion, or your ethnicity, perhaps you should start a nice online business selling scented candles on Etsy. This is just how it is. Anthony Bourdain already said it all in “Kitchen Confidential”. If it wasn’t true, that book wouldn’t be the classic that it is.
All I’m saying is that one of the best ways (and cheapest ways) to learn about a business is to work there. You could go to school and take some courses on small business, get the logic and theory of running a business, but spend an evening after a busy dinner service with the boss, drinking a cold beer (cold beer after a busy dinner service is the BEST tasting beer EVER) and you’ll be surprised how much wisdom you can learn.
Now let’s say you’re a dishwasher or cook at a restaurant. You work a few nights a week, get off work at 11 o’clock, have a beer and take out the garbage after mopping the floor and cleaning the prep surfaces (hopefully not in that order). You’re exhausted. Times that by 10, work 7 days a week and you might have an hint of what it’s like to be the owner of that business.
How passionate do you feel now?
There is a good reason why people with their own businesses tell you how much hard work it is when you ask them. Because it’s true. Jo had no previous kitchen experience before starting Eats of Asia with me, but what she did have was a very long retail experience with exemplary people management skills. In the middle of cowboy country, having someone like Jo with the perspective she has with Asian food was crucial in selling bibimbap and gua bao to people that have no idea what our brand of Asian food was all about. I remember the first market day we had last October. It was the first weekend after taking over the old concession and everything was suddenly changed.
To the locals and regular shoppers, it was a burger and fries joint that changed overnight to a multicultural ethnic street food fest that I billed, The Saturday Street Feast. We were one of five independent vendors that moved in to bring some diversity to the dining choices that were previously in place. We led the charge that day with Curry Laksa, a Malaysian noodle bowl with rice noodles, fish balls, prawns, chicken, and fried tofu in a coconut curry broth. We took a huge chance, but I was confident that the food would be well received. I stuck to the idea that I wanted to make food that I loved to eat. I also wanted to take the best elements of Asian food, bring them together and brand them to be accessible and approachable. That day, we made about $500, but we felt triumphant.
The comments were good. They went from, “This is so goood.” to a local rancher that said, “Tofu!? This is ALBERTA, man!”
I still laugh when I think of that one.