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How I Got Started In The Restaurant Business – The Crunchy Skin

chicharron

Have you ever watched an episode of Kitchen Nightmares or Restaurant Takeover and wonder how some of these people ever thought it would be a good idea to open a restaurant, some of them with ZERO previous experience in the industry? It boggles my mind and amazes me at the same time how someone can take a leap like that. I mean, it takes some serious cojones to take your pile of chips, push it all on the table and just take your chances. I see some of the people on these shows clearly that have no business to be in a kitchen, trying to make a go of it and wonder why their business and savings are going down the drain. As much as this kind of thing is viewed as ‘entertainment’ these days, it’s also tragic. Money is money. It’s hard to earn and it hurts like hell to lose.

Throughout my time getting into this business, I learned a lot of things – mostly about money. In this case, the art of managing it well and keeping it. You never buy your equipment straight up, some things are better used, and there are people you always have to be in bed with – your partner, your landlord, and your banker. Once you get the common sense stuff out of the way, there’s that issue of the food. Oh yeah, that part. Believe it or not, the food part as important as the you think it is, is a small cog in the machine. But like any machine, if it’s missing that all-important cog, the machine just won’t run.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted my food to do 3 things: share a culture, be approachable, and be unique. The identity for Eats of Asia was to be a new Asian Street Food Experience. I took the simplicity of a food truck concept and basically adapted it for my purpose. Simple menus of great food with a few choices that would change from week to week, a special (a chance to play), and a chance to highlight different country’s cuisine. Most of all, I wanted the food to be fun. After all, I love what I do (and, at the time, I couldn’t afford a truck).

Sharing a culture was something that was important to me because I wanted to further demystify Asian cuisine to the masses. Yes, even in this day and age, there are still folks out there completely intimidated by Asian food that think it’s all about the sweet and sour pork, chicken fried rice, and chunky egg rolls with Wing’s egg roll sauce packets. People have an idea of Asian food from the food courts and take outs, but what about the night market culture? How many people in Calgary know what coffin bread is, or gua bao, or char kway teow? Night markets are the soul of Asian casual dining and almost all of those vendors specialize in one item. That’s unheard of here. Taking a few of those night market favourites and sharing them here was a must for me, whether it was the steamy bao, fresh noodle, or coconut laced aroma of a hot bowl of curry laksa.

Approachability in this case is a simple matter of making the food straight forward, non-pretentious, and most of all easy to relate to. It’s not just an “East meets West” thing. One of the items we regularly feature is gua bao. It’s a Taiwanese-style ‘slider’ (I’ve heard the term, Taiwanese hamburger as well). Basically, a steamed bun that’s filled with the traditionally red-braised pork belly slab with cilantro, hoisin, crushed peanuts and a touch of red sugar. Take the best aspects of that formula and sell those – the steamed bun are like the ones in Chinatown that they fill with char siu, plump, steamy and soft. The pork belly, slow braised until meltingly soft. Sinfully decadent and flavourful. A little crushed peanut for texture and cilantro to cut the richness of the pork. That’s a formula for greatness and we didn’t re-invent the Taiwanese wheel. For people that don’t get the pork belly, that’s ok. We also do one with chicken kara-age (Japanese style fried chicken) and a fried tofu version as well. Calling them the Lucky Pig, The Phoenix, and The Buddha was a little fun too as an homage to the mysticism of 70′s era Chinese food that I was raised on.

Specials are where we really have fun. There are times when our specials were made the night before or during a prep day when I happen to have extra ingredients to make something new. One of those times, we were making lumpiang shanghai (Filipino pork spring rolls that we call Shanghai Rolls). We ran out of wrappers and had some pork left over. I went to the fridge, got some wonton wrappers and made a couple hundred wontons. In the deep freeze I had some leftover broth from a Thai dish called Khao Soi (a Northern Thai coconut curry noodle dish with chicken). We decided to make an Asian poutine/nacho lovechild that we called Crispy Thai Wonton Melt (Hey, it was the night before…gimme some slack). We thickened the broth to a gravy consistency, ladling it over deep-fried wontons and cheese curds, topped it with our kalua pork and garnished with cilantro and fresh lime. Some of the vendors that day were like, “Ok,  I’ll try the special…”. Soon, some of the shoppers were curious too as they saw the boats go out (Paper boats are the best for street food btw. You want others to see the food as your customers are walking around.) and wanted to try it as well. A few hours later, we were sold out. The Crispy Thai Wonton Melt was a hit.

I don’t think we’re really pushing new boundaries here. Every so often, I’ll get an idea to create something new and original, but it all boils down to making things that I like to eat and in turn, you like to eat. It is a business after all. There’s not much to breaking down cultural barriers when it comes to our food. I mean, crispy pork skin is delicious whatever language you speak, and there are so many cultures in the world that appreciate it. I think that’s why our menu is so pork-centric sometimes.

How I Got Started In The Restaurant Business – Tofu Cowboy

boats

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.

pandabeat

Making new friends.

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:

  1. awkward movements toward the menu board with an air of trepidation
  2. non-commitment, or half commitment to standing in line – the ‘one foot out’ stance
  3. the silent perusal of the menu board, the glance to Jo, and the second perusal
  4. 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:

  1. Is it spicy?
  2. What’s in the _________?
  3. 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.

How I Got Started In The Restaurant Business – It’s Who You Know

Gua bao - a new menu item for summer

- photo by Terry Lo

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.

 

*right, Aman?

How I Got Started In The Restaurant Business – The Kitchen

Char Siu Bowl from Eats of Asia

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.

Gua bao - a new menu item for summer - photo by Terry Lo

Gua bao – a new menu item for summer
- photo by Terry Lo

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.

Me, in the kitchen.  - photo by Terry Lo

Me, in the kitchen.
- photo by Terry Lo

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.

Jo, converting some new fans. - photo by Terry Lo

Jo, converting some new fans.
- photo by Terry Lo

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.

How I Got Started In The Restaurant Business – Passion Can Make You Do Some Crazy Sh*t

Eats of Asia - photo by J http://gotellyourmom.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have been following along for some time now, you’ll know that I, or Jo and I in this case, started our first foray into the restaurant business last October. Our place, Eats of Asia, is located in the famous Millarville Farmers Market, about 20 minutes or so southwest of Calgary. The Market itself has been around for over 30 years nestled in the heart of the Millarville racetrack which has been around for over 100 years. When the opportunity to get into this hallowed location came up, I almost said no. It was actually Jo that slapped the reality of this unique gift into my head. When I look back now, I wonder if I was high that I considered turning down what eventually became the start of the most important crossroad of my, or our lives.

Okara Fritters by The Aimless Cook

That’s me and Darren Maclean at his restaurant Downtownfood shooting the “Okara Fritters” show

For as long as I’ve been doing The Aimless Cook, people always told me in the video comments that I should open a restaurant. I’ve always dismissed the notion, knowing not only that it’s one of the most riskiest business ventures out there, but also that people who start to invest their money and quit their comfy salary jobs to pursue that dream of owning a place of their own often end up crashing and burning into oblivion. So what the hell am I thinking?

Well, I’ll be honest with you. Passion can make you do some crazy shit. The key is that you keep it real, make good decisions, and not be stupid. If I were to put it into terms that most people would understand, “Don’t be like a young lovestruck teen, letting your dick make your decisions for you.” How’s that? One of the first rules I learned about the restaurant business from my mentor, “Never buy anything you don’t need. Cash flow is everything.” This opportunity didn’t come sooner because I wouldn’t have been ready. I’m 41 years old, I’ve been divorced, I’ve gone through the worst that relationships can give you, and in addition I have the best that relationships can give you. I have 4 wonderful children that mean the world to me, and looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. You could say that the experiences that I’ve had made me super skeptical and yet always hungry for more. I would say that I’m ready. I can also safely say at this point in life that I know what I don’t need.

So what pushed me over the edge of being nestled comfortably in the safety of corporate life into navigating the often treacherous waters of entrepreneurship? Well, in my case, take a few of the well-known elements of success and throw in some key players who walked into my life, a unique opportunity, and my current mental state and I think you have it.

Everyone knows that passion is key to pursuing your dreams, and I’ve had a lot of dreams. I think during the course of my life I’ve wanted to be a comic book artist, a rock star, a writer, a financial planner (don’t ask how that one got in there). The difference now is that something always brings me back to food. Like an old friend, you never appreciate what you have, but they’re always there for you no matter what and no matter how many years go by. I love to cook good food, share Asian culture, and making a career out of it made perfect sense. A noble pursuit indeed.

In the next few posts, I will be writing more on the subject of my adventure in the industry. If you have your own dreams of opening a restaurant, I hope that this memoir will serve as a guide, or at least give you an idea of the realities of pursuing your own passions.

 

Summer is over. A new Season begins!

4th of July fireworks at the marina

As the Labour Day weekend comes to a close, everyone and their dog rushes to the grocery store in a frantic rush to get stocked up for the start of a new season. It’s back to school, back to work, back to…well, the grind. I can proudly say that I did nothing for the weekend. I didn’t go out of town or try to shoot video segments. Hell, I didn’t even really go anywhere, except to a movie on Saturday night. I stayed home with the comfort of knowing that I had the city to myself.

Summer was incredible. I have been fortunate enough to be able to enjoy my holidays and travel this year to places like Seattle, Vancouver and the Northwest Territories. I met new friends, re-connected with family and had a great time sampling food, touring markets and getting lots of great content and ideas for upcoming shows. In the midst of all that, I managed to plan some awesome new ventures and projects for The Aimless Cook. Man, I love being productive!

Seattle

Salmon and Hamachi poke

Salmon and hamachi poke from Pike Place Market

Pike Place Market

The famous Pike Place Market

Fresh crab

Jo shows off this monstrous head of garlic

Fresh steamed bau

Seattle is home to some killer hipster moustaches

In the kitchen of “Deep Prep” – shooting our soup dumpling episode til 1am

Seattle started by meeting one of my YouTube friends, chef Jesse Smith. Initially, Jesse sent me a message via YouTube, commenting on the show and telling me that he had started a cooking show of his own. In time, we have done a few live cooking shows and had talked about doing a collab for some time. After a long road trip from Calgary, through Idaho and into Washington, a brainstorming session in a Seattle dive bar, a bowl of pull tabs and a trip to the Asian grocery store, here is the fruit of our late-night video shoot.

In addition to the incredible warm weather, we lucked out by getting hooked up for 4th of July. One of Jesse’s friends set us up to watch the fireworks from the marina. I haven’t spent the 4th of July in the US for years, and now that I’m back, we get to celebrate in style. Great times.

4th of July fireworks at the marina

Top that off with an international beerfest, some great bbq and I think you can call that a vacation.

 

Vancouver 

Vancouver was on our way back to Calgary. I always love the variety of food in Van and there is never a short supply. Every time I go there, someone has a new recommendation for me. We didn’t have much time in Vancouver, so it was a bit of a rush to try to get all that we wanted to do packed into an overnight trip. We did get to visit the market at Granville Island and meet up with our friend, sake expert, Elise Gee for some sushi at Shiro.

A street performer at Granville Island Market

Produce is being constantly re-stocked here

Time for some nice fresh seafood

There’s a vendor at Granville that insists on having everything arranged in pyramids. Works for them.

Fresh fruit tarts

Dinner at Shiro

So, you can imagine how full I was after the dinner at Shiro. I was saving room for the sushi all day, so I thought I was done with food. Then Elise asks us what we’re doing after dinner. She mentions an Asian night market in Richmond that takes place from 6pm -1am out by the casino. How can you miss something like that?

Meat on a stick. I’m so there!

A vendor fills up a paper boat with a huge pile of grilled squid tentacles

Oyster omelette, a famous Taiwanese street food classic

Making some fresh molten hot takoyaki

A great way to end an evening – Taiwanese shaved ice

You can watch more of this hardcore food porn by checking out the video we made right here.

 

Fort Smith NT

I love Fort Smith, or ‘Smith’, as its affectionately called by the locals. This is where Jo’s mom’s family lives and it’s a little haven way up north of the 60th parallel bordering on the Wood Buffalo National Park. Speaking of buffalo…

This is our tradition now. Every year we come to the border, we take a pic of the kids at this sign, and after driving for a day and a half, we are all quite happy to see it.

This guy wasn’t impressed that we stopped to take his picture. He calmly stood up and made his way toward us – a sign that we should move along.

This year’s cooler weather brought the herds out in the open.

2 bulls having a little fun

Food-wise, the meal of choice around here is stew and bannock. There are a handful of eateries in this small town, but when someone has a lunch special of stew and bannock, it’s gonna be a full house. Lunch hour is busy in town as the 2 or 3 restaurants that are here are serving up food to hungry customers that come from nearby offices, off the highway or in from the bush. There are also fire crews that come in from time to time, depending on the time of year.

During our stay, I had the chance to meet a new friend. Her name is Anna and she runs a new restaurant in town called Anna’s Home Cooking. She showed me her tiny kitchen, which makes all the food for her dine-in guests as well as take out meals that people can bring home and heat up.

This is Anna of Anna’s Home Cooking

Veggie burgers

Anna has made it her mission to get people in Fort Smith to eat healthy home-made food again. Though there are few places to eat here, the majority of people here like their burgers and fries, high salt processed foods and junk food. I have found here on my last couple trips that good ingredients are a challenge to find. A lot of locals have to go to other towns or cities to stock up on common items, since they are usually very costly at the stores in town. Jo’s family, for instance stock up a couple times a year in places like Grande Prairie or even Edmonton. That’s up to a 15 hour drive!

The knife wall

Picking herbs from the garden

Anna’s greenhouse is full of tomatoes, perfect for my fried green tomatoes!

Cooking in Anna’s kitchen

So you can imagine what it’s like to be an Asian guy in the middle of a place that’s hours away from a fresh bunch of cilantro or real limes. On the bright side, there is a lot of really good wild game and fish here, which makes for plenty of delicious stew and soups, roasts and whatever else you want to conjure up with your imagination and resourcefulness. On that note, Jo’s sister Derise has a business bringing flavour to the North with her Epicure spices and seasonings. This is a ray of light in a place where it’s hard to find nice spices and recipes are limited due to the lack thereof. You can find her Facebook page right here.

Both Anna and Derise recently took part in Fort Smith’s first “Iron Chef” competition, a culinary challenge put forth by the local foodies as a way to have some fun, cook up some good food and help a cause (in this case, cancer).

I will always love going up North. Though the drive is long, the reward comes when you can be somewhere away from the daily distractions of the grind.

 

Back in Calgary, Back to Work

 I shouldn’t make it sound bad. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate work – I love being productive. Even more, I love being productive when it comes to projects that I can benefit directly from. Meaning that I can work 16 hours straight on my feet when I know that I’m doing something I love. My show…something I love. Sharing my food with as many people as I can…something I live for. Yes, I do the corporate job too, but I rarely talk about that. It’s a blip on my radar that is over as soon as it begins. I am enveloped in the passion that is cooking and slowly, that passion is getting to the point where I can make that jump from the corporate comfort zone, but not quite yet.

Stampede pancake breakfast at Kingsland Farmers Market

Here I am with my son, Josh. Showing him the basics of pancakery…pancakery, is that a word?

A little glimpse of the line-up for the free breakfast we hosted that fed over 1800 people.

Taya, enjoying fresh pancakes after the smoke cleared.

 

So what’s in the works for The Aimless Cook?

Great question. All I can say officially at this time is that we’re working on a new season of new cooking shows that are getting better and better. Back in 2009, I really didn’t have the vision that I would be taking an online cooking show full-time, nor did I think it was even possible. Through time and patience, I have worked on making the show the best that I can. I have met new friends through YouTube and beyond that have opened up the possibilities of the business of The Aimless Cook. Slowly but surely, we are making the steps in the direction that this is going to grow into something sustainable and very satisfying. I love this job and I thank you for helping in making it a success.

As for other projects, I am working on a new show for the channel. This show will not involve recipes, but will be very food-centric. Other than video projects, we got a couple other things on the go that I will be able to announce in due time. Stay tuned and stay hungry!

J

Eggs, St. Patrick’s Day and My First ChefHangout

Eggs

There is a world of potential inside that perfect shell waiting to be tapped and utilized by someone with loving hands and an inspiration. On the other hand, there are people that want to be reassured that they can crack open a couple of these beauties on a Sunday morning and cook up a familiar favourite with their bacon and coffee. No matter how you look at it, eggs are such a fundamental and necessary ingredient in our daily lives, that is, unless you’re a vegan or something.

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The Momofuku 5:10 egg. Seriously, 5 minutes and 10 seconds. Go figure.

Since my son, Josh had his own omelette episode on The Aimless Cook, I have been thinking about the possibility of doing a mini-series on the subject of eggs. Since then, I have made the scrambled egg episode and I have another omelette show waiting to be edited (the country vs. the classic French style). Personally, my favourite is poached and slow cooked. Since eggs are so prevalent in Asian cooking, I love my yolks soft and runny. There is nothing like digging into bibimbap and experiencing the first breaking of the soft yolk. It’s mesmerizing.

So stay tuned for another great egg episode in the days to come. In that episode, I will be showing you my method of making a slow cooked ‘onsen tamago’ style egg that’s perfect for ramen, juk or just with some dashi, soy and green onion. Simple food is the best, isn’t it? 

St. Patrick’s Day

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This past weekend, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by volunteering at the Kingsland Farmers Market pancake breakfast to raise cash and donations for the local Food Bank. I was cooking up a slew of fluffy, delicious pancakes for the masses as our special guests from the Calgary Stampeders served breakfast, signed autographs and had their pictures taken with the fans. It was a great way to spend the morning and we raised over $500 cash and a huge pile of food donations. Thanks to all who volunteered and special thanks to the Calgary Stampeders Football Club for stopping by. Most of all, thanks to you Calgarians for coming to Kingsland Farmers Market, supporting a great cause and sharing a wonderful day with us!

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My First ChefHangout

I have always thought about doing a live version of the show. For many months, I have been thinking of some type of format that would make it different. Would I do a cooking demo? Should I have a live broadcast of Q&A? What would make this compelling? Then one day, I met Joe Saad. 

Joe Saad approached me one day on Google+ and told me about a new site he was starting up called ChefHangout.com. He said it was a new way to experience learning and he was looking for chefs to take part in an inaugural group to launch this venture. Online cooking class via Google Hangouts. I thought, “Why not?”

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Chicken Adobo v2

A couple months later and there I was, teaching my first class to one of my friends from work with her daughter, son-in-law and friend. I wanted my first class to be a simple, tried and true recipe that I couldn’t screw up, so I picked my Chicken Adobo v2 that I did not too long ago for YouTube’s Next Chef. The class went splendidly. I took her through the steps and the technology worked flawlessly, and as we cooked, it was like being in the kitchen with her. We cooked, we drank and in the end, had a wonderful Filipino dinner. 

adobo class

As I write this post, I am thinking about future classes. I have gotten a lot of requests for Thai cooking as well as some tutorials on basic sauces and general knife skills. As time goes on, I’m sure I will have a little somethin somethin for everyone. Visit the site to see what classes I will be hosting in the near future, as well as to check out some of the other great classes hosted by some really talented chefs at ChefHangout.com.

The Aimless Blog – Korean food, shout outs and Adobo class

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We haven’t talked in a while, just you and me. I hope you’re having a great week so far. It’s Friday and it looks like it’s gonna be a great weekend. If not, re-adjust your thinking and make it good. You’re the only one steering the ship. 

The Japchae episode:

As you know, the Japchae episode is now live and the comments have been great. Just in case you’re wondering, yes, I do read each and every comment on the videos and I try to answer everyone that has questions. I live for this engagement and love the conversations, ideas and recommendations. Keep sending me your food porn as well as I will be sharing a lot of it on the show in future episodes. 

jap chae

One thing that did come up after the Japchae vid went up was the fact that the recipe is time consuming. Normally, when I shoot an episode of The Aimless Cook, I have to set up the shots, prep the ingredients for easy retrieval, adjust the lighting, etc. It takes probably twice as long to cook a dish versus if I was just making dinner. 

I will admit though, that shoot seemed to take forever. Cooking each ingredient and seasoning separately takes a long time. At the end of the whole thing, I dirtied enough dishes to fill the dishwasher…twice. I think that the japchae purists believe that you should do this because the dish is intended to be served at room temperature. In that case, the reasoning would make sense since each ingredient would have a separate flavour profile to be savoured as you eat it. That’s my guess.

If you are truly pressed for time though, I would see no problem in prepping the vegetables together. The seasonings for the different elements are so similar, I see no issue. The only thing I do see is preserving the colour and texture of the softer elements like the spinach. Cook it last. Problem solved. 

If you do take the classical route, here’s a tip: make more than you need so you can store each ingredient in the fridge. You can use them to make bibimbap, a quick bowl of whatever on rice or as toppings for ramen. Fry (or even better, poach) an egg and pop it on top and you have a quick meal.

Sharing the Calgary love:


I do this all the time on Twitter and Facebook, but I want to take the time to give you a little more background on my shout outs for this month.

Gabriel Hall – www.levoyagegourmand.com, @voyagegourmand

I met Gabe at a sake tasting event a few weeks ago in the beloved community of Inglewood in Calgary Alberta. He is a proud Calgarian and a lover of food. Check out this great article on The Death of the Cooking Show

Elise Gee – www.vancouversake.com, @seishu

Elise is a certified sake educator and consultant. Her passion for sake is immense and her beautiful photos and vast knowledge on the subject are something to behold. I am very lucky to know her.

Kevin Kent – www.knifewear.com, @KnifeNerd

I met Kevin at Mount Royal University in a Japanese class. He is the owner of the coolest Japanese knife shop in the country. A former chef turned entrepreneur/father/rockstar, Kevin has a love for Japan, organ meat and all things obscenely sharp.

Teddy – www.newcontent.ca, @newcontentyyc

I also met Teddy at the sake event. He was making a short film of the evening and we got to talking about what we love: food and making great content. We are now cooking up ways to take over the world. 

Adobo class:

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Just in case you haven’t heard, my first live class via chefhangout.com begins on March 15th at 6-7pm Central. To honour this special event, I will be making the classic Chicken Adobo version 2. If you have seen the show, this is the one with coconut milk. It should be a great class and I hope to see you there. Register now and don’t be late!

So that’s what’s new with me. Thanks for your continued support and will talk to you again soon. Have a great weekend!

Question of the day: What would you like to learn in a cooking class?

Next Chef Update: The Elevator Pitch

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It’s a little sad that the Next Chef sessions are almost at the end, but at the same time, I am feeling a sense of excitement at what’s to come. This morning, we had our last mentoring hangout with Zac Young, pastry chef and finalist from Top Chef: Just Desserts. Though the message was short and sweet (no pun intended), it was clear that I came out of that session with a lot of interesting questions for myself.

Zac opened early by asking us to give him a reason, in 30 seconds, why he should watch our shows. Though Lee Allison from Social Skillet gave us a similar challenge, this was the first time it was thrust upon us so spontaneously. It’s surprising if you haven’t practiced your ‘elevator pitch’ how insanely challenging it is to respond to a question like that. Everyone has an idea about what they do. We do it everyday. We are very aware of what our signature is, our niche, our style… until it comes to the point in time where we are faced with the task of explaining it to someone else in 30 seconds or less. 

I have been really challenged by this for a long time. I have a passion for food. I love to cook interesting dishes and experiment with different styles and flavors to come up with something fresh. I also enjoy cooking the classics from all over the world that people hold close to their hearts. Like I’ve said in my intros before, food is a wonderful thing. It gives us life, brings people together and creates memories. A powerful thing about food is it can make us emotional. It’s a Frito Pie that brings me back to being the new kid in a new school in brand new place or someone’s beloved croque monsieur that shouldn’t have mustard and will be vehemently defended in the YouTube comments.

The other great thing about it is that a lot of the great dishes were made from humble beginnings. Slaves, peasants, farmer’s wives, mothers, immigrants, dishwashers… these were people that made wonderful things from what no one else wanted or thought was good. These are the people that have stories to tell and this is what makes me excited about cooking. Though none of these people knew it at the time, they projected their souls into their food and gave it to others to share and enjoy.

I’m Aimless because I like to explore, or wander to be more honest. I think the most interesting things are off the beaten path and that there are still many great stories to be told. What’s yours? In the meantime, I’m gonna work on my elevator pitch.

- J

Merry Christmas! Quickly, before the year ends!

Man, do I ever feel like a bad father. Not to my kids, but to you guys in the Tumblrverse. If you already watch and follow The Aimless Cook on YouTube, then you’re pretty much up to speed and I am a shining example of what it takes to get things done in a timely manner. I think I feel a New Years resolution coming on.

My New Year’s resolution for 2012:

I will be more timely in updating my blog.

There, that should do it. lol. (By the way, how often do you really ‘lol’?)

Before the year is out, I want to take this opportunity to share the boys’ Christmas candy cane milkshake recipe and the Holiday greetings from my friends at the Kingsland Farmers Market. It’s a whole lotta Christmas from me to you and I hope you still like me for being a procrastinator. :)