I got to learn to cook, I got to learn English, I got to watch the Chinese Chefs and learn from their mastery.
Vancouver’s notoriously first-rate culinary offerings are rooted in the diversity of our immigrants, communities, and cultures. One of the many establishments that sustains that diversity is Ken’s. Ken Leung, head chef, and owner at Ken’s Kitchen was sitting with some of his regulars chatting away passionately as we walked into the restaurant. We approach him and he stands to welcome us warmly, still wearing his Chinese chef’s jacket; a long light artists smock. We wait patiently while he runs to the back and changes out of his working clothes into a neatly pressed black dress shirt, transformed from head chef to sleek business owner. It’s clear that no matter what he wears here; he is at home. Food comes first, he offers us his hospitality and introduces us to his specialty dishes; a steaming iron bowl of lobster accompanied by a plate of neatly stacked golden crab legs.
Delving into the menu while we wait I can already see how the mosaic of culinary cultures in Vancouver shows itself. What sets this menu apart from western menus are the group meals, showing us how entrenched “family style” dining is in Chinese culture. Meals for 4, 8 and 10, are made available for set prices.
Digging into the specialty dishes, Ken explains his cultural background’s culinary traditions. “Cuisine from Guangdong is not about the seasoning; spices and sauces play a minor role, what sets this cuisine apart is the purity of the ingredients.” Chefs trained in Guangdong work to bring out the clean flavours of only the best ingredients. Ken explains that because Guangdong chefs honour the pure flavours of the ingredients it is very easy for them to adapt to new styles and pallets.
He tells us “When you rely on the purity of the ingredients it becomes easy to honour that through all sorts of cuisine, but when you rely on seasoning and spices you get stuck with that one style.” With a versatile foundation and the creative freedom of owning his own restaurant, Ken actively explores unique variations on traditional dishes. Drawing from Japanese cuisine he incorporates refreshing Japanese Konnyaku Noodles in his lobster pot dish, creating something unique and delicious.
When you notice something that can work, and no Chinese cuisine out there is doing it, then [you] do it.
Western cuisine, Japanese cuisine, Chinese cuisine, anything can be drawn from to create something special.
Seasonal offerings at Ken’s kitchen pay homage not only to the availability of ingredients but to the needs of the customers. Winter means lamb brisket hotpot and free range chicken steeped in herbal broth to warm the belly. While summer highlights the plentiful vegetables and fruits with Malaysian-style spicy green beans or pea leaves with gingko and bean curd sheets in broth. Trendy new eateries often celebrate similar values, establishing entire markets through seasonal intentional cuisine, meanwhile, well-established joints like Ken’s often fail to highlight what is taken for granted: traditional values that just make sense.
Long standing communities are hard to come by in what has become an increasingly transient city; unstable job markets, unaffordable housing, and cold distance are daily divides for Vancouverites. However, looking at the staff at Ken’s kitchen you would never know it. Warmly gossiping away behind the counter they greet regular customers with the familiarity of old friends. When a new mother comes in to visit with her baby and they gather around excitedly. Ken tells us that most of the staff have been with them for over a decade, part of their own little extended family. The secret to their long-standing success, he says, is that they focus on the needs of the “everyday customer” and that means going the extra mile and fostering community.
In a way that is reminiscent of the community establishments of my mother’s childhood Ken often accommodates the requests of his customers who bring in specialty ingredients. Handing them over to the kitchen, they request dishes that they remember, specific flavours and methods. The collaboration between customer and kitchen to produce a new dish and highlights the importance of community. When we ask if it’s any trouble he tells us “No problem. They’re not asking me to construct a nuclear bomb. I mean, that’s complicated, but reproducing a dish? No problem.” This kind of community is so rare these days, with new chefs and new customers every day, few feel comfortable to indulge such requests. Working together to produce new flavours and share something together is a beautiful process and serves to benefit both the restaurant and the community.
In Vancouver our community is more often than not, made up of a mosaic of cultures. Immigrants who have come to call this city home, finding success and contributing to the richness of it’s collective spirit. Ken’s success had, after 15 years in the industry, led him to open his own restaurant. Ken recalls starting in the 90’s as a new immigrant from Guangdong “coming to Canada, our English wasn’t that great, so what else do I know? Cooking. So I started from the bottom up.”
One of the greatest challenges for immigrants from any nationality is adapting to Canadian culture when we asked Ken about how he coped he told us flatly “you aren’t really left with a choice.”
Working while going to school and learning English he had no time to think about it, he simply adapted. Like so many who have carved out a life here he looked at his journey as an experience, a challenge, and an opportunity.“I got to learn to cook, I got to learn English, I got to watch the Chinese Chefs and learn from their mastery.”
Ken’s warm attitude shines through as he shares his secret to success. “When you’re doing something, anything. You have to ask questions, you have to be willing to learn, and you need someone to teach you.” In one of Vancouver’s often understated Chinese eateries a rich, warm community and outstanding cuisine continues to thrive by this spirit.
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