We often hear the same names of Vancouver hospitality titans in local media. They do very well to represent and have done so for years. We work up thirsts and appetites following their exploits and look forward to trying whatever it is they come up with next, but we seldom consider the individuals who toil in relative anonymity alongside them, and we’re often late in introducing those destined to join them in their starry pantheon. This series of short interviews looks to introduce our readers to this new breed, one blossoming talent at a time.
In the hospitality world you seldom come across those with an undefinable but unmistakable “it” quality. Such is the case with Torafuku sous chef Sandy Chen, a second generation immigrant to Canada whose journey from TV-watching Iron Chef fan (who wasn’t?) to part owner of Torafuku and sous chef to Clement Chan is as unlikely as it is inspiring. I recently sat with her and heard about her struggle with family pressures (they wanted her to become a doctor instead of a cook), her affinity for all things noodles, and why having a beer is the best thing in the world after a long service.
Why did you become a cook? I moved to Canada when I was 12 along with my older sister. Neither of us knew how to cook anything except instant noodles. One night I was watching the Food Network and a show called Iron Chef caught my interest. It was great fun to watch and I really liked it. I started to study recipes because I wanted to learn how to make the kind of food they were preparing. From this a hobby became a passion and that passion led me to the profession.
Did you ever have any ambition to do anything else? If I wasn’t a chef, I would probably continue with my psychology studies and become a psychiatrist. I got my degree only at the behest of family pressure. It wasn’t easy telling them that I wanted to cook for a living. It was viewed as a secondary or lower class profession.
Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training? I went to Vancouver Community College (VCC) for their culinary program.
What was your first kitchen job and how long did it last? Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. I worked there for 3 years.
If you could stage for a week in one Vancouver Restaurant, which one would it be? The Pear Tree, to learn classic French.
If you could stage for a week in any restaurant outside Vancouver, which one would it be? That’s easy. It would be Hisa Franko in Slovenia. I’d love to work under Ana Ros, the world’s best female chef.
Kitchen slang at your restaurant that you’ve never heard anywhere else? Chaud, or “sho!” (HOT!).
Which local restaurant kitchen do you envy the most on account of its space, equipment, and layout? Hawksworth.
What is the single most important lesson you have learned from chef Clement Chan at Torafuku? Flexibility. Nothing is black and white.
What cliché or saying does your Clement Chan overuse the most during service? “Ordering!”, “Server please!”
photo via Torafuku
Who have been some of your most impactful mentors? Clement Chan (Torafuku); David Wong (former executive chef at Fairmont Pacific Rim); Taka Omi (Sushi Chef at Lobby Lounge Raw Bar); and JC Felicella (Vancouver Community College).
Open kitchen or closed kitchen, which suits your personality best? Open kitchen.
Describe the knife that you’re most sentimental about. Where did you get it? What’s the story? My mentor Clement Chan gave me a Shun. It was a birthday gift from his personal collection. It’s the most priceless thing that I ever had given to me.
What is your favourite type of cuisine to cook? Modern Asian; more on the Japanese side.
What is your favourite cuisine to eat? All different type of Asian foods.
What’s the one dreaded kitchen task that you’d be glad to staff out to someone else so you never have to do it again? Teaching. I’m not good at teaching, I’m better at showing.
Let’s say you had an unlimited budget to open the restaurant of your dreams. What would the concept be? It’d be an open kitchen surrounded by windows so people could see what we were doing. Seating would be maybe 20-30 people; not too big as I’d want it to be comfortable.
A local restaurant that is no longer around and you miss dearly? Sunny Spot. The restaurant is still there but it now has a different owner. It’s not the same.
What current food trend are you already sick of? Food trucks. There’s too many of them.
If money was no object and you had the night off, where would you take your kitchen co-workers for dinner tonight? Zakkushi on Robson Street. We’d eat, drink, shoot the shit and relax.
What is Vancouver missing in terms of cuisine? How to cook in the classic way. How to cook protein without a circulator. How to make mayo by hand, et cetera.
Where do you see yourself – career-wise – in five years? Opening another restaurant and becoming the best female chef in Canada.
If you ever take the next step to become an executive chef, what do you think is going to be the most challenging thing about your new job? Creating a menu. Also, how do we maintain whatever we achieve? And will the staff stay with me?
How did you last burn yourself? Flipping fish with hot oil. I flipped it towards me. A stupid mistake.
In five words or less, explain why there are never enough cooks. Wages (they want to get paid a higher wage). Hours (they want to work fewer hours). Pressure (they can’t handle the pressure). Criticism (they can’t take advice or criticism).
Name your all-time favourite three ingredients. Butter. Cilantro. Basil.
What do you find yourself cooking the most at home? Soup for myself after work. It’s quick and simple.
If you could recommend just one cookbook for any aspiring young chef, what would it be? The Flavor Bible by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. The book gives us a lot of ideas on what goes well with what.
You’ve just clocked out and you’re starving. Where are you going and what are you eating? I love noodles a lot so I’d probably go for ramen (eg. Benkei, Mototmachi) or Deer Garden (HK style, pick your soup base, noodle, etc.).
Outside of cooking, what are some of your other passions? I love eating at other restaurants (new restaurants and those that been around for years). I love looking for new ideas and new dishes.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job? Getting to cook what we love and share it with our customers. Good or bad reviews keep us moving to make it better.
What’s the most rewarding thing for an exhausted kitchen after work? Having a beer is the most rewarding thing. I can’t tell you how much I love this.