The Commercial Drive Restaurateur Who Once Kept a Bottle of Wine as a Pet

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.

Restaurateur and sommelier Van Doren Chan is a veteran of Vancouver’s restaurant scene and the FOH force behind Commercial Drive’s critically lauded Ugly Dumpling restaurant (Chef Darren Gee is her business partner). With a curious mind and a deep resume, her philosophy of sourcing unique, terroir-driven wines with stories is one any diner can get behind. She recently sat down with Scout to discuss her restaurant’s wine program, her thoughts on the local wine industry, and why she kept a pet bottle of Savennieres for a night. Say hello to Van Doren…

So where are you from?

Hong Kong.

What prompted you to enter the field of hospitality?

I started washing dishes at my family’s restaurant when I was in grade school and I never wanted to leave. I feel like when you work in restaurants, you’re brought into a miniature world where you get to experience something new and meet people from around the world every day. It’s the closest experience to travelling.

Did you ever have ambitions to do anything else?

As an anonymous Michelin restaurant inspector, still do…

Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training?

Ahhh…the point of no return. I was the pastry chef at Sooke Harbour House when I first got into wine. Never really understood how something made from grapes could taste like strawberries and raspberries. The menu at Sooke changed every day, which required new wine pairings. They required all the servers there to have their sommelier certification. So every day they led me through tastings which taught me about wine. I’m certified by WSET, WSET Sake, Court of Master Sommeliers, ISG and French Wine Scholar Master program.

What was your first restaurant/bar job and how long did it last?

I was nine years old when I started washing dishes at my family’s restaurant. Carried my first tray when I was 14. Spilled a full tray of Sapporo on a customer shortly after that. My first kitchen job was at Blue Water Café shucking oysters.

Ok, now name every restaurant/bar you’ve ever worked in.

Gyoza King (family restaurant), Blue Water Café, Nan Chuu Izakaya, Sooke Harbour House, Four Seasons Hotel, C Restaurant, Opus Hotel, Salt Tasting Room, Hawksworth Restaurant, Le Crocodile.

If you could work for a week in one Vancouver restaurant/bar, which one would it be?

Long’s on Main. I want to learn how to make the best soupy dumplings (aka XLB).

If you could work for a week in any restaurant/bar outside Vancouver, which one would it be?

One of the Pintxos bars in San Sebastian. I’ve always admired the servers there, how they can keep track of everyone’s tab without a POS system. Love it!

What is the single most important lesson you have learned from your partner?

Respect each other for who they are and the only one that you can change is yourself.

Who have been some of your most impactful mentors?

Chef James Watts – He taught me patience and everything in the kitchen. Sinclair Philip from Sooke Harbour House – He taught me about sustainability and how if affects our life. Chef Michel Jacob – He taught me about respect, friendship, family and how to run a successful restaurant.

What current restaurant trend are you already sick of?

Natural wine. Don’t even get me started…

Can you explain the philosophy of your wine program and how it meshes with your food?

To create a light-hearted list with a focus on food pairing. Ugly Dumpling is an Asian-inspired snack bar. There are two parts to the wine list: the list itself and a colouring book with details of each wine. Wines will change based on seasonal menu pairing. However, the structure of the list will always remain the same. To keep the wine list easy to read we minimize details down to the region and provide only the dominant grape varietal for still wines. If the appellation defines a unique style, then it will be included. ie. Muscadet Sèvre et Maine. (Additional information will be given in the colouring book.)

What is your favourite type of wine, beer and spirit to drink?

There’s a Riesling for everything!

Do you remember the bottle or varietal which got you excited about wine? What’s the story?

Nicolas Joly Savennieres Coulée de Serrant 1995. I found it in a little weird grocery store in Missouri. At the time, I had just finished my WSET level 3, so I thought I knew a little bit about wine. I remember how the wine changed every time I nosed it. It just kept evolving. I left the bottle open beside my night stand so I could check on it in the morning, play with it in the afternoon and have a sip before I went to bed. It was my pet wine for the next three days.

Do you have a favourite wine region? If so, where is it and why?

Alsace, because of the diversity of soil and varieties planted. The food and wine game in that region is strong. Each vigneron or restaurateur you talk to, food and wine are always linked in the same conversation. I call Alsace the Disneyland for adults.

What are your thoughts on the Vancouver restaurant/bar industry?

Exciting times. We are crazy fortunate to live in such close proximity to the ocean and neighbouring farm lands. We have such an abundance of fresh local products to play with. Many international cuisines show new representations of our local ingredients, often in a much more delicious manner.

What are your thoughts on the BC wine industry?

I was very fortunate to spend a few years in the Okanagan Valley which helped expand my understanding of the BC industry. The industry has established a lot in a very short time and put a solid mark on the international map. The 8th edition of The World Atlas of Wines now has a section dedicated to BC. This is big! These achievements are due to all the hard work put in by everyone in the BC wine industry. We are young and have a very bright future ahead of us!

Name three of your favourite Vancouver restaurants…

Kalvin’s on Victoria Drive is my favourite hangout. Fat Mao for noodles. Sardine Can for tapas.

Where do you see yourself – career-wise – in five years?

Oh… this is a dangerous question. It’s like a teacher asking what do you wanna be when you grow up. My focus will be on conveying stories and experiences from vineyard to glass in a more personable approach and see where that will lead me. I want to explore different settings and experiences and how they relate to what’s in the glass. For example: Tasting a bottle of Cru Beaujolais in a raspberry farm or on a boat cruise to taste Madeira. The possibilities are endless.

Name your all-time favourite three spirits.

Wine, sherry, vermouth.

Describe the different challenges you sometimes face in running your restaurant?

To me each restaurant is a jigsaw puzzle with unlimited pieces. Problems will come up for sure. You can try to focus on perfecting one section at a time but ultimately it’s the whole picture that matters.

If you could recommend just one wine book for any aspiring sommelier, what would it be?

“Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor” by François Chartier. An excellent book to get a grasp on the fundamentals of wine pairing.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being a restaurant owner these days?

The smile on your guests faces when they walk in and the hug you receive on their way out.

You’ve just clocked out and you’re thirsty. Where are you going and what are you drinking?

Champagne. Preferably a Blanc de Blanc.

Outside of running the bar at your restaurant, what are some of your other passions?

I’m a pretty boring person; everything around me evolves around food and wine. I like cooking and enjoy working in the vineyard. Don’t get me wrong, vineyard work is nowhere near as romantic as it’s portrayed in the movies. It’s a lot of lonely, sweaty work which requires you to have a lot of patience, but it’s very rewarding when you taste the results. I’m a classical music fan; symphony and opera are right up my alley.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?

I get to learn and taste delicious wines with amazing people around the world and share their stories.

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