During the pandemic, Angus An took up furniture making. To hear him talk about it, the act of working with wood helped him find calm amidst the chaos of the whiplash-inducing open/close/pivot pattern that the hospitality industry (and much of the world) had been experiencing for most of 2020 & 2021.
Like many of his peers, chef An (Maenam, Fat Mao, Sen Pad Thai, Longtail Kitchen and Freebird) had grown concerned for the future of restaurants and was questioning his relevance as a chef. Stalled, frustrated and increasingly stir-crazy, he was unsure of his next move and in need of some big-picture perspective.
“When the lockdown happened, I took a lot of ‘me’ time: I read a ton, and did a lot of things I didn’t previously have time to do but always wanted to,” says An, “I learned how to build furniture because I got bored, and have since replaced every piece of Ikea furniture I owned with something I made. During the moments when I was creating, designing, or making the furniture pieces, it made me realize one thing: I still want to create. And it reinvigorated me.”
As restrictions lifted and the world turned a corner toward something more (knock-on-wood) “stable”… service picked up, projects started to advance, and opportunities materialized, Chef An found himself moving from “zero to one hundred — fast”. Thankfully, he was operating from a place of clarity that gave him the ability to be deliberate and strategic. “I feel like I have new motivation and a different trajectory for the next ten years of my career.”
Given his recent period of self-reflection, we thought now would be a good time to check in with Chef An. For perspective (and fun), we posed the same set of questions we asked way back in 2009 to find out what has changed and what has remained the same. Here is what we found out…
Angus An: “Before we start, I feel the need to give this old picture some context – I remember everyone asking me why I posed in a shower back in 2008. In many ways, this picture represents a very significant time in my career. As a young 28-year-old chef, I was invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in NYC, proudly representing Canada’s West Coast with Gastropod’s menu dubbed “Modern Canadian Cuisine.” My good friend, Chris Mason Stearns, took this photo shortly after dinner service, which took place at the Greenwich Village house where James Beard once resided.
Towards the late stages of Mr. Beard’s life, he physically outgrew his bathroom, and had a large custom shower built on top of the kitchen by the solarium, which was open to his neighbours. This shower is considered a significant piece of culinary history in America and to me, that evening marked a pinnacle moment in my career. It was also the start of a pretty steep downslope as a restaurateur. Within eight months of that photo being taken, I was forced to close Gastropod due to financial reasons and reopen as a Maenam (originally slated to be a second restaurant). Some of my biggest lessons as a chef, businessman and human being were learned during those tough months. I am a better person today because of the experience.”
The thing that you eat that is bad for you that you will never stop eating:
2022: That is still the case! I’m a sucker for butter.
Default drink of choice:
2009: Anything with gin.
2022: I still love my gin, but more specifically, I love Kissa Tanto’s Salaryman’s Song. When I’m not there, I love to make myself a Negroni or two at home.
Drink you’ll never have again:
2009: Anything with Fireball.
2022: 100%, that has not changed one bit. I can’t even smell that stuff.
Favourite wine varietal:
2022: My exposure to wine has definitely increased. I can’t give you a specific varietal, but my favourite region is Champagne. I love Champagne!
The person you can imitate:
2009: My son Aidan.
2022: Ha ha, that is definitely still the case. The only difference now is he is old enough (14) to tell me my imitation sucks.
One thing you’d like to change about Vancouver:
2009: A denser downtown core, less urban sprawl.
2022: Gosh, was I trying to be a city planner back then? Over the past 13 years, poverty, homelessness, crime and substance use in the Downtown Eastside have worsened. I wish we could figure out a way to significantly help these vulnerable residents and make our neighbourhoods safe for everyone.
Bartender who could sell you anything:
2009: Steve Da Cruz.
2022: Funny – I just met with Steve yesterday (as I type this), although instead of cocktails, he is trying to sell me businesses now. I love anything Sabrine Dhaliwal makes; she can easily sell me on any cocktail at the Chickadee Room.
Cheap place for dinner:
2009: Accord on Main St for a good late night MSG fix.
2022: Sad that Accord is not around anymore. Shameless self-plug: Fat Mao Noodles, but honestly, I eat there two-to-three times a week. You can also find me grabbing fish cakes at Bun Cha Ca Hoang Yen Deli on Victoria.
Book you’re reading:
2009: Bright Shiny Morning, by James Frey.
2022: The Dark Hours, by Michael Connelly. Crime novels are a bit like meditation to me.
Last place you travelled:
2009: Bangkok and Tokyo.
2022: Los Angeles, where I got COVID and was stuck. I took travelling for granted before the pandemic. When things opened up, after two years of not travelling, I visited: Ottawa, Montreal, Italy, Thailand, and LA.
2022: I guess that’s probably still up there. But more so, as I am a little older now, I’m not as afraid of death as I am of running out of time.
Dead film actor you wish was still making pictures:
2009: Marlon Brando.
2022: We have lost so many good ones lately. I guess Ray Liotta would be one.
Best sneaker in the world:
2009: Converse All Stars.
2022: Yeah, some things don’t change—Chucks are still the best.
Place in BC that you love escaping to:
2009: The Okanagan.
2022: I had an amazing time in Tofino. I recently celebrated my birthday fishing for tuna in Tofino with my friend and fishing guide, Willie Mitchell, more good friends and my son. It is by far one of my fondest memories. We barbecued Waygu and popped Champagne with oysters on Tonquin Beach; it was amazing. So, for now, it will have to be Tofino.
Under what circumstances would you join the army:
2009: If they force me.
2022: I grew up in Taiwan, where military service is mandatory, so I appreciate the choice here. I know a lot of friends that have served, and I have always been very proud of them. If they need me, I’m there.
Best bar stool in the city:
2009: Chow or Gastropod.
2022: Honestly, I’m probably at Cioppino’s bar the most. Pino is a dear friend who has always had my back. I usually sit at the bar, and he feeds me; I can’t imagine going anywhere else.
Dumbest purchase ever:
2009: 30 bucks worth of 649 tickets on Saturday.
2022: Hmm, that list is as long as it is diverse. I like to have a few glasses of wine and then go online shopping… Basically, 65% of what I buy would be considered a dumb purchase.
The thing that makes you the angriest:
2009: Bad drivers!
2022: Well, that certainly hasn’t changed, except there seems to be more of them now.
Saddest thing about Vancouver:
2009: Too many bad drivers!
2022: The 362 days of rain!
Most challenging part of owning a business:
2009: Everything, so many little things that all ultimately affect the business on a daily basis.
2022: Today, I would say staffing. Our industry is shrinking by the day as the desire to work in restaurants isn’t what it was before. We need to fix that.
Best fine dining restaurant in the city:
2009: Blue Water Café and Raw Bar.
2022: Cioppino’s Yaletown.
Food your mom makes better than anyone:
2022: Yup, you should try her dumplings!
Musical instrument you long to play:
2009: A saxophone.
2022: That hasn’t changed.
Sport you gave up:
2009: Basketball, but “retire” is the word I would prefer.
2022: Golf — it was just too time-consuming. Also, tennis – I ruptured my Achilles while playing, and I’m pretty sure I left my left shoe on the court when I went to the hospital.
Vancouverite you admire most:
2009: John Bishop.
2022: I hope you are enjoying retirement, John. I will always remember the advice you gave to the 19-year-old me.
Canuck you would trade away in a heartbeat:
2009: Taylor Pyatt.
2022: This armchair GM says, OEL; we need the cap space!
The number of fist fights you’ve been in:
2009: One. When I was in elementary school, I got punched in the nose. Does that count as a fight?
2022: Thankfully that number hasn’t changed.
Best concert experience ever:
2009: Live 8 Hyde Park.
2022: I was recently blown away by U2, Coldplay and Elton John.
The thing you wished people cared more about:
2009: Eating better.
2022: Yeah, eating better, not eating cheaper.
The thing that makes you the most nervous:
2009: Falling behind.
2022: I have a weird thing where if I’m not ahead, I feel behind.
Town you were born in:
Old television shows you can tolerate re-runs of:
2009: The A-Team.
2022: Access to TV shows has gotten so much better due to streaming. I love how you have everything at your fingertips, and at the same time, are not able to find anything to watch! I do love to watch and re-watch Breaking Bad, though.
Quality you admire most in yourself:
2022: Such a schoolboy answer and so idealistic. I’m a very organized person, and I work hard to stay organized, so I would say that.
Default junk food of choice:
2022: Don’t eat that much pizza anymore but when we do it’s Pizzeria Farina (so glad they resigned their lease). We really don’t eat a lot of junk food, but I do love some salted duck yolk potato chips from T&T every now and then.
The career path you considered but never followed:
2022: Same, although I see many parallels in what I do today.
Your top three films of all time:
2009: The Godfather, The Last of the Mohicans, Blade Runner.
2022: Yeah, it’s hard to top that list. Probably add in Goodfellas (Ray Liotta passed yesterday as I write this).
The thing you’re addicted to:
2022: Pain — how else can you explain one’s obsession with opening so many restaurants in such a tough market?
Luckiest moment of your life:
2009: 3:45am, November 15th, 2007. The birth of my son.
2022: Oh, yeah, that’s never going to change.
Favourite book as a child:
2009: I had a collection of comic books and science encyclopedias. My parents didn’t allow me to buy regular comic books.
2022: Dune, 1984, and The Count of Monte Cristo. During the pandemic, especially during the lockdown, I went into my attic and discovered a lot of books and re-read them. Those three are definitely my favourites from my childhood/teenage years.
After 13 years as a restaurant owner and 25 years in the industry, have you ever found yourself burnt out? I wouldn’t say I have ever been burnt out, but I have definitely felt some fatigue. It’s a tough industry; financially it’s not the most rewarding, and everyone judges you. I took the time during the pandemic to reflect, but even before that I took a step back from cooking to spend more time with my growing son. I wanted to be a big part of his life… In the past five years I did all the school drop-offs and pick-ups, and I cook dinner for him almost every night. It is nice to be just a dad! He went from a tiny boy to a mini-man, and I’m happy I didn’t miss any of it. I usually get my work done in-between his school day. To survive in this business you need to find balance and include hobbies, family, and individual personal time.
Where have you been eating lately? Any must-try dishes that you can put on our radar? We haven’t gone out to eat as much recently, but Aidan and I will always go to Marutama on Tuesdays after his piano lesson at VSO. We love the ramen there. I also love BBQ at HKBBQ Master. I don’t think people understand how good this place is — it’s truly world-class. We also love the chicken pho at The Wooden Fish; the pho bo at Linh Café; and the bun Rieu at Bánh Mì Très Bon.
For dinner, I usually don’t look at menus when I go out. I love a good Omakase. I always have a good meal at: Masayoshi, Kissa Tanto, Boulevard, and Cioppino’s. I love it when you simply show up and leave the decision-making to them.
It’s funny, when I get asked these questions I always have a hard time answering because I want to support all of my friends and colleagues. The truth is, the number of high-calibre restaurants in Vancouver has grown tremendously since the last time I did this survey. Our restaurant scene is crazy good. People need to appreciate the significant quality of restaurants, the diversity of the food, and the level of service here in Vancouver. Go out and support your local restaurants, because a world without restaurants would suck!