Canada's Chefs: Chef Craig Wong, Toronto

by Krlmagi

Chef Craig Wong combines his diverse cultural background with a passion for sharing food with others at Patois in Toronto.

Chef Craig Wong says that he didn't grow up with a strong culinary background, but he does cite his grandmother as a culinary influence on him. He points out, "My grandmother was one of the best cooks I've ever known. She was the one that introduced me to the idea that food can unite people. She used to cook for my cousins and my uncles and aunts on weekdays. We'd all meet at my grandmother's house after school and she would babysit all of the kids and cook for the entire family. It was like having Thanksgiving dinner every day of the week."

Wong also mentions the diverse influence of his culturally mixed background. He says, "I've had a varied culinary background with influences from authentic Jamaican food as well as traditional Chinese food. We'd have Jamaican jerk pork alongside Chinese chow mein. I'm a Toronto boy so I grew up eating everything from cheeseburgers to falafel. I had lots of Polish friends and Persian friends growing up, so I ate those cuisines as well."

He discusses the influence of other chefs on his cooking as a young man. In particular he mentions Chef Christophe Moret under whom he worked at Alain Ducasse. He explains, "He taught me about food culture, but he also taught me what it was like to be in a world-class kitchen. He taught me about the professionalism and the storytelling aspects of being a chef. It's much deeper than just putting a plate of food together and presenting it to someone."

Chef Craig Wong
Chef Craig Wong

The chef says that his current approach to food and cooking is to take his fine-dining background and combine it with his personality. He says, "I'm a no-bullshit guy. I appreciate honesty and I appreciate people being up front with me. I want to have a pretension-free atmosphere, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to be sloppy about it. I want incredible service and incredible food at a price point that's affordable. I appreciate the affordability part of it because I didn't grow up in a rich family. I worked hard for everything that I have."

Wong points out that he's a "deep thinker" about food but when it comes to the menu, he says, "Everything that I put on the menu is there because I think its the most delicious thing that I can present to my guests."

He gives an example of his approach to menu creation as he talks about a dish that just arrived on the menu. He explains, "We're just putting a new dish on the menu called Death Row pichanha*. I call it that because it's what I'd want to eat if I were on Death Row. I'm a storyteller by nature. I like to show people a little bit of who I am through the dishes that I cook, but I'm by no means an artist. I'm a craftsman through and through, but there are elements of storytelling in my food."

Beef and Broccoli with King Oyster Mushrooms and Oyster Sauce
Beef and Broccoli with King Oyster Mushrooms and Oyster Sauce

When it comes to his suppliers the chef says that what he's looking for are people with interesting products but he adds, "I've worked long and hard to harness the relationships that I have with my purveyors. I like to have lasting relationships with the people I buy from. I'm into someone who's a good person and someone who will help me out in a jam. I'm looking for someone who's doing something different that no one else can do."

In terms of his kitchen persona, Wong says, "I'm a very firm person. If you meet me outside of the kitchen you'd never understand how I am in the kitchen. I'm solid through and through in terms of being a classical French chef. I understand that's not how people get treated today. There are parts of me that expect perfection and seek excellence."

He adds, "I tell my students that if they're looking for a father figure they're in the wrong place.  At the same time, I can be a shoulder to cry on. I have a soft side and when I see potential in somebody I go the extra mile to harness that potential even though sometimes it burns me."

O.G. Fried Chicken & Watermelon Pickle, Thai Basil, Sweet Sriracha
O.G. Fried Chicken & Watermelon Pickle, Thai Basil, Sweet Sriracha

Having good staff is another link in the kitchen chain that the chef discusses. He explains, "What I'm looking for in a cook is someone who can perform at an extremely high level.  I always tell them that I believe that one plus one can make three when we're in the kitchen together. I believe that we're greater than the sum of our parts in the kitchen, so if we work as a team we can accomplish so much more.  When someone gives me something good it's very easy for me reward them with generosity and patience."

The topic of where Wong finds inspiration is raised and he points out, "Its in my nature to want to please people and I'm a giver in that way. I get inspired by seeing  people's faces when they eat our food and when they enjoy it.  I make time to go out to the dining room and make sure everyone's okay. I love hearing feedback from people and its nice to see that the work is paying off. It's nice to see that people are loving what we're doing."

 

*In Brazil, the most prized cut of meat tends to be the picanha, which is the rump cap. It is, in fact, the capping muscle over to the sirloin/rump area. It is the topmost layers of muscle covered in a layer of thick fat. (taken from Wikipedia)

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Updated: 08/18/2014, Krlmagi
 
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