Fan Zhang’s fascination with restaurants started as a young boy when his mom worked as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant in Queens, New York. The owner used to feed him free food when he came in and Zhang has enjoyed the restaurant experience since then. As a young man he dropped out of university, moved to Toronto and started out cooking at an entry level position in a fine dining restaurant. He adds, "I enjoyed the occupation and the lifestyle and have pretty much been working in the industry ever since.”
Canada's Chefs: Fan Zhang, Toronto ON
Fan Zhang takes a freewheeling approach to cooking at Mr. Flamingo. He incorporates seasonal ingredients with diverse cultural influences and creative flair.
Chef Fan Zhang
Zhang’s parents were a major influence on his culinary perspective. They managed to have good meals on the table no matter what the state of their finances might have been. Every night was a "veritable smorgasbord" of lobster, roast duck or fresh fish when Zhang came home from school. He also lists a group of chefs who’ve been influential for him including Lorenzo Loseto, Teddy Corado, David Chrystian, Michi Tanaka, Cory Vitiello and Nick Liu.
His is an eclectic, mood-dependent approach to cooking. Zhang calls his food "open-format." To illustrate this he says, "I might have some tacos for lunch and decide that the hamachi I had flown in from Japan that day deserves a Mexican preparation or I might see some really nice root vegetables at the market and feel appetized by them enough to feature them that evening.”
Ninety percent of the dishes that Zhang creates follow a general pattern. He starts out with a main component or "focal ingredient" and finds two other flavours or ingredients to complement it. He finishes by finding the right cooking techniques in order to produce a balance of textures and temperatures in the final dish.
Spaghetti with spot prawns, bottarga, and lobster sauce
Trusting his suppliers to help him choose ingredients is important for Zhang. He tends to use smaller- scale suppliers because they communicate clearly about the products they're bringing it. He will order based on their recommendations about the best quality items. He prefers this to "blindly ordering things that I presume are in peak season or bountiful." For him, having quality ingredients makes the process of creating new dishes much easier.
Having a positive atmosphere in the kitchen is central to how Zhang approaches his job as a chef. There isn't any yelling in his kitchen and people step in to do any jobs that need doing. His team is motivated by their pride in the food they create rather than a fear of being reprimanded for every mistake.
Zhang adds, “I suppose I have the usual approach to leadership as far as chefs go, but I think keeping your team happy is very important. You have to empower your staff to be happy about serving your guests.”
Japanese Wagyu rib eye (Grade A5) with radish, wild onion, mushrooms & ponzu sauc
Zhang is in charge of menu development but he wants to give his cooks a chance to create. He gives his cooks free reinto "come up with a sauce based on this ingredient or ask them to figure out a way to use up this ingredient." This gives them a sense of ownership, the feeling of being part of a team and keeps the cooks involved in the restaurant.
The current digital age has given young cooks many resources according to Zhang. Young cooks who have the right combination of inspiration and resourcefulness can create "something magical." Zhang looks for the same curiosity in his cooks that he demands from himself.
Inspiration is slightly fickle for Zhang. There are phases where he can't stop thinking about food and times where he runs dry. He calls this chef's block and combats it by escaping from the culinary world for a while. He'll read or go see movies alone to try and take his mind away from food. Eventually, he says, "Maybe I will be at a flower shop looking at terrariums and decide I'd like to make a dish that resembles one and voila! The inspiration is there. It is very difficult to anticipate.”