There’s a good chance you’ll get a taste of chef Craig Wong’s cooking this summer and you don’t even have to be in Toronto to enjoy it.
The owner of Patois, a downtown mainstay dishing out Jamaican-Chinese food, and Bar Mignonette, a seafood wine bar located on top of Patois, is currently on the road in partnership with Destination Toronto.
“We’re bringing our fun Asian cuisine to Montreal, Ottawa, and Kingston, Ont.,” said Wong. “We’re traveling with a food truck and we’re gonna be cooking there and handing out food to everybody.
It’s the latest in the line of Wong’s passion projects and partnerships to bring his take on Chinese cooking with Jamaican ingredients (or Jamaican cooking with Chinese ingredients, depending on how you look at it) to the public. It also caps off the eight-year anniversary of Patois, the restaurant that cemented his name in the Toronto food scene in 2014.
The partnership is a natural extension for the chef whose personality permeates everything he touches even though it’s not the vacation Wong admits he’s been wanting to take after the last two years of running restaurants during the pandemic.
“It’s been over 20 years that I’ve been cooking professionally. I was definitely decent at cooking other people’s food, but I wanted to do something that spoke our language and I pride myself on being a bit of a storyteller,” said Wong. “If I can convey a little bit more about my life, my sense of humour, my morals into our cuisine and therefore into our guests’ minds, then that’s where I really feel like we’ve been successful.”
While Wong’s story could definitely be told through a menu, having a map on the side wouldn’t hurt. His father’s from Kingston, Jamaica. His mom’s from Ocho Rios. Together, they decided to immigrate to Canada in the early ‘70s, settling in Scarborough where Wong was born and raised.
Fast forward to after graduating high school, Wong moved to Lyon, France and earned his culinary chops from the L’Institut Paul Bocuse. He later worked around Europe for a couple of years before returning back home to Toronto to spend the next 10 years working in the city’s fine dining scene.
“I would say first and foremost, I am a fan of food. And before being a chef, before being a restaurateur, I got into this because I just adore cooking, eating, and just making people around me happy through food,” said Wong. “That’s always the focus. If we can make sure that we’re pleasing people around us then that’s what really excites me.”
Below, Wong chats with The RepresentASIAN Project on what it was like being both an Asian-Canadian and a restauranteur during the pandemic, how family influences his food, and his days of ‘stinky’ leftovers for school lunches.
On how family shaped his views on Chinese and Jamaican cuisine
I always joke around with my mom and I tell her that the gift of cooking was skipped a generation with her. My grandmother was a fantastic cook. She actually owned several canteens in Jamaica. She cooked for factory workers, oil rig workers, and for office workers. She was cooking Jamaican foods with Chinese ingredients and cooking Chinese food with Jamaican ingredients. And so it just really meshed together. And I never saw the difference between Jamaican cuisine and Chinese cuisine because I was raised with such an eclectic mix of everything. I never really differentiated between the two and to me that’s the idea of what people call ‘fusion’.
“I never saw the difference between Jamaican cuisine and Chinese cuisine because I was raised with such an eclectic mix of everything. I never really differentiated between the two and to me that’s the idea of what people call ‘fusion.'”
On who’s doing fusion cuisine well in Toronto
I gotta give a shout out to Susur Lee. He was like the original innovator from back in the day. He was the guy that got all of this started and was a big inspiration for me – not that I ever worked for him or anything like that. At the time when he started – just like how when I started – he was the only one doing a different type of cuisine. If you looked at the top 10 restaurants in the city in the late ‘90s, early ‘00s, every single one of them was either French or Italian. And Susur was one of those first ones that was actually doing a different type of cuisine that was respected and renowned. He was one of the originators.
Other than that, I really enjoy the food my friend Leemo Han does over at Hanmoto, Seoul Shakers, and Pinkies Ca Phe. All those places have food that I really enjoy eating. I’m really glad to see some of the younger chefs coming up as well, too. And it’s funny to say that because now to think of myself as the old guard is taking a bit of adjustment. I was always used to being the youngest guy in the room and very slowly, I’ve started to see that that has changed. Seeing the new people starting to do more and more has been a blessing and an awakening.
On launching his other restaurant, Bar Mignonette, during a pandemic
Man, it was the toughest thing and none us knew how long the pandemic was gonna last. I wanna say it was like late March 2020 when I was having conversations with all types of restaurateurs and ran into Shant Mardirosian over at Fourth Man in the Fire and [founder of] The Burger’s Priest. I remember distinctly having a conversation with him and we were talking about our theories on how long this is gonna last. Here we were saying, “Oh man, this is gonna be like two or four weeks.” And he was like, ‘I heard through the grapevine that this may be something that lasts until December, 2020.’ And both of us were like, “Man, there’s no way that this is gonna last into December.”
The fact that we were in that mindset threw a wrench into all of our plans. So I think as restaurateurs, we’ve had to not only reinvent ourselves, but we’ve had to reimagine how the restaurant model can succeed. And the funny thing is what I’ve come to learn is it’s important for us to have more verticals to balance our business. The old days of waiting for guests to come into our restaurant are long gone. Now, it’s about having the ability to accommodate third-party delivery apps, to have a little bit of catering, to have some retail, all these different aspects of our business that come together and create a different type of atmosphere and a different culture to the restaurant.
“[With COVID], I think as restaurateurs, we’ve had to not only reinvent ourselves, but we’ve had to reimagine how the restaurant model can succeed.”
On how he personally navigated COVID-19 as both an Asian-Canadian and a restauranteur
It’s funny. I never really take the moment to think about that. I always think about how our staff is doing. I think about the health of the business. I don’t really think about myself too often because now that I have different responsibilities – being a father to two young children, a husband to my wife – there are many layers that tend to come before you start to think about yourself.
Those are the responsibilities I felt in the time of the pandemic just like how I feel like right now. I would say that I felt a sense of responsibility to keep all of our staff. If we can help our immediate circle plus a few other people, that’s what I wanna do.
I got inspired by touring rock bands during the pandemic and thought, ‘if they can bring their talents and go visit different neighbourhoods, why can’t we do the same thing?’ That’s where this whole idea of these heat-and-serve care packages came from. We designed our posters and everything around these like rock bands. And I was like, ‘Newmarket, Ont., on Thursday!’ ‘We’re coming to you, Brampton this Friday!’
It not only kept our business alive and relevant but we kept all of our cooks. We kept our front of house who were helping with some of the deliveries and coordinating all of the orders. But what made me really happy was that we rehired some of our past cooks. We hired new people to come in and help us with deliveries.
Having been able to service people that way was very inspirational for me. In essence, I don’t know how I am. I’m just trying to keep myself afloat and keep myself inspired and do fun things. But I guess I should think about myself sometimes.
On cooking for his sons vs. what he ate as a kid
I tend to cook a lot of dishes that people would consider dinner, but I cook that for breakfast and that’s the time that I get to spend with my kids. This morning we had Hebrew National hotdogs. We’ve got these amazing multicoloured farm eggs. I had some donair meat that I threw in as well. There’s always some rice in there. And then lots of veggies, like arugula and tomatoes.
There was no rhyme or reason to today’s breakfast, but sometimes I’ll cook things like fish head curry. My boys love that stuff. I made a morel and cinnamon cap mushroom pasta the day before. Like whatever we find is is the things that I’ll cook for them. Sometimes we make fresh bread in the morning. I like to keep them on their toes and they eat a way wider variety of foods than my wife and I ate as kids.
On growing up with last night’s leftovers for next day’s school lunches
I was part of the stinky lunch crowd and we got hate on a regular basis. Like enough that, at times, I would see my lunch and then I would discard it, or I would just put it back into my bag and go without lunch. It’s funny because those are some of the dishes that I love now.
My mom would pack me jerk chicken with potato salad and like coleslaw. And I was like, “I am not gonna eat that in front of everybody else.” Just the smells, the aromas and everything that was coming off. I was like, “That ain’t cool, man.” Everyone else had their cool sandwich and their little individual potato chips. And like, here I am with a knife and fork, eating jerk chicken off the bone and it was messy.
Peer pressure is a real thing, especially like at that age. I wonder if people are a little bit more accepting now. Food knowledge, I find, has greatly increased. Now my kids go to a Mandarin preschool and they get lunches made for them and everything is super healthy. We pay for it – all the parents pay into this – but they’re getting things like curry chickpeas and baby carrots, and a type of jerk chicken as well, too. There are all these different foods but everyone is eating the same thing, which I think is kinda cool.
On the support he’s received from his team
I always try to take the opportunity to thank our team and it’s not many times that I actually get the platform to do it. So like whenever anyone asks me these things I always wanna show how grateful I am to the people around me. Whether it’s people that work in the kitchen, front of house, or in our office, I’m blessed to have amazing people around me that help us to do what we do. That’s the only reason we can accomplish what we do. It’s an entire team effort.