In August 2014, an experimental restaurant like no other opened in Toronto. It was situated in an apartment, without a food permit, and served a tasting menu for $25. As you know, it was my first restaurant. After hungrily scouring the world for the world’s best restaurants, I tried to replicate some of what I had eaten in my own kitchen. I have always cooked, though to cook well is difficult and laborious, and so I rarely do it. In August 2014, for friends I would perform, and hope to dazzle and impress.
The decision to start Chez Kong was a fickle one. I had downloaded an app called Modernist Cuisine, a cookbook I first heard about in Seattle, where the book’s signature photographic cross-sections of food were presented in a museum exhibition. I had downloaded the app, which had a slow-cooked chicken that would become Chez Kong’s signature dish. My first bites of the slow-cooked chicken were life-changing. It felt like a bite from the forbidden fruit, revealing something in chicken that I had never known. This everyday ingredient, by some simple processes, was elevated to levels the most star-dressed restaurants could not compare against. It was at that point of discovery that I decided I had to learn this new discipline of Modernist Cuisine.
In 10 days I would practice cooking the opening night’s menu. I went shopping for blenders, juicers, pressure cookers, food processors, whipping siphons, syringes, and everything in between. The first night, I did not have enough forks and knives. And so the next day I bought cutlery. The menu for opening night was decided and reservations came in excitedly. The first four days were booked solid in about an hour. For the entire month, every seat was filled and new seats were opened up. The starting menu was as follows:
amuse. fizzy champagne and grapes
caramelized carrot soup in carrot juice
quinoa pistacchio pesto risotto
buffalo mozzarella, arugula, tomatoes
slow-cooked chicken with onions
david’s decaf latte
The latte and capresse salad were from my childhood, the rest was decidedly modern. The first night was fun but hectic. I was chef and server, trying to make sure the steak didn’t overcook while serving champagne at the bar. One girl didn’t know the drinks were for charge (even though the menu indicated the price), so that was an uncomfortable conversation. At one point a jug of something spilt. I don’t even remember what because I was multitasking intensely, but the shattering caused a great ruckus in the room. I felt like an amateur.
From there, it became easier. Repetition calms nerves. I had scraped that potato through the sieve so many times, again and again, that it became second nature. That mashed potato took hours to prepare but it was gorgeous and elegant. The carrot soup. I tasted it so many times that the one time I forgot the little teaspoon of baking soda, I caught it and remade it. The food got better, I think. New dishes were added, and more innovative ways were thought of to make old ones. There is the sous-vide steak, which people didn’t think had a hard enough crust. So instead, I froze it and pan-fried it right from the freezer. Later a beefy red wine sauce was added – of course made from scratch.
It was a lot of fun. But at times it was laborious. The dishwasher needed to be run three times before morning, so I slept in two hour intervals. The minute people left, I ate the leftovers (I would be starving), and started preparing for the next day. A lot of things needed to be done a day in advance. I would have to start cooking at least 4 hours prior to service – and that’s when I can recycle the same ingredients from day to day. Basically, it’s a full time job, and I wasn’t even serving lunches. I wonder, today, how I managed to motivate myself to get up so early. On Sunday afternoon, the chef’s weekend finally starting, I would be so happy that it was all over. On Aug 31, the last day of service, I was relieved.
The results were impressive. Table after table of happy guests. Some came back for a second serving. Others invited friends. People I did not know existed came. One patron brought his dad, another her mom. It became the automatic choice for Queen’s School of Business socials. It was cheap and corkage was free. It was exhilarating and rewarding. The chicken fingers crowd ate it and probably assumed it was good. The foodies dissected the dishes and picked apart the ingredients. One foodie who had gone to Basque country, where this style of food originated, commented that at least a few of the dishes were Michelin quality. The slow-cooked chicken, people gorged in family-style fervour. The tiny pieces of sous-vide salmon, flaky and blushing pink in the middle, might have been the most loved dish. And of course, the frozen steak – well that was pretty for instagram.
I have tried to recreate some of these dishes in my spare time, and they fall short every time. Without the pressure of other people’s opinions, it is difficult to be self-motivating. And of course, you lose your touch after a long hiatus.
Below is a list of lessons I learnt about the restaurant business:
- Starting a restaurant isn’t difficult. I guess that is why there are so many new restaurants. Initial investment can be small.
- Fixed costs are limited. Rent is the main one. Keeping operating leverage down is important to manage risk. You can figure out good ways to do this. One method that I used that doubled as good cooking practice is the frozen Chez Kong steak, which cooks right out of the freezer. It makes a perfect sear – and also lets you keep variable costs precisely in line with revenue.
- The only pre-requisite, or intrinsic requirement for being a chef, is having a good palate. Most of your patrons will have a fraction of the palate as you will, so if you’re happy with it, they’re probably happy with it too.
- Bad things happen. A nut (of the screwdriver variety) ended up in one of my patron’s dishes. It had fallen off of my pressure cooker. I felt absolutely terrible (though she didn’t really seem to mind).
- The restaurant business is a lot of work. It essentially takes a whole day to prepare for one meal. Usually, there’s prep work the day before as well.
- I am so lucky to have been born in the time of modernist cuisine. Food had previously had its apex in the French style – the style that is still currently the standard in almost any kitchen. The methods have not really changed in hundreds of years. The 20th century was not really the best for food. It is the century of diners, fast food, and processed food. Finally, quality food has seen a resurgence. At the centre of it is the idea of modernist cuisine. It is often attributed to the Basque country. But it has followers everywhere in the world. It is a wonderful revolution in the way we make food. The results are driven scientific precision.
As I ran the restaurant there were many people who were surprised that my professional future has very little to do with food (and similarly, that my prior education had been so formulaic). It seems like people were more impressed with my talents as a chef than with my future job in finance. When asked why I had no interest to continue as a chef, the answer is obvious. There is a very slim return for working in the restaurant business. These are the decisions we must all make in life. In this case, the decision is sad but obvious.