Alex Cho, owner of Very Fair Seafood Cuisine in Scarborough, cannot recall the last opening of a large dim sum banquet hall in the Greater Toronto Area. Me neither.
Many new Chinese restaurants – from international dessert and noodle chains to regional restaurants focused on Sichuan or Cantonese cuisine – have chosen Toronto as their North American test market. But when was the last time a restaurant appeared that could seat hundreds of people and have a completely different menu in the morning than in the evening?
“Chinese banquet halls are so different. They take a lot of work because we have dim sum until 2 or 3 p.m. and then everything needs to be reset for a wedding that lasts until 11 p.m. or midnight and then everything needs to be reset for dim sum the next morning when the chiefs arrive. at 6 am, 6:30 am, ”Cho said. “Our restaurant does not close for more than eight hours.”
The Dim Sum Banquet Hall is more than a place for dumplings. It is a place for weekend gatherings with family and friends. At night, birthdays, anniversaries and weddings are celebrated with elaborate menus of whole fish, noodles and lobsters. For Chinese New Year, reservations are made weeks in advance. The dining room is always noisy and full of life, a setting for family stopovers or weekend gossip over tea.
The work, space and skills required to operate a dim sum restaurant is an entirely different beast from the typical restaurant model, which is why it is more common to change owners every few years to maintain the har gow and the siu may in progress. it’s someone’s job to build a new place from scratch.
At 32, Cho is one of the youngest owners of these decades-old places in the Greater Toronto Area and wants to carry dim sum traditions – from the dining experience to the dishes – for another generation.
Of course, Very Fair Seafood Cuisine, at the corner of Milliken Boulevard and Finch Avenue East, is a take-out operation for now in the pandemic. Long-time patrons keep the restaurant open.
Upon entry, a row of freezers are stocked with frozen dim sum, but all standard dishes can also be ordered for immediate consumption: plump shrimp dumplings with translucent envelopes, crispy squid tentacles, tender ribs, meatballs. pan-fried pork and chives and rice noodle rolls.
In the kitchen, a dim sum chef prepares hundreds of siu mai while another looks at the steamer basket tower.
“We have 11, 12 people doing just dim sum,” Cho said. “One makes the rice noodle rolls, one on the deep fryer, the other is to restock the steamer baskets, others are just non-stop dumplings or whatever from it.” zero … Whether it’s for 800 or 80 people, it all takes the same amount of skill. “
Over the past three years, Cho has taken over the business from his father, who himself took over the Very Fair space 13 years ago. They also run Casa Deluz, another banquet and dim sum venue a few blocks east.
The Agincourt Very Fair Seafood Cuisine neighborhood is located in, also where Cho grew up, was unofficially Toronto’s third Chinatown, in addition to one in downtown and the other in Riverdale, due to the influx immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan during the 1980s and early 1990s.
When Milliken Square opened in 1987, the dim sum spot was called Hsin Kuang Restaurant. Then City Chinese Restaurant in the mid-1990s before its current iteration.
On the outside, Very Fair’s green-tiled roof resembles a palace in the Forbidden City. Inside, the restaurant has all the hallmarks of the classic dim sum banquet hall: lush fabrics and draperies, swirling carpeting, movable walls to seat up to 550 people, crystal chandeliers, a stage with a golden phoenix and a dragon on the wall to serve as a backdrop for weddings.
Running any restaurant during a pandemic is difficult, but there are additional challenges in keeping a place as large as a dim sum banquet hall open. “We’re almost $ 60,000 in rent,” Cho said. “Thank goodness we have understanding owners because if we closed what else would move in?”
Customers also expect dim sum to stay inexpensive. Menu prices have not kept pace with rising costs for ingredients, labor and rent. To put it in perspective, a 1986 Star review of the restaurant, then Hsin Kuang, listed the price of spring rolls at $ 1 each. More than three decades later, Cho says a spring roll costs $ 1.93.
Another challenge is finding the next generation of dim sum chefs, as many of the city’s residents are approaching retirement age.
There is no shortage of people who want to cook, Cho says, but in Canada there is a dearth of places for those who want to learn how to make dim sum or a Chinese barbecue unless they are apprenticed in restaurants to talk to. fluent Cantonese or Mandarin is a prerequisite. .
Cho himself has been in the kitchen for the past two years learning the art of dim sum as well as char siu and roast pork in preparation for a Chinese barbecue that will open next to Very Fair later.
For now, Cho says his goal is to keep the staff who watched him grow up employed and safe (he’s even scheduled vaccine appointments, as many aren’t so savvy on the web). Eventually, he hopes other young owners and chefs find their way into the dim sum scene.
“There is a tradition here of how things are made without cutting corners,” he said. “Dim sum is a way for future generations (of Chinese children) to connect with their heritage even though they were born in Canada. And when you reach the table to get food, you’re talking and interacting rather than just looking at your own plate. There is something very special about it.
The Mainstays is a weekly series showcasing longtime restaurants and neighborhood favorites in Toronto. Food journalist Karon Liu offers recommendations for delicious take-out food while sharing stories about how restaurateurs are coping with the pandemic. Fancy something in particular? E-mail [email protected] with what you would like to see him write about in the future.