By Cassandra Kobayashi
Joël Watanabe is the executive chef at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie. On the edge of Vancouver’s old Chinatown, it is anything but old, and some say, not very Chinese.
Bao Bei means “precious” in Mandarin. The Globe and Mail, and Vancouver Sun critics love it. Air Canada’s en Route magazine named it second best new Canadian restaurant in 2010. Recently, Maclean’s magazine featured Bao Bei as one of “Canada’s best restaurants” and named Watanabe as one of the country’s top chefs.
How did Ottawa-born Watanabe, age 36, end up at a modern Chinese eatery? Of note, his childhood food experience was broad and interesting. His Japanese father and French Canadian mother, met hitch-hiking in Guatamala, and both cooked at home from scratch – his father made the best fried rice, Joël claims. For the extended French Canadian family, holidays and the celebratory foods were important. His grandfather went to Baffin Island to fish for Arctic char, made his own baguette molds at home. A deer hanging in the garage was not unusual.
Watanabe’s first cooking job came at age 16, when he happened to take a job at a vegetarian children’s camp. Soon he was in charge and with an assistant, produced three meals a day for 105 people. I observed that’s pretty young to be in charge of a kitchen. He replied that by that time, he was “already comfortable with a knife”. Since age 8 or 9, he had cooked dinner once a week to escape washing the dishes.
From age 17, Watanabe worked in many restaurants in Montreal and Ottawa. When Icho, the oldest Japanese restaurant in Ottawa, was looking for a sushi chef, the owner called his father to ask if he knew of anyone. Unable to find one, the owner hired a teacher – a local Japanese chef who was working at the Japanese embassy at the time. Watanabe jumped at the opportunity to be the student, and for a couple of months had private lessons. Many jobs followed including French and Italian restaurants.
At age 24, he became the first chef at a new upscale Ottawa sushi restaurant, Kinki. Watanabe loves“opening” restaurants, the opportunity to create the establishment’s initial identity. He later moved to Whistler to open short-lived Après, and from there, to Araxi – often voted the best place to dine in Whistler – to open a raw bar. After four years there, he needed a sabbatical – he had been working for 15 years straight.
For a year, he travelled in southeast Asia with a few months cooking in Australia to replenish funds.
Back in Vancouver, Watanabe joined “bad boy chef” Gord Martin at Bin 942, self-described as a “New York-styled wine and tapas bar”. Unusual for a chef de cuisine (head of the kitchen staff), Watanabe was allowed to develop some of his own dishes. However, he didn’t like cooking till 2 AM and getting home at 4. He also didn’t like cooking with ingredients prepared by someone else. “What if the day-guy overblanched the beans? I think you need to see the ingredients from beginning to end.”
His last job before Bao Bei was in St. Lucia. The resort kitchen was a nightmare, he said, with no professional cooks, and limited capacity to buy new equipment. After six weeks, he left for the sake of his health. Not being able to deliver upset him too much. “I put a lot of pressure on myself wherever I am.”
He believes his drive to work hard is very Japanese. His father started one of the first tofu factories in Canada, and left for work at 4 every morning, and come back at 8 at night. From about age 10, Watanabe had a paper route, and if he wanted a new bicycle, he would have to work for part of the cost. While he has the work ethic, he cannot speak Japanese, and is unhappy that he feels cut off from family stories on his father’s side. He is fluent in French, and as a pre-schooler, spoke more French than English. For his part, he’s making sure his 2-year old daughter speaks French.
The day he decided to leave St. Lucia, a friend emailed, and said Tannis Ling was looking for a chef for a new restaurant. Ling was an acclaimed bartender at Chambar (“fine dining in a warm, inviting atmosphere” according to their website), and wanted to offer the Taiwanese and Shanghainese food of her childhood in a modern, casual atmosphere. Watanabe had not cooked Chinese food professionally, but assured Ling he could bring French and other influences. He likes to say, “I love French technique, Italian simplicity and flavour, and Japanese aesthetic.” Ling liked that. She had interviewed many traditional Chinese chefs, and she was looking for something different.
Ling and Watanabe travelled to Taiwan to cook with Ling’s aunt and the aunt’s housekeeper. They went to the market every day. That was the start, Watanabe explains, “But the reality was quickly, ‘I am going to cook my food because I can’t cook someone else’s food. This is what you hired me to do, my style of things.’”
Despite some great buzz and enthusiastic professional reviews, online diner’s reviews were mixed. Some thought there was better and cheaper Chinese food elsewhere, that Bao Bei wasn’t “authentic”, and didn’t taste like their grandmother’s cooking. One commented that he could buy cheaper dumplings at T&T.
A first, Watanabe found these kinds of comments “almost depressing”. Now, he says, “We are not trying to make the food from your childhood. We’re trying to make something interesting and new, which is why Tannis called it a ‘brasserie’”. Unlike supermarket dumplings, they use non-medicated meat, the best ingredients, and each is hand-made by a woman named Helen. Watanabe acknowledges that some people do not care – they just want cheap. He says he personally respects the old guard and understands that they are trying to maintain the standard of this old school kind of food. But that’s not what he’s trying to do, and not what Bao Bei is trying to do. “We’re not trying to be in their world. We’re doing our own world.”
I asked whether there something about Bao Bei that draws this criticism, something that would not be directed at, say, a modern French restaurant? Watanabe replies, “I’ve thought about this quite a lot. I think a lot of Chinese judge me right away, especially because I’m half French and half Japanese, so how can he cook Chinese food? And Chinese people are really tough on having any kind of change, whereas the rest of the world’s cuisines are becoming a lot more relaxed. If you look at any serious kitchen anywhere in the world, it’s full of people from all over. Your French food is being cooked by Mexicans and Japanese and Chinese and Koreans, and every cuisine is like that, especially high-end Michelin Star restaurants.” I immediately think of sushi restos, run by non-Japanese.
He’s also heard “something” is missing. Watanabe agrees – it’s MSG, aji-no-moto. Is MSG part of “authentic” Chinese cuisine? Watanabe is animated, irritated: careful prep and quality ingredients were important just 50 or 60 years ago before MSG was widely used. He sadly notes, “People are not used to eating natural-tasting food.”
Watanabe believes that Bao Bei is a new idea in Vancouver and even in North America. He says New Yorkers come in and say, “You’d do so well in New York. They get it, especially in cutting-edge cities. It’s cool and it’s different.” This was confirmed when five of us dined there, including a couple from New York, who took one look at the menu said, “This is a New York-style place.”
We sipped interesting cocktails made with lemongrass-infused sochu or szechuan spiced rum, sampled widely. Two highights: tiny blocks of prosciutto along with more traditional dried shrimp added savoury depth to the wokked baby bok choi, and the sesame crusted flatbread filled with cumin lamb, sparked with red onion pickle and chile and freshness from the cilantro. Bao Bei is not expensive for seriously good food, in a congenial room, an opinion apparently shared by many that Wednesday – the place was packed by 6 p.m.
Whatever the chat, Watanabe is finding his way, “Part of the satisfaction is just trying to do something different for ourselves, so we’re not repeating things and we’re inspired.”