MasterChef Eric Chong Makes His Mark
Eric Chong's journey from "MasterChef Canada" champion to chef and co-owner of R&D began in earnest on the not-so-mean streets of Oakville, Ont. We sat down with the 25-year-old season-one winner to learn about his culinary pursuits, the experience of going into business with acclaimed restaurateur Michael Bonacini and partnering with Michelin-starred Chef Alvin Leung. (Travelzoo members can try Chong's Asian fusion fare with this four-course dinner for two.)
On opening R&D
"I never thought I'd open a restaurant. I had some chef friends before coming into the industry and they've been working for like five, seven, 10 years, and they didn't have their own restaurant[s].
Then Alvin invited me out to Hong Kong to work with him for four months, and that was before we started planning a restaurant ... just straight up to work for him. It was like a long-term internship … It's when I realized I truly love cooking.”
On setting up shop in Toronto's Chinatown
The city's changing landscape is not lost on denizens and visitors, let alone Chef Chong. R&D is firmly ensconced on Spadina Avenue, an ethnic enclave with a high percentage of Asians.
"I wanted to do it in Toronto because that's where I feel the the strongest food scene is, at least in Ontario. I didn't really want to leave the province." When the time came to make a decision on location, Chong says with confidence: "I didn't feel that there was a very strong food game in Oakville. It's an older clientele, not really the market I was looking for. I'm one of very few Asians in my neighbourhood [in Oakville] ... they're not really exposed to Asian food, so that wouldn't have been a good spot. Toronto seemed to be the most diverse. They have Italian, French, Chinese, Korean, everything ... what better place than Chinatown? I felt like it was revamping with restaurants like People's Eatery. I felt like the whole strip on Spadina was just bumping. Now Alo [Restaurant] is here, Jackpot Chicken [Rice] is here, just a nicer food scene in the area. I have connections here, it's easier for me to communicate with suppliers and grocery markets here. It just seemed like a perfect spot. We saw a lot of potential for what we could do with the space."
Creating a menu for Canadians
When asked whether he tailors the menu toward individuals with varied tastes or a specific clientele, Chong's response is measured. While respectful of older diners and their tastes, he says that they "definitely don't tailor to the old-school Asians. We are tailoring to people who are open-minded." It's difficult to change people's preconceived notions of how a dish should taste and how much it should cost. The older demographic "might not necessarily appreciate the ingredients and effort we are putting in," he explains. "One example would be our chow mein: It's probably double the price what it would cost in a normal Chinese restaurant, except we use fresh pasta, we get fresh seafood, all of our sauces and stuff we make from scratch. We take a lot more labour and I think it shows in the flavour."
Authentic Asian influences were very much top of mind. "We did all the menu development in Hong Kong. I spent six months before the restaurant opened doing all the testing in [Alvin Leung's] kitchen at Bo [Innovation, Leung's Hong Kong eatery]. When we came back, we did a big tasting with well-known chefs like Claudio [Aprile], Michael [Bonacini] and his connections -- Anthony Walsh was there. They found a lot of the food a bit too authentic. For example, one big one is oyster sauce. In Canada people think of jarred oyster sauce." Seeking a more traditional flavour, "we made it from scratch ... It was a deep, deep, natural-umami, no-MSG oyster sauce. But it was too intense ... We had to change a bunch to adjust to the Canadian palate."
What diners can expect at R&D
"I consider our cuisine 'modern Asian.' We take classics like fried rice, chow mein, Peking duck, and add a modern spin. We don't like to do things the traditional way -- then we're just competing with the Chinatown restaurants." Chong takes his duck very seriously. He only uses Brome Lake ducks and the process for creating his Peking duck takes about two weeks.
While very serious and dedicated to the craft, leaning on established culinary veterans helped in the early stages. "When we first opened, I had to fall on Alvin and Michael because I was very inexperienced and didn't know what to expect. I put pretty much all of my trust in them since they're the vets. We definitely wanted a wow factor. We needed the open kitchen because I like to interact with the customers."
On food trends
Standing out in a crowd is many chefs' goal, but that doesn't mean Chong caves to current movements. When asked if he follows any trends, he retorts, “Do you mean food trends like hipster organic stuff? No, I wouldn't say I buy into any trends, but ... I pick and choose. Right now I have a poke special on the menu ... [but] the whole nose-to-tail, farm-to-table thing, that doesn't really apply to here."
Travel and how it shaped his cooking
Whether it’s for business or pleasure, eating well and sampling the local flavour is a priority for Chong. "Food has always been a huge part of my family's life. Whenever we go on a vacation, to like a resort or something, the food always has to be at least 5-star. We can accommodate a s***** hotel as long as the food is good. Even for family gatherings, it's all about the food. Before we opened R&D, Alvin took me around Asia. We went to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chengdu, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. We gained a huge amount of influence ... a lot of the dishes on our menu reflect places we've been in the past."
As for his next trip, Chong quips that he's "probably done with Asia for a bit," then quickly realizes he's not finished. "Maybe Thailand and Vietnam would be my only two places I'd like to go," before realizing that he omitted Japan. "I just need to save up a bit because I hear it's very expensive and I'll probably want to buy a bunch of knives." Closer to home, Chong says that he recently visited New York and wants to go to Chicago. "I just want to try more Michelin-starred restaurants since you can't really get that in Canada."
What's up his sleeve and coming next?
"I'm never withholding any dishes. Anything I think of, it will go on the menu almost instantaneously. I'm not really saving up a repertoire, like 'alright, now's the time to whip it out!' If I think something is cool, I'll start working on it immediately and I'll put it on the chef rail. That's why we have the R&D menu, it's the research and development ... anything I feel like cooking I'll test it out, ask what they think and get their honest opinion." "We're looking for a bigger menu change on Oct. 1. There are a few things that I've been thinking about. I do want to do a modern sweet-and-sour chicken ... one of my cooks asked: 'Why don't you have chicken balls on the menu?' ... Because this isn't Mandarin Buffet!" He's still very much looking to make what he calls "approachable, classic dishes that everyone knows, but in a different way."
Travelzoo negotiated an exclusive dinner offer at R&D that you can try through March.
Featured Image Credit: Cindy La