Food Profile: Rising from the ashes
Craig Wong on the Patois fire and his brand new eatery, Jackpot Chicken Rice
Chef Craig Wong in his new Chinatown restaurant
PHOTO: CJ BAEK
On a Thursday before Canada Day long weekend, chef Craig Wong decided to head home early from his restaurant, Patois. The Jamaican-Chinese restaurant was about to turn two, and everything was coming up roses.
The niche fusion cooking at Patois had become a hit with both critics and diners, who were crazy for Wong’s history-steeped cuisine. (The chef’s family immigrated to Jamaica before ending up in Scarborough.)
The hype had attracted celebrities like Usher and Raekwon, who came to feast on jerked lobster and kimchi potstickers.
“It was one of the first nights I let my guard down,” says Wong, the events still weighing on him.
Around the 11:30 p.m. he got a call from his panicked bar manager, who smelled smoke in the restaurant but couldn’t locate the source. Quickly, the fire grew into a five-alarm blaze. It took 100 firefighters until 4:20 a.m. to suppress the flames. The catastrophe left two firefighters injured and Patois a charcoal wreck.
“People were quick to blame us, but it was actually our neighbour who set the fire,” says Wong, who’s still ticked that the man evaded custody after being charged with arson. “He’s fled the country. No one knows where he is.”
The food service industry isn’t exactly known for being warm and fuzzy. In a downtime, most restaurants cut the fat, but Wong felt a duty to his staff. Instead of saying he’d rehire his staff after rebuilding Patois (it’s slated to reopen later this fall), Wong kicked into high gear, scheming up a plan to keep his crew afloat for the summer.
Within days, Patois joined the outdoor summer market at Union Station selling jerk chicken shwarma.
“We were completely overstaffed for such a small stall,” says Wong, laughing, who paid for the food costs out of pocket and left his employees to divide the profits. With more than an ounce of pride, Wong follows up with, “We haven’t lost a single employee through this whole thing.”
Wong’s unconventional decision to prioritize staff over his bank balance wasn’t off the charts for him. About town, he has reputation for being a bit of a rebel in the kitchen.
He ditched the fine dining world (he worked under Michelin-acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse in France before coming back to Canada) to open a fusion restaurant decorated with pool floaties. This spring, he also opened the first Jamaican restaurant in Dubai.
The Scarborough-born chef has always been a troublemaker. In high school, he gave his teachers heaps of grief. “I went to seven different high schools. I was a very bad kid,” he says before quickly clarifying that he wasn’t a bad student — in fact, school was easy for him — he was just a bored student. “As soon as I started to cook, I got straight As,” says Wong, reflecting back on his OAC year.
At 19, Wong began staging at Auberge du Pommier. He’d wrap up class and head over to the restaurant where he’d work until midnight. After slogging for six months without pay at Auberge, Wong was hired on at Oliver and Bonacini’s then-new Steakfrites as a dishwasher. He quickly ascended the ranks to fry cook. For eight months Wong fixated on french fries.
“I would experiment with humidity and sugar content of the potatoes,” he says, smirking as he recalls his unending experiments to attain the perfect fry.
Recently, Wong was dining at Yorkville’s swanky new steak house, STK, where he spied food critic Jacob Richler. “I walked up to him and said, ‘I worked at Steakfrites when you reviewed it, and you completely tore us down — ripped us a new a**hole. The only nice thing you said were about the fries and I was the fry cook,’” says Wong with characteristic cheek.
The french fry fixation wasn’t a one-off. To this day, Wong obsesses over perfecting the imperfectible. His newest infatuation: Hainanese chicken rice.
“Everyone has their own take on how to make Hainanese chicken rice. This is ramen before it exploded, Japanese cheese cake before it exploded,” says Wong.
Although Wong credits his grandmother as one of his cooking mentors, this was, ironically, one of the few dishes she butchered. According to Wong, “She fell into that Jamaican trap — overcook the sh*t out of your chicken; kill it twice,” he says.
“When Patois had the unfortunate incident, I sought comfort food, and what is more comforting than Hainanese chicken rice?” he says.
Hainanese chick rice is Singapore’s national dish, a plate of poached chicken served with schmaltzy rice and a bowl of winter melon soup. Although Wong tasted some fabulous variations of the dish while travelling in Asia, he wasn’t able to find anyone in Toronto making a good version of it. So when an opportunity to snatch a storefront in Chinatown came up, Wong jumped on the opportunity to open a new restaurant. Jackpot Chicken Rice, located at 318 Spadina Ave., is his just-opened eatery dedicated to his current food obsession.
Wong purchased his first Chinese BBQ oven for the resto and is obsessed with his toy, keen to keep tweaking his chicken rice recipe despite the fact “some people will hate it because it won’t be like their grandmother’s.”
But in this case, it’s probably a good thing Wong’s not serving his grandma’s version.