Last week I received a text: "Closing party at Pender Jan. 31, 9-midnight. DJ, canapés, old friends."
Upon investigation, I discovered that my friend, Andrew Wong, owner of Wild Rice, will be consolidating restaurant operations to his New Westminster location and closing the original Pender Street location in Chinatown.
"This has not been an easy decision," stated Wong. "It's time to spend more time with my family. I want to concentrate my efforts on the New Westminster location as I see the area as an emerging market. New Westminster has been tremendously welcoming and supportive of Wild Rice."
Even at the age of 12, Wong was no stranger to the food and hospitality industry. His grandfather, Wong Wam-Fung, founded The Lotus Hotel in Chinatown, and Wong's father was a server at Trader Vic's for 25 years.
By the time Wong was 20, he was juggling jobs at The Cannery, The Fish House, and Pelican Bay in the Granville Island Hotel, while also studying hospitality management at Dubrulle Culinary School.
After graduation, he and a friend opened The Brickhouse on Main Street, and two years later, Wong sold his share in The Brickhouse to pursue his dream of opening a modern Chinese bistro.
Wild Rice opened in 2001 on 117 West Pender St., ironically next door to The Lotus Hotel.
Wild Rice was physically on the edge of Vancouver's historic old Chinatown, but was also breaking new ground on the restaurant scene in Vancouver. "When we first opened, we were the only restaurant for blocks," said Wong.
"We were also the first to bring the concept of 'modern Chinese cuisine' to Vancouver. I am very proud of that.
"We are also the first Chinese restaurant to embrace the local, seasonal and sustainable movement - working with local suppliers, using organic ingredients and being inaugural members of OceanWise."
Over the years, Wild Rice has garnered dozens of awards, has been featured in numerous publications including Food & Wine Magazine ("Best Asian Dining, Jan. 2003), and has contributed to the popular Chefs' Table Society cookbooks: Vancouver Cooks and Vancouver Cooks 2, which celebrate the vibrant B.C. food scene.
In 2011, to celebrate Wild Rice's 10th anniversary, Wong partnered with his executive chef, Todd Bright, and opened a second Wild Rice in New Westminster's River Market.
Over the years, I have enjoyed meals at the original location and have taken my Culinary Arts students on field trips to Chinatown to explore the history of the area, learn about Chinese ingredients and culture, and finish off with a meal at Wild Rice.
This past fall, after a field trip to Hopcott Farm - a family-run farm in Pitt Meadows that offers specialty beef with no added hormones, steroids or antibiotics - we went to Wild Rice New Westminster for lunch.
The students were wowed by the space with its views of the Fraser River; the modern, yet welcoming décor, that incorporates both east/west influences and yin/yang sensibilities; Wong's laidback and informative talk about his background and philosophies around food and cooking; and most of all, the delicious multi-course modern Chinese meal.
I am saddened to be saying goodbye to the Chinatown space, but as we approach this 2014 Chinese New Year, it is also a time of new beginnings.
Chinese New Year integrates the themes of family, friends, home, and food, and as I raise a glass to celebrate the many successes of the original Wild Rice, I also toast to new beginnings and successes with the New Westminster location.
Gung Hay Fat Choy (Cantonese) or Gong Xi Fa Cai (Mandarin) and thank you Andrew, for your dedication to creating a unique restaurant with such great attention to local and sustainable practices and for inspiring people in the food industry, as well as my students and staff.
To close, I leave you with two of Andrew's favourite Wild Rice recipes: Su Dong Po Pork Belly and Halibut Cheek Congee with Lemon Zest Salt.
Su Dong Po Pork (Serves 6) Ingredients: 3 Tbsp. canola oil 3 large white onions, cut into large pieces (1 inch by 1 inch) 2 tbsp. minced ginger rootsalt & pepper to taste ¼ cup sherry (or red wine) 4 pounds pork belly, cut into 3" x 3" pieces 2 oranges, halved ½ cup maltose sugar (or honey) 1 ½ Tbsp tamarind extract ½ cup kecap manis
½ cup soy sauce sachet - 1 cinnamon stick (broken), 3 cloves, 4 star anise, 2 green cardamom pods (use cheesecloth to hold the sachet together, fasten with string) 8 cups chicken stock
Method: Preheat oven to 300° F Heat oil on medium heat in large, oven-proof braising pot (rondeau or Dutch oven with lid), add onions and sauté.
Add ginger and season with salt and pepper.
Cook until onions are lightly caramelized.
De-glaze with the sherry add in pork belly and stir to blend.
Add the halved oranges, maltose sugar, tamarind, kecap manis, soy sauce, sachet, and chicken stock.
Bring to a partial boil and place in oven with lid on.
Cook for 3½ to 4 hours, until meat is soft and loose Remove oranges and sachet. Gently lift meat from pot and set aside.
Over medium heat, bring sauce to a simmer and reduce volume by 25 per cent, stirring constantly.
Return meat to sauce and stir to blend.
Serve over steamed rice.
Halibut Cheek Congee With Lemon Zest Salt (Serves 6) Lemon zest salt ingredients: 1 lemon ¼ cup sea salt or fleur de sel
Congee ingredients: 1 cup jasmine rice (not rinsed) 8 cups fish stock 3 tbsp. rice wine vinegar 3 tbsp. Mirin 2 tsp. fine minced ginger ½ lb halibut cheeks 1-2 tsp. sea salt to taste ½ tsp. white pepper 6 tbsp. fine-chopped fresh cilantro leaves ½ cup julienne scallions (leave in cold water to create curl) 1 cup fresh pea shoots
Method (lemon zest salt prepare the night before): Zest half of the lemon and chop the zest finely in a small bowl mix together the zest and salt Spread the mixture out on a baking sheet to dry over night
Method (congee): Combine jasmine rice, fish stock, rice wine vinegar, mirin and minced ginger into
heavy bottom pot (uncovered).
Put onto medium heat and cook until mixture becomes cloudy and slightly thickened (about 10 minutes).
At the 10 minute mark, season halibut cheeks and add to pot.
When the rice is just cooked (15 - 20 minutes from when you started) turn off the heat, but leave the pot on the still warm element for 15 minutes.
Adjust seasoning with salt and white pepper.
The congee is ready to serve when it has the consistency of porridge.
Just before serving, pull out halibut cheeks with slotted spoon.
Shred halibut with a fork and stir back into congee.
Stir in the chopped cilantro.
Garnish with pea shoots and scallions.
Serve with a small side of the lemon zest salt.
Dora Ho is a culinary arts instructor at Matthew McNair secondary.