Interview with Debbie Wong from Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong

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Interview with Debbie Wong from Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong
Wednesday, April 30 2014

The Backstory

I met Debbie Wong a long, long time ago. Back when eatvancouver was still a thing and “phodown” a word that had crossed nary a set of lips.

This was back in Vancouver, where Debbie was an actress and culinary professional. Now she’s living in Montreal (but makes frequent trips to mainland China), and has combined her passions into a hit online cooking show. Rare it is that one finds an outlet for all of one’s passions and so I’m absolutely over the moon that Deb’s doing this.

The Interview

Toronto Phodown (TPD): Hi Debbie, thanks for doing this interview.
Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong(DWWaG): My pleasure!

TPD: I love your Wok and Gong, and I watch every episode. What caused you to conceive of such an idea?
DWWaG: Thanks so much! I appreciate the support. Food and entertainment are both a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ve always felt like they go hand in hand. I am a professional actor and a former professional cook, and for me, it was a natural thing to combine my passions.

TPD: Why a wok and a gong? Isn’t one or another good enough for you?
DWWaG: Debbie Wong’s Wok and Gong was a name that an old friend spouted out while we were cooking together about 10 years ago; and it stuck with me this whole time. For me, the Wok refers to the food, and the Gong is the entertainment; the gong show, if you will. (TPD: I will)

TPD: What’s the biggest challenge in producing an episode?
DWWaG: The intro. We always have to do several takes to get the right tone and energy. It’s the first take, so it’s the warm-up in a way. The rest of the filming is pretty smooth. Also, coming up with recipes that are true to my style, and the Wok and Gong brand.

TPD: You’ve recently introduced a new feature where you infiltrate your friends’ pantries and cook them a dinner with their own food. Are you worried you’ll draw a blank one day and just have to order pizza?
DWWaG: Not really. I truly enjoy the challenge. The idea is that they have a full fridge and pantry, and I’m just offering a new pair of eyes, using their ingredients in a way that they may not have thought of.

TPD: I recently finished a feature on my dining adventures in Hong Kong. What are you favorite tastes from that city?
DWWaG: I love Hong Kong. I’ve only visited a few times, but it’s the place I was born, and has become really close to my heart. It’s truly a crossroads of the world. You can get any kind of food, but my FAV is Cantonese BBQ. HK does it the best. The perfect Char Siu Fan (BBQ pork and rice). I love all food, but simple food done well is my go-to.

TPD: What’s the best pho you’ve ever had?
DWWaG: It’s not exactly a Pho. It’s sort of like a deconstructed Bun. It’s effing amazing and like nothing I’ve had before. It’s the Number 38 at Montreal’s Pho Tay Ho.
Grilled lemongrass pork in that fish sauce/vinegar broth, a pile of rice noodles and a mountain (I kid you not) of Vietnamese herbs—some I’ve only seen at this restaurant. –I’m talking 3 kinds of cilantro, mint, basil, green and purple shiso… I like dipping the noodles in the broth and eating it like a Zaru Soba.

Deconstructed Bun

TPD: What’s next for the Wok and Gong?
DWWaG: World domination. Lol. I would love to film a traveling food series. Debbie Wong’s Travel-along…?

TPD: What’s next for Debbie Wong, in general?
DWWaG: Exciting things. I can feel it. 😉

TPD: Rob Ford is coming home for dinner. What do you cook for him?!
DWWaG: Oh god, I’m thinking he’s not that adventurous… Spaghetti and meatballs?—That’s actually my favorite dish, believe it or not!

TPD: Thanks again Debbie!

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Quarry Bay Restaurants

Eastern Promises 13: People I Will Remember

easternpromises

Being what people call a “foodie,” I feel as if dining should be all about the food for me. Indeed, my philosophy about eating has long butted up against that of traveling companions as I get dead set on finding the absolute best, most authentic place to eat when in reality we are starving and just need to find somewhere to refuel. I’ve also spent time with people more interested in the atmosphere – is there a view? is bright and airy? – than the food itself.

I’m not here to say that any one of these approaches is right (in fact, I’m still highly resistant to the last view above). But I have begun to realize there’s more to a dining experience than the food. I came to this conclusion as I was moving out of my first apartment in Hong Kong. In particular, I noticed that despite my desire to try the best food that area (Quarry Bay) had to offer, I was doing a lot of repeat dining. And it wasn’t because I thought the restaurants I had found were the absolute best in the area, but because I really liked the people running those restaurants and wanted to support them.

So here they are, the people I’ll remember in Quarry Bay.

Mr. Chris at Yo Bago (80 Pan Hoi Street, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong; call him at 2561 7700)

third HK 013

Mr. Chris grew up in Canada but moved back to his family’s home of Hong Kong a few years ago. Pulled in many directions professionally, entrepreneurship eventually called the strongest. And missing Canada, he decided to open up a bagel shop steeped in Canadiana. Allow me to draw your attention to:

third HK 012

Mr. Chris told me it was rough going at first. Quarry Bay is a tough nut to crack with a tremendous number of restaurants packed into a small area and a clientele that disappears when work lets out and the office buildings nearby begin to clear out. Things were touch and go for Yo Bago until the office drones slowly began to gave this little Canadian bagel shop serving Tim Horton’s coffee a shot. And when they did, Mr. Chris won them over with his product and congeniality.

Indeed, Mr. Chris had learned my name by my second visit to his shop. I often stopped by before ten to take advantage of the breakfast special, which includes a bagel sandwich and coffee for about $3 Canadian. A hard deal to beat. But living abroad can be lonely and sometimes I just wanted to come in and chat with Mr. Chris about business, news, and reminisce about our respective times in Canada.

Rina at Q-Bay Burger (Shop 5D2, ground floor Dragon View House, 6-16 Hoi Tai Street, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong; call her at 2568 7196)

third HK 011

Unlike Mr. Chris, Rina isn’t the outright owner of Q-Bay Burger. But she did develop the concept and manages the place. She also does pretty much everything else including cooking, serving and cleaning up.

Q-Bay dropped into my radar during one of my nocturnal nourishment-seeking walks. As I mentioned above, lots of Quarry Bay shuts down in the evening, as early as seven, so finding dinner could be a chore. Fortunately, Q-Bay stays open until about ten, making it a key part of my rotation.

Rina and her operation impressed me because of the quality and quantity of their output in the tiniest space that you could expect to hold a first-class burger joint. Her and “Auntie” operate out of a slim piece of real estate flanked by an electric griddle, a bit of counter space, and a fridge. This is not a job for the claustrophobic.

third HK 010

Still, she serves fresh grassfed New Zealand beef along with fresh and sometimes elevated ingredients, like a truffle mayo. One night they didn’t have any sweet potato fries ready, so Auntie pulled one out of the fridge and sliced it up in front of my eyes. The inside of the fries weren’t completely cooked, but it was still a great experience.

Bandy Cheng at Kam Heung Vegetarian (hop D10 & D11, 18 Hoi Tai Street, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong; call her at 2880 0173)

third HK 001

(Bandy didn’t want me to take a photo of her)

Bandy corralled me one day as I was walking by her vegetarian restaurant. It operates as both a cookery where you pick out your food and then a dining room next door with a few tables and an area where you can serve yourself all-you-can-eat soup and rice to go with the meals. I wasn’t particularly interested in vegetarian food, but I was taken by this restaurant’s charms. If you walk by in the morning you can see them cooking the food, the staff is sincere, and it’s a pretty good deal for about $5 for a sizable amount of food and unlimited rice and soup.

So there you have it.  As much as these restaurants defined my time in Quarry Bay, the people behind them left a deeper impression.  I still think about them often.

Tim Ho Wan

Eastern Promises 12: World Class Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan with Various Parties

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Tim Ho Wan, @ 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong; call them at 2788 1226

Tim Ho Wan Ext

Outside of the canteen my Chinese family took me to every morning, Tim Ho Wan is the restaurant I returned to the most in Hong Kong. Generally, I try to not repeat myself too much when it comes to food, but Tim Ho Wan is worth the exception. Tim Ho Wan’s renown comes from allegedly being the lowest priced Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. There are multiple locations around town, but my first roommate – a legitimate foodie – told me the Michelin-starred chef actually worked out of the Sham Shui Po outpost.

Tim Ho Wan spread

My first experience at Tim Ho Wan was rather early in my journey. I met Mel and her friends from Calgary down Kowloon side back when the weather was still incredibly hot and Hong Kong was still quite new to me. Right off the bat it was clear that this was no ordinary dim sum shop. All the classics were present, but executed with a degree of skill and elegance that you really see don’t outside of super expensive joints. I was most impressed by the rice noodle rolls, which were extraordinarily delicate, verging on fragile. They specialize in char siu bao and indeed, it was done to the nines with a slightly sweet exterior that quickly gave way to rich barbeque pork.

My second experience was at the North Point location and it really wasn’t as good. I got most of the same dishes but everything was a little clumsier. For example, the wrappers on the har gao were thicker. I suppose this highlights the importance of a good chef.

Finally, Mikey and I went to Tim Ho Wan before our trip to Vietnam (detailed in Chin to Chin). This was a return to the Sham Shui Po location and a good idea it was. Once again, everything was excellent. With a more adventurous eater, I got to try Tim Ho Wan’s special pork liver rice rolls. It’s clear why these are a specialty with velvety pork liver lifting up a dish that is fine with shrimp, but spectacular with pork liver.

Tim Ho Wan har gao

Overall, I struggled to think of something wrong with this place. I suppose there are some dishes that are a bit pedestrian, like the har gao and the fried half moon pork dumplings. But at the end of the day, this is excellent dim sum at about $10 a head. It’s hard to beat.

Chin to Chin Recap

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
“I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate”

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the eleventh and final part of the story.

I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate

The above is a quote from a quote from David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. It always stuck with me – maybe because of the diction. Probably not for the meaning. I never really gave the latter a whole lot of thought.

Goodnight vietnam 007

But having both lived in Hong Kong during the tail end of the summer, and experiencing several different climates as Mikey and I traveled from Hanoi’s downright chilly winter to sweaty, steamy Saigon, I think I finally got that quote’s full meaning. For those not familiar with Landes’ thesis, he uses a variety of cultural and anthropological measures to explain Western exceptionalism. My friend and erstwhile colleague Azim gave it to me, describing it as a companion piece to Guns, Germs and Steel which takes a more biological position. The quote is from one colonialist’s experience in the tropics, in particular how sapping he found the hot weather.

good morning vietnam 075

I’ve always been more of a summer guy, and it gets damned hot in DC in the Summer. I’ve also been to China in the Summer and experienced some steamy weather there. But I don’t think I ever noticed just how draining continued exposure to hot and humid weather can be before living in Hong Kong. Maybe people get used to it. I never did.

It’s also a good organizational mechanism for this recap, where Mikey and I started with boundless energy in Hanoi and eventually found ourselves taking long, long air-con breaks in HCMC.

I never really described it in earnest, but the trip started in Hong Kong, where Mikey and I luxuriated for about a day and half. Most of the ground has been covered elsewhere in the blog as we dined mostly on dim sum and cha chaan teng.

From there we spent a few days in Hanoi, where we tried desperately to make the most of every moment. It’s where I have the fondest memories and a place I would truly like to return. The old town is a very walkable area, a place where it’s easy to get lost but not entirely unpleasant when that occurs. It’s also where I had the most memorable pho experience of my life. Ha Long bay was breathtaking at times, but it’s hard to not wish we had been there in the summer, when chilly moments in the boat would likely be replaced with splashing in the sea.

From the North, we took a train down to De Nang. Mikey would probably want a redo on this one (he got sick on the train), but I loved it. Rushing through narrow passages in cities and innumerable rice paddies, the train trip made me feel more connected to the people and places of Vietnam than any other mode of travel.

I think we’d both count our first night in De Nang as the most memorable, mainly for the adorable little girl who brought us beer she bought at a local convenience store. We’d also both count touristy De Nang as a low point, both for narrowly making it out of there and for the lack of authentic food.

Finally, Saigon was as fast-paced, gritty and sweaty as we imagined. Still it was home to one of the best phos of my life, and for that I will always have fond memories.

As with any good trip, it wasn’t just the places we saw and foods we ate, but the people we met. Jonnie was an excellent tour guide in Ha Long Bay and I still think about him frequently. There was something his story about going to university, finishing early and his very strong pride in his work that makes him a memorable character. I’ll also never forget him breaking into song several times during the tour. Mr. Henry and Mr. David, two other travelers in Ha Long Bay also made a strong impression both for their long history of traveling and strong sense of camaraderie.

Goodnight vietnam 053

Annie, the (male) owner of the Pink Tulip, was also quite a character. We had read quite a bit about him as he replies to EVERY Trip Advisor review. This actually attracted us a great deal to the hotel as it was clear he cared a great deal about his business. It was also hard not to chuckle at the testy back-and-forths between him and guests with very innocuous complaints. A theme was guests’ discomfort with pushy massage salesmen working out of the hotel. Annie was adamant that the two businesses were separate but just shared space in the lobby. But in our experience this was a tenuous distinction as the night worker at the hotel also worked at the massage parlor during the day. Oh well.

Finally, there was Mr. Tong at the Royal Palace Hotel in Hanoi. While a smidge pushier than the staffers at the Pink Tulip, Mr. Tong was incredibly helpful and seemingly quite concerned that we left with a good impression of Hanoi.

Despite being exhausted by the end of the trip, Chin to Chin in Vietnam proved a transformative experience and one I hope to repeat one day.

Vietnam to HK: The Reckoning

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Vietnam to HK: The Reckoning

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the tenth part of the story.

There wasn’t really a last day in Vietnam since we had to wake up quite early for a flight to HK. Moreover, unlike the Pink Tulip, our new hotel didn’t have breakfast included so there wasn’t a chance for some easy early morning eats. I will say, however, that the cab ride to the airport was great. It wasn’t via highway or freeway like you’d expect, but instead zipped through seemingly every side street in HCMC, giving us a great final experience watching the city wake up.

After a decent meal on the plane – Vietnam Airways treated us well throughout the journey – we arrived in HK and plotted our next moves. I had class from 6:30 to 9:30 (PM) and Mikey wanted to eke the most out of the remainder of his journey. We decided to check into our hotel (Mingle with the Star, a weird place, where you feel like you are in a little spaceship), FINALLY grab some BBQ at Joy Hing, and then check out my school.

joy hing roast goose

Joy Hing had been on our radar since Mikey arrived, but we hadn’t made it work up until that point. Tony Bordain recommended it in one of his HK episodes, and a friend from school swore by it. It turned out to be as good as we expected – truly a rare occurrence in most areas of life. We got roasted pork, pig and goose. The goose, as Bordain noted, was the standout. Dripping with goose-grease (a term I’ve been drying to use) it was subtly seasoned such that the flavor from the meat and skin shone through. The only complaint is that in the cold restaurant, it was really only warm for the first couple of minutes.

Goodnight vietnam 125

Afterwards I went to class while Mikey messed around the campus, doing some live blogging from the computer lab. We ended our trip at a nondescript cha chaan teng where we had a perfectly competent chicken congee and beef chow fun.

Time seemed to fly from there as we crashed early and Mikey took off early the next morning.

Post mortem to come.

Introducing Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin

It’s an absolute pleasure to introduce yet another feature here at Toronto Phodown (as if 100 Dates of Summer and Eastern Promises were not enough).  And today is a special pleasure because it involves a much awaited trip to Vietnam with my brother Mikey (@Zerowritingcredits).

Here’s the deal: Mikey came to visit me in Hong Kong a few days ago – I introduced him to a few of my favorite restaurants, and now we are eating our way through Vietnam. So far, it’s been a revelatory trip and we are doing everything we can to keep the momentum going.

So here it goes…

Eat Toronto Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin

Ippudo (LAB Concept)

Eastern Promises 12: Shockingly Good Ramen at Ippudo

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Ippudo, at 93 Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong; call them at 2527 3526.

Ippudo Ext

One of my first meals out in Hong Kong was at Ippudo, a hyper-popular and quickly expanding ramen chain. I tried the location at the LAB Concept, a mall next door to the building where my classes are held. This night, Eric, Melanie and I stopped by after class one evening prior to heading to our respective homes via the MTR.

After having some extremely good ramen back in Vancouver during its ramen renaissance of 2008-2010, I was dubious of this chain. And to be honest, I’ve always felt there is really only room for one East-Asian soup in my life (Pho, natch) and have never been over the moon about ramen generally.

Long story short (too late), Ippudo changed my view on both of the above notions and was the best ramen I’d ever tried up until a few weeks later when I had the legendary Butao. Who knew Hong Kong would do ramen so well?

Ippudo Ramen LAB Concept

I tried the shiromaru ramen, Ippudo’s signature, which is a deep and cloudy pork-based ramen. I opted to add the recommended toppings including seaweed, egg and pork slices. This combination rang in at $88 HKD or about $12 CAD, so not not cheap by any means but also not unsustainable as a dinner option. We also availed ourselves of their 2-for-1 beer promotion, which offered a bit more bang for the buck.

Ippudo condiments

But as for the ramen, it was a nearly perfect harmony of rich pork flavor, salt and spice. The noodles, egg, pork and seaweed were similarly well-executed and served as excellent grace notes for the broth. I also greatly enjoyed the wide array of condiments including whole bulbs of garlic that could be pressed, via hand presses provided at each table, directly into the soup. Being something of a garlic-fiend I left the restaurant absolutely reeking, but also invulnerable to Hong Kong’s sizable vampire population. Interactivity – the joy in seeking the perfect combination of condiments and sauces – is one of the reasons I love pho, and the combinations possible at Ippudo are similarly exhilarating.

This is a rather simple tale. Ippudo, although a chain, has seemingly maintained an extremely high level of quality and its success is well deserved. I should add that although we showed up thirty minutes prior to closing (and nearly made it out before it shut its doors), the staff was friendly if a bit hesitant.

Dim Sum Cafe (Quarry Bay)

Eastern Promises 11: Awful Dim Sum at Dim Sum Cafe

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King’s Dumplings, at 955 King’s Street, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong; call them at 2127 7068.

There are a lot of reasons to write about food.

Food often involves sharing an experience with others, be it at a turkey dinner at a family gathering, partaking in “stoner bowls” at the Gathering of the Juggalos, or nibbling on hot-pockets while playing Magic: The Gathering.

Wordplay aside, for me Eastern Promises is as much about sharing the experience of living abroad is it is about the food itself. And in some cases, all I want to share is a cautionary tale. And that’s really the purpose of this report: Dim Sum Cafe sucks; stay away.

Dim Sum Cafe

A few weeks ago I was out in Quarry Bay, searching for dinner. By the time I had moved out of Q-Bay, I had eaten at most of the interesting places. This night was feeling a little down and wasn’t in the mood to be alone in a busy restaurant. There was a congee place I’d been meaning to try – and eventually did – but it was absolutely slammed that night.

A little joint called Dim Sum Cafe seemed like a nice compromise. I like dim sum food and it had it seemed fairly accessible to Westerners. I guess maybe that’s a bad sign.

It was very easy to order here with a clear English menu I could mark with my choices. I got steamed char-siu baos, har gao and fried radish cakes, the last of which has been a favorite of mine since my friend Des, nearly ten years ago, spent all day making them for our friends in Vancouver. His were good. These were miserable. Dripping with old oil, someone fell asleep at the fryer. The baos were hard and stale and the har gao unremarkable.

Sometimes you put a lot of thought into what you want and it blows up in your face.

King’s Dumplings (Wan Chai)

Eastern Promises 10: Taiwanese-Shanghainese Mashup with Wes at King’s Dumplings

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King’s Dumplings, at 128 Lockhart, WanChai, Hong Kong; call them at 2890 6366.

Wes is a new friend of mine here in Hong Kong. He’s a first year JD student who wishes to return to his home in Calgary one day. Wes’ family is from Hong Kong, and he relishes playing an ambassador-like role for the exchange students.

On this day Wes was especially generous with his time, accompanying me to the police station to have some fingerprints made for an immigration application. Earlier communications with the station made it seem like I would need a translator for this somewhat odd request. Things went off without a hitch, and per our agreement, I treated Wes to lunch at a restaurant that seemed interesting.

King's Dumplings Xiaolongbao

We initially thought it was a purely Shanghainese restaurant given the prominence of xiao long bao on the menu, but it turned out to be more Taiwanese.

King's Dumplings buns

Still, the xiao long bao were excellent – some of the best I’ve had – delicate yet sturdy and full of a rich soup. We also enjoyed a pan-fried dumpling also with a soupy interior and one of the best bowls of beef noodle soup I’ve had. The broth was an exquisite balance of spices.  The brisket was remarkably well marbled, a tapestry of tender beef and fat. I don’t know if this was a one-off – just a happenstance of the beef order that day – or the norm. But for now, this is a must-order.

King's Dumplings Beef Noodle

Dan-dan noodles, however, were an afterthought – bland and overcooked.

We definitely over-ordered with Wes only having a bite of the beef noodle soup before tapping out. The total bill was upwards of $250 HKD ($33 CAD), which is a bit much for lunch in Hong Kong. But for the impeccable food, friendship, and the lessening of my immigration woes, I was happy to pay it.

Genki Sushi (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

Eastern Promises 9: Conveyer Belt Sushi with New Friends at Genki

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Genki Sushi, at 16 Harcourt, Admiralty, Hong Kong; call them at 2865 2933.

One of the first pieces of marketing I was exposed to in Hong Kong (a place where marketing is paramount) was a series of posters displayed on the wall as one ascends the escalators from the subway stations. Each one simply portrays an attractive young East Asian woman on the verge of consuming a single piece of sushi. Unfortunately, the name of the restaurant wasn’t written in English, so there was little chance of me ever figuring out what this place was.

That all changed when I made some friends, PCLL students at the school here, who suggested we get sushi for lunch. It sounded like they said Gangy (aka Lucille Bluth), but it turns out was Genki, and indeed the mysterious sushi restaurant with the aggressive marketing campaign (although a Gangy-themed restaurant – just martinis and cigarettes, I guess – would have been cool too)

Turns out it’s also one of those sushi places that employs a conveyor belt to get the sushi from the chefs to the customers, with different color plates connoting different price levels. I’ve always seen this is a bit of gimmick, and indeed one that seems vulnerable to freshness issues.

HK dreams 009

That wasn’t really a problem here as I found the sushi quite fresh. I had about five plates, ranging from tamago, to tuna to hamachi. It was nothing special, but for the price (about $10 CAD all in) it was well executed sushi with appropriately vinegared and packed rice.

HK dreams 010

Outshining the conveyer belt in my eyes was the tea system.  There was a small container of powdered green tea at the table. Combined with a spigot of hot water, it gave access to unlimited self-serve green tea. The tea wasn’t of the highest quality (it was powdered, after all) but the process was fun.

And I suppose that’s what I would say about Genki. The sushi is good for the money, and it’s a just a fun place to eat.