Chef’Stock | DAVID WU

 … breaking the fourth wall.

Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Rhinofish Noodle Bar · Gear | Leica

A history suspended in neon-illusion, and an unfounded sense of crimson macabre. I’m partial to these parts—I’ve worked, eaten and [momentarily] relapsed here. And as a [recovering] cynic who harbours a heart of darkness, as well as a soft-side for anything kooky, I’ll be brazen—Chinatown will always be a haven, my safe space.

Fuck the boilerplate, Chinatown doesn’t need your sympathy. She won’t stand for it—still the most flavour-packed, booze-laden, and beguiling neighbourhood Vancouver has to offer. The nouvelle vague is here, and this time around, they’re doing the razing. Down comes the fourth wall, and up go your illusions. And as far as metaphors go, David’s center stage, staring us straight in the eyes.

If you decide to glance back, you may have to confront a reality disallowing of daydreaming. The father of a newborn daughter—not to mention a restaurant in its infancy, a love letter to his Taiwanese heritage—David’s journey, in every sense of the word, has been arduous, and full of sustained attrition. Though he’s nursed the convalescence, and reached a point where he’s reaping the fruits of his toil, it hasn’t left him unscathed. But that kind of scar tissue makes bones, after all.

We founded Chef’Stock with that in mind—an echo chamber for culinary wax poetic, and a sanctuary where chefs get to be human, as opposed to demigods. So here’s to breaking more walls, and to the man of the hour whose eyes do the talking.

HB: What was your relationship with food growing up in Taiwan?

DW: I was born into a very large family and my mom was the one who cooked for everyone. She’s a great cook, but I hated eating. A bowl of rice would take me hours to finish. My appreciation for food—especially good food—came later in life.

HB: Even when you ate out as a family?

DW: That was a bit different! Xiaochi [Chinese or Taiwanese snacks reminiscent of meze] are a huge component of Taiwanese cuisine, and we’d always go out as a family to visit the hawkers—frequenting a variety of food stalls in a single outing—indulging in these flavourful, to-share snacks that were quite substantial. We’d go to a stand, order and eat, and then move onto the second one. The whole, collective, experience comprised the meal.

HB: Could you, or would you, attempt xiaochi at home?  

DW: Most of the night market dishes could be made at home. You just need to be ready to make an effort, and know the proper way of preparing them. Ba-wan  [Gelatinous steamed buns made from potato starch with a savory filling, and served with a sweet and savory sauce] for instanceit’s a great dish but it’s going to be a lot of work, if you’re brave enough to give it a go. You might as well eat it outsidethey’re quite inexpensive in Taiwan.   

David eats Taiwanese 3-Cup Chicken [San Bei Ji – 三杯雞 ]

HB: What kind of food did your mom cook at home?

DW: She cooked mostly Chinese food—that’s what my grandparents liked, and what she learned from her mother. She cooked lots of seafood, meat and vegetables. A regular meal would be comprised of three dishes and almost always a soup—something quite traditional in Taiwan. Taiwanese people love drinking soups, either before or after a meal, it’s a personal preference. And we’d finish with fruit. Lots of fruit, always.

HB: How did you become interested in cooking?

DW: I never thought about becoming a chef when I was younger. I enjoyed being around my mother when she cooked—eating as a large family was a pleasant experience. My mom cooked for all of us, it was a lot of work and she’d ask for my help from time to time. It seemed like a chore at first, but eventually became lots of fun—my mom would demonstrate crucial steps in certain dishes, what to look out for. Even then, apart from helping my mother, I never attempted to cook by myself. My first time was during a homestay in the UK.

HB: That’s a lot of pressure for someone who never cooked before, let alone Taiwanese food.

DW: The opportunity presented itself one evening; the home stay mom had meetings at her school, and the kids were like, “what are we going to do?”. I said, “I’m going to cook something”. I tried making shīzitóu—Lion’s Head meatballs, an Eastern Chinese staple—the pork variety, braised in soy sauce. Sounds easy, right? It turned out to be a complete disaster, superbad. I was like “fuck, I’m not good at this”. My mom and sister always made it look so easy. When I returned to Taiwan, I asked my mom how to cook it properly, and mastered it over the years. I never gave up after that.

Highschool graduation trip Italy, 2005. David pictured second from left in middle row.

HB: How did UK come about?

DW: I attended a Waldorf Steiner school called Michael Hall in a small town in East Sussex. The focus was on arts & crafts—joinery, metal work, gardening, basket making, book binding…I loved working with my hands, but went there primarily to learn English.

HB: How were your food experiences in the UK? Overwhelming, I imagine, since it was your first time away from home.

DW: It ended up being a totally different experience than I’d imagined. British cuisine had a shit reputation, so I wasn’t expecting anything, but my experience was eye-opening. Our homestay mom was Austrian, her husband was Greek, and they’d spent a long time in Spain before moving to the UK. They cooked fresh pasta, fragrant rice dishes…amazing schnitzel. They’d even make sushi. Except for the sushi, it was all new to me, and their passion ended up being contagiousit inspired me to cook something from my own heritage.

HB: How is the profession of being a cook regarded in Taiwan?

DW: Unless you’re some celebrity chef, it’s not one that garners any respect, that’s for sure. It’s regarded as a low-class profession. It was apparent in mother’s response to my culinary school ambitions, “Are you sure?!”. She even advised I pursue a backup career, and out of appeasement, I even studied game art & design. Soon after, my father asked me to return to assist him with our family business. I honoured his wish, but soon realized sitting in an office wasn’t something I ever wanted to do.

Graduating Class of 2007, Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, Vancouver. David pictured far left in front row.

HB: How’d you convince them you wanted to go back to Vancouver?

DW: At that time, I had to return to Vancouver to take my Canadian Citizenship exam, and be physically present while my dossier was being reviewed. I could’ve left if I really wanted, but decided to stay. I needed some permanence in my life.

HB: You’re a young guy, and you already run your own restaurant. It’s an audacious move, considering most cooks don’t feel comfortable to be on their own this early in their careers.

DW: My plan was to immerse myself into various kitchen environments and to learn as much as possible in a short period of time. My first cooking job was at Bistro 101, a restaurant operated by my school, and I worked there while attending classes. My second gig was at a popular French café/bistro called Faubourg, and I loved working there. I’m classically trained, so it was a golden opportunity to hone my skills, cooking serious French fare. Finally I worked at Amici, an Italian restaurant in West Vancouver that wasn’t the best place to be, but I learned a lot. After a year there, I said “enough of that”. I wanted to cook my own food, and felt I could do it on my own.

HB: Which was the objective all along, to open your own place.

DW: Exactly—it was my dream all along. My sister’s a great pastry chef, and she assisted me with the research and planning phase. We wanted to do something Taiwanese, but weren’t sure as to what exactly. We researched food trucks and scouted empty restaurant spaces. We wanted to start small, nothing huge. My sister is quite conservative, and didn’t want to step out of her comfort zone, whereas I was more like “let’s just do it, we’ll figure it out later”.

HB: Seems like you were on different paths.

DW: We had a lot of ideas and did tons of research, but she never thought we were ready. After an almost two-year limbo, I was like “fuck this, I’m doing it myself”, until a friend of mine, who worked at MIKU [A Japanese restaurant in Vancouver] asked me to help him out in the kitchen. It was a reputable place to work, so I accepted. After a year or so, another friend of mine from Toronto approached me with a business idea of opening a stall at Vancouver’s famous Richmond Night Market.

Chinatown, Vancouver. 2018.

HB: So you went from an opulent Japanese restaurant to selling stuff on the street? Do tell.

DW: It was an opportunity to see if I could handle it all on my own. We were contemplating what to do, and at the time baos [steamed buns] were huge in places like London and New York, but not a lot of people had heard of them in Vancouver. We had to do it. I wanted to see with my own eyes how Vancouverites reacted to something they’d never seen, or tasted, before.

HB: I know the answer, since baos are pretty much ubiquitous now. But how was the initial feedback?

DW: White people loved our food, and would always came back for more. I thought Chinese people would be more open and receptive to it, since it was Taiwanese, but they didn’t take a liking to it. In fact, they’d peek around the stall and scoff, and murmur shit like “no, I don’t want to try this”. It was surprising… I always thought it’d be the other way around.  

HB: Did you do well? How lucrative is night market business anyway?

DW: Our friends from neighbouring stalls always remarked that we were doing great. After our first year, we had broken even, and had lost very little money. But we were unlucky to be honest.  Our stall was located in the old night market, which was packed every single day until they started charging admissions to compete with the newer, much fancier, night market by the casino in Richmond. It drove customers away. We couldn’t relocate because the new market had reached its capacity for vendors. The advent of the new market killed our business.

HB: It may have killed your business, but this whole endeavour gave you the confidence to pursue more things on your own.

DW: It was an investment, and it didn’t flunk. It gave me lots of hope for opening my own place in Vancouver. After my partner returned to Asia, I set my mind to find a space downtown to sell baos by myself. There was this great spot on Robson street but the rent was way too high. You can’t charge that much for a bao, the price point is important. But just when things were getting pretty serious, BAO DOWN showed up. I was like “fuck, there goes my idea”. I was really depressed.

HB: Oh no.

DW: I wanted to be unique, not a second comer, so I decided to change my direction and invest in a concept inspired by a Taiwanese noodle bar that would feature niu rou mian (Taiwanese beef noodle soup). And that’s how Rhinofish got its start.

HB: You offer a handful of dishes on your menuit’s boutique, and quite traditional, not appropriated like some of the Cantonese fare we’ve become used to [and admittedly, have also come to love] in the Western world.

DW: A lot of Chinese restaurants adapt certain dishes to fit a Western palate. That’s not what I want to do. I’d like to keep our taste as traditional as possible, and offer something you could get in Taiwan. Employing Western technique or adding different ingredients shouldn’t change the spirit of the dish. Some of my customers tell me our food’s just like what they’ve enjoyed in Taiwan. It’s great to hear our food brings them back.

HB: What are some liberties you’ve taken?

DW: Niu rou mian traditionally uses rice wine but I prefer the flavour of red wine, I’m just used to it. In Taiwan, yan su ji [chicken nuggets] are seasoned with just salt and pepper. Our version comes with nanjing sauce, and we even make a rendition with parmesan cheese and truffle oil. I make it interesting—more invitingfor people who’ve perhaps never tried Taiwanese before, so there’s something familiar to draw them in. That’s my way. My style of cooking isn’t exactly Chinese or Taiwanese, but somehow it comes out as traditional… it just makes sense.

HB: It’s definitely making sense! There’s always a buzz any time I’m in here to eat.

DW: I just want to make people happy by respecting the traditions, and the food I cook. Our kitchen’s wide open, so a lot of people walk up to me during service to give me their heartfelt thanks. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Chinese, Taiwanese or Italian. This industry is tough, it takes over your entire life. So when your customers are genuinely happy and come up to thank you, it’s very touching. I’m very grateful that people appreciate what I do.

Chinatown, Vancouver. 2018.

HB: We’ve been late to discover different types of Chinese [and definitely Taiwanese] cuisine, and I think it has to do with the considerable barriers involved in trying to experience it. You’re a young chef with a dynamic concept and your restaurant looks fucking amazing. Yet your menu features a handful of items, which are all distinctly Taiwanese. Your restaurant is the perfect gateway—a beguiling teaser—for those who may be interested in delving deeper into regional cuisine.   

DW: That was my exact intention in the first place. I wanted the food to be as traditional as possible, but for the interior to have a Western aesthetic, so those who never got a chance to try this kind of food wouldn’t feel intimidated to come in. There are great restaurants across Richmond and Burnaby, but a non-Chinese person wouldn’t go there unless one of their friends took them there. It’s not like 5 white dudes are going to get together and say “yo, let’s go to Richmond to eat”. It’s something they’re not familiar with. It’s a lot to process.

HB: What was your intention behind the “noodle bar” concept?

DW: [Chuckles] Well, noodle bar sounds a bit better than noodle house! We have an open concept, which is more inviting, and when put into perspective, quite innovative for what a traditional Taiwanese place would be. Before approaching the design firm, Scott & Scott Architects, I had picked three different design styles I wanted for the space. Incorporating beautiful types of wood into spaces is one of their specialities, and their recommendation mimicked one of the design styles I had in mind, so it worked out perfectly in the end.

HB: Why aren’t you openly marketing Rhinofish as Taiwanese?

DW: If you craved Taiwanese, and searched for it on google and yelp, you’d definitely find us. But I’ve never marketed us as “Taiwanese” out right; I want to distinguish ourselves from other Taiwanese restaurants in Vancouver. Does a French restaurant blatantly call themselves French? It limits you.

A hand-painted mural at Rhinofish. Artist: Angie Wu

HB: What would you say differentiates Taiwanese cuisine?

DW: Taiwanese and Chinese cuisines are very similar. We were the same country 100+ years ago. In China, even regional cuisines differ heavily from one anotherdifferent terroir, ingredients, and so on. I’d say Taiwanese cuisine is more reminiscent of Southern Chinese cooking. It’s very sweetlike Shanghainesebut we use a lot more soy sauce, and are known to be the only ones to use its paste. But our claim to fame would be xiaochi—the street food found in our night markets, small dishes to share sort of like street foodit’s become a big thing, a worldwide export.

HB: It seems to me that Taiwanese people have commitment issues when it comes to food. They want a taste of everything, they can’t stick to just one thing.

DW: [Chuckles] They do! Why limit yourself to one thing and get full? The night market phenomenon is huge in Taiwan. A night market could be a congregation of random vendors on a street, or more of a designated space like a parking lot with hundreds of food stalls. You go as a group, with your friends or family, and indulge in many different dishes. It’s ingrained in our culture.

HB: I’m guessing you don’t have as much time to learn, or try new things, helming a venture of this scale and scope. Are you afraid of becoming insular?

DW: It’s definitely something my wife and I talk about, constantly. I’m very busy with the restaurant, which doesn’t allow a lot of freedom for constant exploration. I try eating at new restaurants for inspiration as much as I can, and also research trends in Taiwan, keeping an eye out for those things I’d have an affinity for. I force myself to learn different dishesour menu is limited, so I push myself to change certain items every four months to keep it new and fresh.

HB: It must’ve been challenging during the preliminary phases too, I imagine.

DW: It was difficult to get sincere advice from people. It’s a business now, and they’re not your friends. Of course there were friends and family who’d always help, and give valuable tips, but I’m not a sociable person to begin with, so I never felt comfortable putting myself out there to meet new people in the industry. I never think about anything other than what I’m doing, but I’m working hard on changing that for the better.  

HB: Do you regard Vancouver as a global food destination?

DW: I always thought Vancouver had the best offeringsthe most varietyoutside of Asia. I still think some of the food here even tastes better. Compared to Toronto we’re a mecca for regional Asian cuisine. The food there is shit. My recent trip to New York however, put things into perspectiveI was shocked. I left feeling like we had so little to offer. Vancouver isn’t a small city, but in terms of food traffic, we could never compete. This was some time ago, but that’s what it boils down to.

HB: Who are your customers?

DW: I always had a different clientele in mind before we opened. I made an effort to target younger people, whether they be Caucasian, Chinese, or Taiwanese. But it turned out to be a lot different—young families with children, elderly couples, even the Chinese grandpas and grandmas, they love it! Of course, there’s always the random grandpa who comes in to share his views, like “what the fuck, it’s so expensive”, and then storms out. But overall, it’s a wide spectrum and we like it that way.

HB: It’s great that a lot of families come inyou just became a father of a young girl yourself, but you’re here, like, all the fucking time.

DW: I sacrifice a lot of time away from my family. When I was making my plans to open up, I wasn’t even married. But then, I did, became a father when we had already started construction. When I opened up, I wasn’t even married. I can never fail now. I have to keep going. There’s more riding on it, and you just have to push yourself.

David on his mid-shift smoke break.

HB: You told me before about the challenges in those months leading up to your opening. Lately I’ve been realizing that people outside the industry have no clue how much work this really is.

DW: Every stage of opening this restaurant was difficult, but it was happier, and more exciting, during those preliminary stages. We experienced a long delay in construction and it fucked up everything. I had interviewed a lot of people, and had granted them positions, but they all ended accepting other jobs. It was a false hope kind of thing, and I hated doing that. Luckily, some of them stuck around, and still work here to this day. I’m grateful.

HB: Did you ask your family for any help since you were short-staffed?

DW: I asked my friends and family for favours in running the day to day of the restaurantI had to, or else I would’ve never been able to open in the first place. If it wasn’t for their help, I’d be somewhere else right now. But some things didn’t end the way I wanted them to. Shit happens… that’s all I’ll say.

HB: You know, the old guard would have a bone to pick with you, saying you haven’t put in “enough time”. The path to your first restaurant was quite expedited for you.

DW: I don’t even consider myself a chef yet. You can’t be a doctor without a degree, and you don’t get to be a chef unless you know a lot, and put in the time. It’s something I have to earn, and one day I’ll be deserving of that title. In culinary school, there was a student who introduced herself as a sous-chef. I paid her respect, and commended her for attending schoolI thought she wanted to add more to her arsenal. Later I discovered she knew nothing about cooking. She was either lying, or the restaurant she worked in, was shit. People are quick to prescribe themselves titles. I don’t do that.  

HB: Talking about some people, do you read your own reviews?  

DW: In the beginning, I was reading them more. Now, I don’t care as much—especially if they don’t know what they’re talking about. Some reviewers don’t know what they’re talking about. They want fame, free food, and to dish out some bullshit. It must be a good life. I actually did a media event where I invited some bloggers. It was a terrible launch, but there was a select group whose opinion I really valued. They’re not all shit. As long as I keep improving myself, it doesn’t matter what anyone says anyway.

HB: Where’s this all leading you?

DW: There’s a lot of different paths I could go down. But I just have to make this restaurant the best it can be, and get my name out there… to never give up.

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