“I was one of those kids always standing in the kitchen,” says chef Ivan Chan, of his childhood in Hong Kong. “I grew up used to top-end Chinese banquet-style food every Saturday night, because of my grandma,” says Chan. His grandmother was a professional prep cook at a high-level restaurant in Hong Kong, and she hosted family dinners every weekend. “I learned a lot of old school, traditional methods.” Chan is now chef-owner of The Orient, a humble-looking restaurant on the Bedford Highway in Halifax. There, for the past five years, Chan has been making small but steady moves to educate customers about authentic Cantonese food, how Chinese chefs can be creative with local ingredients, and making a futile effort to remove egg rolls from the menu.
Chan’s path to becoming a chef and restaurateur isn’t typical. After moving to Halifax in the ‘90s during high school and attending Dalhousie for computer science, Chan moved to Northern Ontario, where he and his wife settled for a few years. There he opened a specialty computer store before moving back to Halifax in 2009 to start a family. For nearly three years, he cooked in Chinese kitchens around the city but was decidedly not happy. “I ended up wanting to learn a different skill set,” says Chan. He wanted to work in non-Chinese restaurants and hotel kitchens, but getting his foot in the door was a challenge, given his resume. He eventually landed a line cook job at an Irish pub, then moved on to a sous chef position at a hotel within a year. “I was pretty fortunate that there were a couple pretty good chefs who took me under their wings.” Chan worked his way through a couple more kitchens before deciding he wanted to be in control of his schedule. With a young family, the hours put in working for someone else were too much. Chan opened The Orient with his wife in October 2015, where she runs the front-of-house. Easy to breeze past on the Bedford Highway, Chan has been making an effort to get his name out there, competing in culinary events like the Great Canadian Kitchen Party (formerly Gold Medal Plates) and joining Taste of Nova Scotia.
The Orient offers three styles of food: authentic Cantonese, Hong Kong Café, and Canadian Chinese. There are also daily specials where Chan plays around with local ingredients and has fun. His goal is to turn The Orient into a restaurant with no set menu, where customers tell him a price per person, and he improvises. But unfortunately, for now, he’s stuck making what he calls “revenue dishes” to help pay the bills. “You get labelled as a Chinese restaurant,” says Chan, “it’s one of my biggest struggles.” Wanting to appeal to an array of clients, Chan knows he has to keep certain dishes on the menu, so he does, but he makes them by hand and with high-quality ingredients. Even the egg rolls.
When I come in for dinner, I do try the egg rolls. Having given Chan the freedom he desires, the entire meal is chef’s choice. A platter of appetizers starts the meal; pork egg rolls, Cantonese barbecue pork, and Cantonese salt and pepper squid. The egg rolls are a mix of ground local pork, shredded cabbage, and grated carrot. There’s a hint of curry, and they come with house-made sweet and sour sauce. They are what egg rolls probably should be, but no one else makes them with this much care. They are fresh and flavourful. So is the squid. Flash-fried crispy yet tender inside, tossed in salt and pepper spice, diced red onions and peppers, and sliced green onions. Chan says the barbecue pork is his grandmother’s recipe, using a marinade with Chinese five-spice and sesame (and a few other top-secret ingredients). Pork shoulder marinates for 72 hours before being roasted and sliced. The result is very tender slices of pork with a deep red ring around the perimeter, sweet and not too salty, five-spice and sesame giving a depth of flavour.
Crispy skinned Brome Lake duck is up next, served Peking-style with Chinese pancakes (as thin as crepes), finely sliced cucumber, spring onion, and hoisin sauce. The duck is rich, juicy, fatty and comforting (it reminds me of dark meat from a turkey) with satisfyingly crispy skin. Chan makes the sweet hoisin sauce with less vinegar than is typical, giving it a smooth flavour. This dish is eaten similarly to a taco—you fill the pancake and roll it up, enjoying all the flavours and textures at once. I love it.
The crispy duck is under the Hong Kong Café style food section of the menu, a term I had never before encountered. Following the Second World War, the culture in Hong Kong was heavily influenced by the British. A type of restaurant called
a Hong Kong Café (or cha chaan teng) evolved to serve locals who now had a taste for milky tea, cakes, and cheap, fast Hong-Kong style western food—commonly called “soy sauce food.” Directly translated, cha chaan teng means “tea restaurant.”
“Traditionally, Chinese sweet and sour [dishes] are stir-fried,” says Chan. “Here we marinate the meat, as the order comes in, we do everything on the fly—dust, put in the deep fryer, and I start up the sauce—make everything from scratch.” You can taste it in the Cantonese sweet and sour pork, the sauce, light and fresh with subtle sweetness, made with cane sugar and pineapple juice. The pork is stir-fried with chunky red and green peppers, onions and pineapple. Next up is ginger beef—appropriately listed as a Canadian Classic (invented in Calgary in the 1970s). Long slices of strip loin are dusted, deep-fried, then stir-fried with sliced red onion, green and red peppers in a ginger-chilli sauce, it’s a colourful, fresh variation of a much-loved favourite.
Another Cantonese dish follows—an attention-grabbing shrimp bird nest. Strips of taro root form a nest shape that’s deep-fried crispy, filled with stir-fried shrimp, sugar snap peas, carrots, and onion, all in garlic sauce. The nest is fun to eat. The crunchy taro strips have an earthy, nutty flavour and are great for dipping in the sauce. Next up is an excellent sweet and sour fish; sea bass dusted and quickly deep-fried. Crispy on the outside, flaky and delicate on the inside, the fish is stir-fried in a light-bodied sweet and sour sauce made with pickled papaya syrup, along with strips of red and green peppers and onions.
The last two dishes are both Hong Kong Café style—fun takes on western food by Chan. A meat and potatoes dish featuring cubed, stir-fried beef strip loin and creamy PEI potatoes in a zesty black pepper sauce. Next, Typhoon Shelter chicken wings—this dish is inspired by Typhoon Shelter crab, an iconic Hong Kong dish where soft shell crab is deep-fried and topped with crispy garlic and spices. Chan’s version uses marinated chicken wings, deep-fried, then stir-fried with lots of garlic, fiery habanero powder, crunchy panko crumbs, and finely diced red onion. And it works—the chicken is exceptionally juicy, garlicky and full of spice, with lots of crunch from the panko.
“I have to be stubborn because I went and learned different skills,” says Chan. “I learned from all those chefs, and I want to offer something different.” Ten dishes later, I’m sold on Chan’s dream. I want to eat more food like this, inspired by local ingredients and Canadian and Chinese cooking styles. “If you want chicken balls, there’s 30-odd places you can get the same thing,” says Chan. “I want to give patrons a reason to come in here because we provide something unique—we provide something that is made from the heart.”