Craig Wong’s jerk chicken nachos from a recent pop-up at Tallboys Craft Beer House.
There may be an influx of young chefs putting their own spin on Chinese cuisine, but so far Craig Wong is the only one combining those tastes with island flavours. We spoke with the former Luma and O&B Canteen chef about his upcoming restaurant Patois (794 Dundas St. W., at Palmerston), as well as whether our mayor’s recent ramblings helped or hindered the chef’s brand.—Karon Liu
Your parents are from Jamaica, right?
Our family goes back three generations in Jamaica. My mom is from Ocho Rios and my dad is from Kingston. Long ago, my father won a math scholarship and chose to go to McGill. He fell in love with Canada and opened a pizza shop in a Jamaican neighbourhood at Victoria Park and Finch. He was doing his masters at night. He’s a brilliant man.
I love visiting my cousins in Jamaica, because we see places that tourists don’t. I still have family in Saint Ann’s Bay where my cousin took us on a jerk tour of all the best jerk spots on the island. I was struck by all the differences and complexities of each place.
Craig Wong’s Pineapple Bun Burger from the recent pop-up at Tallboys Craft Beer House.
What do you consider a good jerk?
It has to have flavour that lingers on your palate. It’s definitely not a subtle taste. It’s counter-intuitive to the French and Italian technique, because jerk just blows your head off. Jerk chicken should be spicy and isn’t mild.
Allspice, thyme, garlic, and all of that are key, but what I emphasize in my jerk is the juiciness. When we were doing the jerk crawl, I noticed that the meat was dry in a lot of the places, which is how they do it. When I’m eating meat, I want some kind of moisture and I think some places don’t pay as much attention to that.
Would you consider your food to be Hakka?
I wouldn’t say so. I love hakka food and a bowl of chilli chicken makes me smile, but I just have too diverse of a background to classify myself like that. If the food is good, it’ll be on the menu.
So when Patois opens, what’s the first thing you’d recommend on the menu?
I’m really proud of my jerk, and I worked on the spice mix for a long time. I love going to Caribbean restaurants, but I find a lot of them buy into the same formula, which is having oxtail and curry goat, and it all comes in Styrofoam. I think the food is too noble for Styrofoam. There’s pride in the preparation, but I’d like to carry it over in the restaurant experience. Yes, we’ll have jerk chicken and Red Stripe, but we can make it more fun, like with boozy slushies.
So how do you do your jerk?
It’s actually inspired by the Portuguese, which is fitting cause I’m in a Portuguese neighbourhood. My goal is to do the juiciest jerk chicken. I find that the smoking technique dries out the bird, so I got a commercial rotisserie to do a rotisserie jerk chicken that will be cooked whole on the bone.
You just did a pop-up for Patois at Tall Boys, the bar that you co-own. Talk a bit about some of the things we ate, like the pineapple-bun burger.
The pineapple bun burger is something that I made as a kid. As a Chinese person, I love the sweetness of the pineapple bun and the umami of the oyster-sauce mayonnaise. Being a North American kid, of course, I love burgers. I don’t have geographical boundaries when it comes to tastes.
Did Rob Ford’s Steak Queen video help or hinder your brand? I mean, have you Googled “Patois Toronto,” recently?
No press is bad press and I love it for what it is. I’d love to have him as a guest. At the end of the day, I’m just cooking dinner. People aren’t coming to me for my political views.