Dream Team Chinese: Restaurant Lai Wah Heen

Cuisine Consultant: Sam Ma
Head Chef: Ronny Lam

In his unwavering quest for excellence, consummate hotelier Henry Wu created Lai Wah Heen in the Metropolitan Hotel, where cuisine and culture combine to create a Chinese dining experience that remains unrivaled in the country. Chinese Cuisine Consultant Sam Ma had an illustrious career in gastronomy in Hong Kong. As Assistant Head Chef of Maxims Group Cantonese Cuisine, he presided over Jade Garden at Star House and Causeway Bay, Windsor Palace and others. In 1995, he represented Canada as team leader to compete in the World’s Chinese Culinary Olympics and, recently, was responsible for preparing the welcome dinner for former Premier Zhu Ronghi of China and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa of Hong Kong when they visited Toronto. The Head Restaurant Chef Ronny Lam began his career at age 15 and worked in high-end Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong such as the 1,000-seat Hsing Kwong, until he came to Canada in 1986. He launched several upscale Chinese restaurants in Toronto, and now at Lai Wah Heen, brings a youthful approach to traditional dishes with his presentation and flair. Lai Wah Heen’s dining room manager Canson Tsang, who has been with the restaurant since 1994, acts as translator.

East meets in the West
Chef Ma came to Toronto before Chef Lam and they met in Toronto. They worked at the same restaurant, The Golden Bull on Bloor Street.

Team work
Chef Lam is the one who runs the kitchen: scheduling and food ordering. Chef Ma is pretty much the consultant, the quality control of the entire thing. And I run the dining room. It’s all coordinated.

Keeping up with Hong Kong and China dining trends
Based on his solid knowledge of Chinese food and from time to time, Chef Ma will create new dishes. And based on the season or based on an ingredient and once he has a primary idea he’ll sit down with Chef Lam and myself. Then we start to develop Chef Ma’s ideas. And then we do all the tasting and presentation and whether this is good for the customer here. Chef Ma started his career in Hong Kong years ago and he still has lots of connections that are in a certain restaurant in Hong Kong right now, so we still have those connections. And from time to time we will look it up on the Internet and different media who also talk to different chefs in Hong Kong and learn about the new trends.

…And when Hong Kong comes to Canada
We’ve had a long discussion about this question. Last night there was a very high profile guest—the richest man in Hong Kong. He said he’s going to come to Toronto for a visit and he would like to dine with us. He sent us a very specific menu; very authentic/classic recipes with exotic ingredients. Some of it involved ingredients that are only available in South Asia. That is the only thing that we cannot achieve because of the livestock that we have is very different here. Most of the items nowadays, we can get the herbs, the ingredients, special spices imported from China. So, that’s no problem. But on top of that most of the meat products from Toronto may sometimes be better than those in Asia—like the pork and the beef is sometimes even better than what they’re using in Hong Kong. And after the dinner, the comment was “Better than Hong Kong.” Tastes better and the textures are better.

Thinking globally
Authentic Chinese food is meant to be shared. But, from time to time, we have special requests by certain guests that they would like to be served individually or they would like French service. So we’ll communicate with the kitchen and the chef to prepare the food according to the request. Let’s say we have a big portion, then we will trim the portion down to the individual serving. And then, we’ll give special instructions on how to present it either inside the kitchen or outside; I will train my staff to present correctly.

The secret of success year after year
Chef Ma uses a really good example: It’s like driving a car—our owner, Henry Wu, gives us lots of freedom for creation but he keeps it on a very specific path. So, the ultimate goal for us to achieve is to be the best in Toronto. He will support us at all costs. So think of a car: our owner would be a very good driver. And the engine would be us, constantly communicating to each other and we work together as a team. So I think these are the reasons why.

And the final word?
In the kitchen, it’s Chef Ma. Definitely, you can tell.

Lai Wah Heen, 108 Chestnut Street, Toronto
(416) 977-9899

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