Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On the success (or failure) of a Chinese Restaurant in Scarborough

You can get sweet and sour pork anywhere.  But really tasty crispy sweet and sour pork?  
That's not easy to find.

Remember this?  It was pretty traumatic, having our favourite chef and all the waiters walk out all of a sudden.  It was not a pleasant surprise - I believe we dropped our chopsticks in shock at the news.  Where were we going to eat?

We are happy to report that we are still eating at the same restaurant.  Even though the business has changed hands like, three times in two years, things have stabilized with the current owners, kitchen and waitstaff and we didn’t have to hunt for another place for yummy chinese food.

“So what makes a Chinese Restaurant succeed?  And what makes it fail?” asked Man Yung between bites of piping hot crispy roasted chicken (one of the current chef’s signature dishes).

1.    Great food helps...but doesn’t guarantee that you will have lots of customers

The first restaurant had a head chef/owner who used to work at a very prestigious seafood restaurant before he opened his own place.  His cuisine was absolutely delightful - from the basic Stir Fried Beef Rice Noodles and Seafood Fried Rice, to the very special (actually, quite unusual) Bitter Melon and Black Bean Sauce with Lobster, or Goji Berries and Chinese Herb Freerun Chicken Shabu Shabu.  He had a magic touch.

The great food made us repeat customers - but the chef kept on complaining to his staff that he wasn’t getting enough business.  In fact, there were always only a few tables of customers having dinner at his restaurant in the evenings.  What was the problem?

“Do you remember how the head chef always complained that he didn’t have enough ‘Family style customers?’” said Man Yung, “and that families simply stayed away from the restaurant during the evenings?”

“Yes, I remember.  Why, didn’t they like the food? We thought the food was tasty.”

“Well, the problem was the food was too special and too unusual - and it attracted the wrong type of customer.”

Yep, the waiters would come around recommending nightmarish dishes like “Sea Turtle Hot Pot” and “Screaming Wawa Babyfish stew” (it’s a fish that makes a high-pitched noise like a shrieking fetus - you don’t want to know) - we said no, but they were heartily gobbled up by rough-looking individuals who shouted when they talked, laughed outrageously with open mouths filled with food, expelled profanities every second word and thumped the table for emphasis.  What a strange lot they were - they had loads of money and were looking for culinary thrills.

We didn’t mind their shenanigans so much but we started to frequent the restaurant more for lunch than for dinner.

Man Yung analyzed the scenario for me.  “The regular chinese “Family” dining crowd stays away from restaurants with weird (even illegal) delicacies like turtle, wawa babyfish, bear paw or roadkill venison


- as well as restaurants with shady-looking patrons who are openly cussing, gambling or playing drinking games (and getting stinking drunk).  Is it all that surprising that despite the tasty food, the first restaurant was not an overwhelming success?”

2.  Great food is sometimes less important than consistent food

The first chef got fed up and left and the restaurant was taken over by a former restaurant manager.  He didn’t know how to cook but he thought that he could keep the food standards up by terrorizing the kitchen staff.  Half the time we were there the owner was yelling at somebody.

Chefs didn’t stay long under this kind of abuse, and the food suffered.  One day my Pork tripe with Mustard Green soup noodle would have intense ground pepper flavour , the next day the same dish would have too many chives and garlic sprinkles, and the day after that there would be no chives, no garlic sprinkles, and more noodle than tripe, and the day after that there would be more tripe than noodle but with plenty of green peppers etc.  Every chef had his own interpretation of the menu and although they tried their best, we got tired of the roller coaster standards and started to eat at the restaurant next door.

The food at the restaurant next door was kind of bland and at least 15% more expensive.  But the restaurant would always be packed!

“Why is this restaurant always so busy?” I asked Man Yung.  “If I had a choice I wouldn’t come and eat here.  The food tastes like someone forgot to add salt.”

“Well, the patrons here might like the food - maybe they are health conscious and think flavour would kill them.  Or perhaps they have gotten used to the style of cooking - and every time they want, for example, blah blanched whole chicken or insipid soy sauce tofu (they NEVER had enough soy sauce in that dish - we always had to ask for more on the side) they can always come and eat and get exactly the same dish they ordered the last time.”

There’s a restaurant just half a block away that is the exactly opposite - the seasoning was always heavy-handed and the sauces were always way too thick, like congealed phlegm.  And there’s another restaurant two blocks away where the dim sum contains meat that has been ground so thoroughly that it feels like toothpaste on your tongue. But those places were always packed too!  

Now, I’m not saying that if you served food that tasted like you just boiled everything in water or food that is oily, salty and drowning in thick lumpy sauces you would be a roaring success.  However, if you keep the food consistent(ly bad), you might attract people who like their food watery/chunky/pasty.  Because there’s no accounting for taste and there’s lots of people in the world who can’t tell well-prepared, delicious food from badly-prepared, gross-out food.

3.  If there’s someone working in the restaurant who rubs you the wrong way, you will just stop going there.

We patronized the restaurant next door because we got pretty chummy with the waiters and we were too lazy to go out and try any other restaurants.

We only stopped going because a new waiter started working and we hated him.

“Why does he always have an expression like someone has killed his entire family?” we asked each other.  “When he comes over, he throws the menu onto the table.  When he takes our order, he doesn’t nod or say anything or even react - he just wanders off when he thinks we are done speaking.  When he brings the food, he just shoves it into any available space on the tabletop.  When we want to pay and leave, he snatches up our cash without a thank you.”

After a few weeks of this, Man Yung was prepared to go back to the first restaurant - inconsistent food or no.  “I can live with the tasteless food - but I can’t stand another minute of that kind of service.”

4.  You don’t have to be the best restaurant in the world but with all the right ingredients you can still be a success!

We returned to the first restaurant - by now, the belligerent owner/manager was gone (he gambled away his shares - one sure way to ensure restaurant failure is to gamble your restaurant away) and the restaurant was being run by the sous-chef and his brother.

Now, the sous-chef had been there since the beginning.  He wasn’t a brilliant chef - like, he couldn’t pull any rabbits (or turtles, or shrieking wawa babyfish) out of a hat (or a wok) and he probably wouldn’t be able to get a job as a head chef anywhere else.  We thought - uh-oh, this restaurant might be changing hands very soon again....

Pleasant surprise (for once!)  The restaurant business started off slow, but gradually it got busier and busier.  Now, whenever we go for dinner, there are lines forming outside the door and there are plenty of “Family” style customers filling the tables.

The sous-chef wasn’t a culinary genius - he and his brother didn’t put their effort into making very inventive or unusual dishes.  Their signature dishes were crispy roast chicken, and sweet and sour pork - every restaurant has these items.  However, they made them fresh with care and almost every table ordered a plate of one or both.  They stuck to the basics - beef, chicken, pork, fish, the most widely available vegetables, common shellfish, rice and noodle dishes - and put their heart in it.  

And the customers kept on coming back.

“So, do you think we can draw a parallel between the success and failure of a Chinese Restaurant and the success and failure of a Milonga?” I asked Man Yung.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Alice Starmore's "Eriskay"

As promised, some photos of the sweater I just finished knitting - Alice Starmore's "Eriskay" from her Fisherman's Sweaters knitting book:

I knit this sweater using the excellent 5-ply guernsey yarn from Frangipani based in Cornwall, U.K.  This particular shade is "Red" - and what a magnificent, bright, lively true red it is! 

Alice Starmore's design is a homage to the intricate knitting patterns used by the guernsey knitting community of a little island called Eriskay, located in the Outer Hebrides of northern Scotland.  The women of Eriskay incorporated many decorative symbols of the seafaring life into the warm, practical and hardy guernseys (or ganseys, or jerseys - the name for a fisherman's sweater in this kind of style varies depending on where they were knitted in the British Isles) they knitted for their fishermen husbands to demonstrate their love for their husbands and as a display of virtuoso knitting talent.  Some of the typical symbols used by Alice Starmore in her "Eriskay" design include the starfish, the tree of life, the anchor, the cable, and the diamond:

Eriskay fisherman guernsey symbols. I'm thinking some of the symbols are kind of like the symbols of luck, love, prosperity, good health like you get in many different cultures. Macabre fact:  It is said that they were able to identify the originating port of drowned fishermen when their bodies were washed onto shore just by the symbols on their sweaters since each fishing community would have their own idiosyncratic knitting patterns and symbols.

I read on this website about Eriskay that it would take two weeks for the skillful knitters of Eriskay to complete a sweater.  Two weeks!  Are you kidding?  It took me THREE YEARS!*

* I did take breaks in between to knit some other sweaters, but still, I don't think I can manage to finish one in two weeks!  Also, the sweater is supposed to be so tightly knitted that it becomes wind and waterproof, heh... unfortunately, I can't get the gauge that tight (I have wonky, self-taught technique - but hey, if it ain't broke...) so sorry Man Yung if it feels a little bit breezy when you are wearing the sweater!  

In fact, one particular gentleman knitter from the U.S. was able to discover how the guernseys were knitted so tightly.  He was able the duplicate the tight gauge and the speed of knitting with traditional double-pointed long steel knitting needles and specialized knitting equipment - the knitting sheath and the knitting belt.  You can read about his fascinating research on his blog here.  

Here's another knitting gentleman (from the U.K.), talking about the history of "ganseys".  This short clip also has historical photos of fishermen wearing their lovingly-knit sweaters:

Another interesting fact about the fisherman's guernsey is that it is knit without any seams, so that the resulting sweater would be stronger and not so likely to "split at the seams".  It goes something like this: The sweater is knit in the round from the bottom up to the armhole - with diamond shaped gussets in the underarm to give more room for the arms to move inside the sweater when working in strenuous physical fishermen tasks.  Then, the chest on the front and the back is knit back and forth with straight needles.  Once the back and the front pieces of the chest are completed, the shoulder straps are knit from the neckhole, joining the back and front as you go along.  Once the shoulder straps are done to the armhole, the sleeves are knitted by picking up stitches from the armhole and then knitting in the round right to the end of the cuff.  The ribbing at the neck is knitted by picking up stitches from the neckhole.  Thank you Alice Starmore for describing this so clearly in your book (with diagrams!) - it made the task much less daunting.  However, despite the fail-proof instructions, I still managed to join the left shoulder to the right shoulder when I was knitting the straps (it was a very distracting week!)

The traditional fisherman's guernseys from Eriskay came in dark navy and cream - navy for working days (to hide the grot that got on them from the fishermen handling all that fish), and cream for the weekend (to look presentable at church). You can still buy genuine fishermen's guernseys knitted by the older generation of expert Eriskay knitters (see, Milongueras of Knitting!) from the Eriskey co-op store (maybe here at Co-Chomunn Eirisgeidh because this website says so) or, strangely enough, from Japanese fine clothing retailers.  Here is link to a website I found with this product.  Your order will even have the name of the lady (this one was knitted by Helen MacLean) who knitted the sweater!

Genuine Navy Eriskay guernsey for sale for discerning shoppers in Japan!  

Of course, don't expect that this museum-quality garment will cost the same as some polyester fast fashion from your local H&M... This sweater costs all of 78,000 YEN (That's $850.00 CAD)

The minute I finished knitting Eriskay, I was onto my next project - knitting an Alice Starmore "Kittiwake" hat design out of the remaining yarn.  I don't like my needles to be idle!

The other thing I did was order yarn for my next project.  Three cones of yarn in Aran from Frangipani.  It arrived super fast in one week from the U.K.  My order came with a number of goodies too from Jan and Russ of Frangipani - a colour card with all their newest colours, and a surprise!  Cute little red and yellow fish stitch markers:

 "I want a sweater in all of these yummy colours!" said Man Yung.  
"Then you will have to get yourself several more knitting wives, because at the rate I'm going, it will take FIFTY YEARS!" I replied.

Man Yung wants me to knit Alice Starmore's "Fulmar" AGAIN for my next project.  Man Yung loves Alice Starmore designs - and he loves Frangipani 5-ply guernsey yarn!  The crisp sturdy texture of the yarn makes it very suitable to show off intricate knitting stitch patterns, and Man Yung says the yarn makes the warmest sweaters he has in his sweater "arsenal" - and I tell you, he has quite a collection!

Here's Man Yung, enjoying his new "Eriskay" sweater.  It will come in handy when the temperature drops to minus 18 degrees this week!

"Is he thinking deeply about Tango?  Or is he thinking deeply about lunch?"

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Led by the Nose

Chinese New Year is just around the corner!  This year will be the Year of the Snake.  Man Yung remembers that in his youth, every family would buy a copy of the New Year's Feng Shui Almanac to determine their fortunes for the coming year - and also to predict the auspicious days for getting married, starting a business, moving house or harvesting crops, etc.

"In the front pages of the almanac, they'll usually have this picture of an ox in a field with its master," said Man Yung.  "The readers can tell by the position of the ox and the farmer, the appearance of the vegetation, and the clothing worn by the farmer how the weather would be like for the year!"

OK, so I went on Google and downloaded a sample of these almanac pictures:

"Hey Man Yung - in all the pictures, the sun's shining, there's grassy fields, there's an ox, there's some guy....The pictures don't look that much different to me!" I said.

"Ah, they are VERY SUBTLE differences - it takes an expert (like me) to interpret them!" said Man Yung.

I might not be interpret all those, ahem, "VERY SUBTLE" symbols - but there's one thing I see that's a constant.  No matter what's happening in the pictures (or really, not happening), there's a disgruntled ox, being led by the nose!

And indeed, every year, aren't people always trying to lead other people by the nose?

"How about taking a stand this year? No more nose-leading - from people or otherwise!" I asked Man Yung. "Let's try this:

Not listening and nodding politely to bullshit by people who want other people to think they are experts at Tango just because they speak Spanish/come from Argentina/have been to Argentina/have been dancing for longer than you have (even if all that bullshit advice is free!);

Not trying to dance in a certain way just because it is trendy or because emulating the style of dancing will get you more points if you enter into a competition;

Not saying yes and agreeing to dance with leaders who dispense with the cabeceo and bully followers into dancing with them by going right up and asking/emotionally blackmailing them;

-  Not going to milongas when you are sure that the music will be disagreeable and/or the people will have no respect for floorcraft - just because lots of other people are going to be there/or because you have nothing else to do that night;

-  Not taking classes with visiting Tango Professionals just because they are exotically from abroad and/or they have "impressive" resumés and/or even if they are "famous" if they way they dance makes us want to gag/die of boredom;

- Not tolerating any zoo-like noise disturbances in the milonga - if we hear so much as a snort from the usual culprits, we will react with a whole lot of noise ourselves!;

- Not going to milongas when we know the already short dance time will be cut even shorter by long lectures/endless (and we really mean ENDLESS) birthday dances/ugly performances by mediocre visiting or "just plain bad" local "Tango VIPs"  and overenthusiastic requests by organizers for encores of same (Just say NO to Surprises!);

- Not going to milongas where the floor is so rough that pivoting on it gives you an 80% chance of dislocating both knees (even if the music, the dancers and everything else are A-OK!  We are old now and can't take any more injury!);

- Not dancing like it was 2006 (we swear, we have moved on since then!);

 "Wait a minute Irene.... We're already doing all of the above!" said Man Yung.

That's right!  It's going to be an excellent (Tango) year!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

80% Javier????

When we see a couple obviously (obliviously?) executing "exciting, show-stopping" moves learned from various "greats" from Youtube in a most grotesque, space-consuming and safety-threatening fashion in a local milonga, we scratch our heads and wonder what has got into them.  From the sheer enthusiasm they exhibit while kicking and leaping and spinning like there is no tomorrow (or other people on the dance floor), they must think that they are pretty awesome...but really, don't they know that they look absolutely TERRIBLE?

In fact, they may even look a little like this?:

Irene and Man Yung at a Practica in 2006... 
Thank god there's plenty of space, because if you put in just one more couple like Irene and Man Yung there, they will end up gancho-ing each other in the in the forehead!

"Wow Irene, where did you unearth that gem?  That's a video from the good ol' days!" said Man Yung.  "I've forgotten most of those thrilling movements. With this footage, I can remember these fancy moves and we can start practicing them again this weekend!"

"Man Yung, don't be ridiculous!  I'm trying to point out that people shouldn't be dancing like this in a milonga!"

...And indeed they shouldn't, because firstly, all that uncontrolled, expansive movement (and, don't forget - RABID ADORNING) on a crowded floor is dangerous.  Secondly, this dancing looks so bad onlookers may lose their lunch...or WORSE.

Man Yung protests.  "But it was so fun!"

"Sure, Man Yung...In fact, it's even MORE fun than you think, especially if you like to start fights with other Tangueros and do a little Ultimate Fighting right there on the dance floor!"

Looking back, we find our past Tango-selves quite amusing - and thank heavens that 1) we went to Buenos Aires to observe for ourselves how the Milongueros danced (whoops - they certainly didn't dance like us!), 2) we learned how to dance in close embrace, 3) we became a lot more sedate. Has our enjoyment of Tango decreased without all the gymnastics?  Not at all!  In fact, dancing Tango has become even more enjoyable, because instead of focusing on squeezing every known Tango movement in history into one song (regardless of the music), we are now...dancing!

And who can we thank for our "sea-change"?

Our video camera.

You see, before we started to film ourselves, we could only go by what other people said about our dancing (and come on, most of the people we hung out with were kind of at the same level as us - did they really know what they were talking about at that stage?) and what we thought about our dancing.  And the thinking went something like this:

With a little practice, I can do the same move/adornment as Javier/Chicho/Miguel/Geraldine/Milena/Alejandra.  OK, I'm not saying that I'm as GOOD as Javier/Chicho/Miguel/Roberto/Geraldine/Milena/Alejandra - but come on, maybe 80%?  70%?  Even 50% is enough to sweep the dance floor like dance floor heroes!

We can safely say to our 2006 selves (and to any Tanguero/Tanguera who continue to be high on the psychotropic substance known as "Tango Fantasy" and is still dancing kind of like our 2006 selves) - HEY GUYS!  WAKE UP!  IT'S MORE LIKE 0.1%.  OR PERHAPS EVEN 0.0000000001%.

We totally cringed in horror when we saw our 2006 video for the first time - and we have been cringing ever since with our weekly filmations.  By checking every week, at least we are completely up-to-date as to how bad we are!  When's the last time you've checked?*  **

* When we started dancing Tango in 2004, there were a lot of "80% Copes" and "80% Pablo Verons".  Then, starting 2005 and continuing to 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, there came the "80% Chichos" and "80% Naveiras", doing all their "New Tango" stuff.  After New Tango died (tee hee! - but wait, it might still come back from the dead) some dancers valiantly tried to be "80% Fabian Peralta", or at the very least, "80% Tango Championship Clone" (but failed).  These days with Youtube everyone can be "80% anybody!"  Except of course, the 80% of choice for rabid adornistas will always be "Geraldine".

** "How about Irene and Man Yung? How's your quest to be "80% Osvaldo and Coca" coming along?"  Well, it's failing miserably.  Osvaldo is constantly complaining - "Stop doing Martha and Manolo's moves!" But he doesn't know - we are actually doing moves...from Gavito.  And when Alberto complains that we should "Stop doing Osvaldo and Coca's moves!"... he doesn't know we are actually doing moves...from Portalea.  Sneaky Chinese people!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy 2013!

We dance less Tango during the holidays, but that doesn't mean we stayed at home for two weeks and did nothing but wave a string at a handful of playing cats (sorry kitties!)

We put on our chicken and rabbit toques and cozy parkas and went out walking in the park almost every day.  We weren't deterred at all by the snow!:

A beautiful, sunny - COLD day at the park. 
 All our Argentinian Facebook friends shivered when they looked at these photos

All that walking meant we worked up quite an appetite - and there were plenty of opportunities to get together with friends for delicious hot lunches at our favourite Chinese restaurant:

Two different types of boiling hot congee, roasted squab with prawn crackers, 
and Szechuan shrimp fried noodles

When we did stay home, we stuffed ourselves with massive amounts of chocolate and gained 20 pounds each:

Just kidding!  We had a very disciplined approach to eating chocolate.  Once a day, we would each select one chocolate from the box.  Then we would cut the chocolate into half - and we would get to each eat two different halves - double the taste but with the calories of one chocolate.  
We can still fit into our pre-Christmas pants!

I made progress with my Alice Starmore Eriskay Fisherman's Sweater:

Almost finished - just half a sleeve to go.  I started knitting Eriskay on October 8, 2010.  
Thank god it is a timeless, classic design - because if it wasn't, it would have been out of fashion at least twice by now!  If you are curious, the yarn I used is from Frangipani in the UK - I love knitting with their high quality guernsey yarns and I have been their happy customer for many years.

And when we went out dancing, we Tango-Crashed a New Year's Eve ballroom party at Mad for Dance studios:

Admiring the New Year's Eve decorations at Mad for Dance studios

Even though Michael and Raija of Mad for Dance studios have not hosted a milonga for many years now, the very first milonga we ever attended was held at their studio, and we still practice at their studio once every week.  We still support them and look forward and enjoy going to their special dances throughout the year.  They put a lot of time and effort into decorating their studio for these special events - and they always had delicious treats and drinks at all their parties, even when they organized a weekly milonga (and we didn't have to pay extra for the food!)  The special dances they have these days have more ballroom music than Tango music as they hold the dances for their ballroom dancing students and friends, but we still have a blast at their parties.  We only know one kind of dancing (actually two - we kind of know the basic Chacarera but how on earth can we do that to "Black Magic Woman"?), so we just do that kind of dancing to all of the music.  Yes, we are such dorks! We're pretty sure that we must seem quite weird to all the ballroom dancing people because we don't know any "quick-quick-slow" or "left-right-left-right"!

We murder "The Foxtrot" and "The Rumba" with "The Tango".  Don't try this at home!

Hope that everyone had a relaxing and joyful holiday season and all the best for a healthy, happy and prosperous 2013!

Toronto Weather

Buenos Aires Weather