It took an international publication (Gourmet, RIP) and a New York-based writer* Francis Lam to tell me about a hole-in-the-wall Cantonese barbecue stalwart in Scarborough. Granted it was in Scarborough (and I’m not a native Torontonian), but any food lover who: 1) likes pork; 2) loves roast meat and especially crispy skin; and 3) appreciates hard work and craftsmanship, would be just as curious about a place that promises delicious food.
But it wasn’t simply the food, which isn’t all that revolutionary, just well done – it’s a tried and trusted Cantonese barbecue shop, cheap and cheerful, no fuss and served its purpose (imagine if Berkshire pork was used. Oh la la), it was the beautifully written story by Lam (which was recognized as a finalist for a James Beard award. Please read it. Or re-read it. It is wonderful).
The central character of the piece was pig roaster, Jackie Wong, a master at his craft, who had been practicing his skills for over 30 years (at the time of the piece; closer to 40 now). Sadly, pig roasting, like noodle pulling, or fish ball making, it’s one of many dying culinary skills. It’s understandable since it’s a tough lifestyle: unglamorous, little financial gain, physically draining. It’s also easy to see why Si-Fu (and Lam) note that it’s not something that one would wish for their children.
“You see how tired I am,” he said. “This is not what my children go to school for.” He just told the story of the immigrant in one sentence.
I remember making my pilgrimage to Ho Ho BBQ shortly after reading the piece. I met Si-Fu, and we chatted as he piled lunch boxes full with generous heaps of golden pork and lacquered soya sauce braised chicken. It seemed to be something he didn’t expect given how many customers mainly come for his food, and less about acknowledging what wonderful things he was doing. He asked how I knew about his story, and I mentioned Lam’s piece.
He reminisced. He asked about Francis, and told me to tell him that he should visit sometime soon. (I did, and I did remind again when we met in Hong Kong a year after. I digress). I felt I needed to, as respect to Si-Fu, like how you would nag your sibling about visiting grandpa.
I had the roast pork. And that skin. Oh that incredible earth shattering crisp, bubbly blistered skin! A sensation achieved only because of many years honing a craft. So much respect. But my heart also grew heavier with each blissful bite, knowing that there was no one that this craft will pass on to.
It’s been a while since I’ve been back to Ho Ho to have Si-Fu’s beautiful crisp roast pork, or to “pay respects” and visit. Looks like I’m just as guilty.
* James Beard- and IACP-nominated food writer who is now Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter, columnist for the New York Times Magazine, “Top Chef Masters” judge, and genuinely great guy.
Side note: Francis Lam will be coming to Toronto to speak at Terroir Symopsium 2015. You can buy tickets now.
The Last Chinese BBQ by Francis Lam (Gourmet 2009) – a must read. I miss Gourmet magazine.
Gallery: Ho Ho BBQ