We'd heard about a Filipino institution in North York serving a large Filipino community at Bathurst and Wilson. We trekked out to try some of the delicious food on offer and didn't regret the journey at all. The restaurant serves a unique, refreshing take on Filipino cuisine by marrying it heavily with Chinese influences. The results are a hidden gem in North York serving food found nowhere else in the city.
Andrew: How’s business going?
Sam: It’s stable. It’s steady. Actually we now maybe go up a little bit, 20 per cent, compared to two years ago. This year we’re marking about thirteen years.
Aisha: When you opened 13 years ago were there a lot of Filipino stores and restaurants?
S: Not the first but maybe one of the…20. But now it’s become maybe 40 or 50.
A: So why don’t we ask you about—what’s so interesting about this restaurant is that it’s not just Filipino food, but it’s like Filipino fusion with Chinese food—tell me a little bit about why you wanted to open up a restaurant that serves that kind of menu?
S: I’m a former chef, so that’s why I make this; I was a former executive chef at a private club for over 25 years in a private club downtown. I resigned in 2005 and I came here, but with a group of people, of Filipino friends. They gave it a name; we hired some Filipino chefs, so training us to follow the Filipino cuisine. No way you know all—we read the book, we read the recipe, but still.
Aisha: You weren’t trained in Filipino cuisine; it wasn’t your specialty?
S: Ahhh…continental (specialty). I was a trained chef here, in Canada. Like Western. My staff here has a lot of Filipino though. Filipino friend, he filled out the name, Sampaguita, and the national flower, jasmine.
Aisha: 25 years you worked at the private club as a chef—what was that like?
S: I was under a lot of pressure. You have to be creative and take initiative. You have to produce. You have to change the menu, you have to create the dishes, you work with the members. So that’s how I got involved in cooking a lot of dishes around the world. Every month we would cook one international dish, every month at that private club. So that’s what allowed us, allowed me to learn country cuisines.
A: Do you have a favourite international cuisine you like cooking?
S: Yeah definitely. I think sometimes I cook Roman cookery. Aisha: Roman?
S: Roman. From a 17th century recipe; so no salt, no pepper.
A: No salt, no pepper, that’s a challenge! So tell me more about yourself Sam. What made you want to do cooking as a career? Even 30/40 years ago it wasn’t an easy profession.
S: When I grew up I was involved in cooking for myself and my sister. When I was eleven years old, sort of, Mom and Dad and whole family, they taught me and my sister. So first you learn to reheat. And then maybe a year later when I was 12 years old, you start to learn from mom.
Aisha: So where is your sister now?
S: She’s in Calgary.
A: Is she also a cook?
S: She’s a former…she owned a restaurant by herself but she sold the restaurant. It was too much for her, too much for the family. I’m lucky that people have hung around.
A: So I guess you’ve been cooking since you were a child, so what was your favourite thing to make as a child? And also I wanted to ask you, if it was your last day on Earth, you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would be your last meal?
S: That’s a good question. I would say I’d have a nice soup.
A: A nice soup? What kind of soup? What’s in the soup?
S: Leek and potato. It’s my favourite. I cook for so many, and so much and I enjoy it.
Aisha: With cream?
S: Yeah light cream. And then I put some lovage, herbs…lovage it means like…close to celery flavouring.
A: So now let’s move to this restaurant, Sampaguita Village. What’s the most popular dish here and why do you think it’s so popular?
S: I would say the noodles…the pancit sampaguita, and then kawli, roast pork belly. What else? And the soup, the sinigang, tamarind with fennel or tamarind soup with pompano.
A: So you’ve had this restaurant for thirteen years and in your view how has the neighbourhood around the restaurant changed? Or has it mostly stayed the same?
S: We probably set the standard, being first. The food has to be fresh, it has to be quality, it has to be well portioned, and it has to be fast. When we’re talking about à la carte—you know à la carte?
S: When you order and then you cook and lots of customers, they have no time to wait for it. But we changed that. We changed that perception. We say “come to us, give us eight or ten minutes and then you’ll have fresh food.”
Aisha: And that’s exactly how long it took!
S: Yeah, yeah, tonight we have five chefs but Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, we have eight chefs. We keep up with the speed, with the orders and the demand. They phone in, they order online and then pick up, so we keep up.
A: So just to ask, how long have you been in Toronto? Were you born and raised here? Or did you…
S: Pretty much I grew up in Canada. But when I came here I was a chef already. I went to school in Red Deer, Alberta—55,000 population—and then we moved out to Calgary school for college in the culinary arts, at SAIT school.
A: And here you are, living in Toronto for how long now?
S: I’d say almost 32 years. Back in 1999 I was working part-time at a kitchen. You know Baycrest Hospital? They changed it to a clothes store now but I was a part-time chef there.
A: Since you’ve been in Toronto such a long time, what’s your favourite thing about the city?
S: Diversity. The ethnic groups, and how people gel together and embrace together. I will see that. You come to the city and you walk down the street and you hear people talking in Hebrew, talking in Cantonese, talking in Mandarin…but there’s still…they feel like the same society.
Aisha: Is your background Cantonese or Filipino?
Aisha: Oh, but you have a Filipino restaurant?
S: Like I said, I worked with Filipino people and sort of embraced the food.
A: And you do it well! So, if you’re not eating at the restaurant, where in Toronto is your favourite place to eat?
S: Highway 7. New Choice on Highway 7.
A: What do they serve there?
S: Chinese food. Steamed tilapia. Steamed baos. I like steamed fish. With ginger and onions and a little bit of soy sauce. I even tell them sometimes, instead of putting vegetable oil to mix in some coconut oil, to kick up the flavouring. The superfood now, the coconut. The thing now is avocado, and then bitter melon and then goat cheese. Every year, the media or the trendy people want a super food. So lately it’s coconut. I like persimmon too.
A: So out of curiosity, do you read reviews of your restaurant, or no, you don’t pay attention to that?
S: I read them sometimes, but mostly my daughter. She takes care of that, the media, the social relationships…she has the website, the Facebook. My daughter.
A: How do you feel when you read a good review, versus when you read a bad one? How does it affect you?
S: It’s a wake-up call. You have to pull yourself together and review it. How does this happen, how did it come out like that? We better avoid it for sure. We have to befriend it, that’s what my policy is. You can’t leave it like that and then do nothing. You have to review it and change. For me, I demand a lot. I require a lot from my staff—no excuses. When there’s a bad review some people complain or say something, you have to take responsibility. You have to fix it, you have to find a way to improve it and prevent it. You have to find a way to be better, and do your due diligence.
A: Was business always good? I imagine when you’re starting out, running a restaurant is really hard, where there are times in which you struggled running the restaurant? And if so, tell me about that.
S: Don’t get me wrong, we’ve come a long way. The first three months, we were in the red over $46,000. The first three months.
A: You were in debt by over $46,000?
S: Yeah, the first three months. I remember Wednesday night on July 7th or something, it was eight o’ clock and no one was coming. For the whole night from 4:30 to 8, nobody came. So that’s when I told myself we had to change to menu. We had to prove to the people, what we were capable of and what we could accomplish. And after 18 months, slowly we were turning it around. And then it really took off in 2009, after four years we were doing the business.
A: And now you’re here for 13 years, which is a long time, most restaurants don’t survive that long.
S: Well we wouldn’t have survived after three months either but lots of customers and friends encouraged me, “hang in there, Sam.” I was tempted to sell the restaurant a few times but nobody would take it.
Aisha: What’s the future for the restaurant?
S: Future? I think keeping up what we’re doing, probably to see if my daughter or my son can take over.
Aisha: And has it been difficult to have a work-life balance? Running the restaurant, is it a 24-hour job?
S: Not anymore. But I think we’ve divided it out, with my daughter and my son. I would say maybe the last three years I can feel more life and I can enjoy it more.
A: So you’re getting better sleep now?
S: Yeah better sleep. But I can remember one time, 4:30 in the morning because the alarm company was calling, and somehow the back door was open. So 4:30, get up, with no shower, no tea, just get down here at 5:30 and the back door was open. It was lightly closed but it wasn’t locked, so when the wind picked up it opened and the alarm sounded and then the company called me at 4:30 in the morning.
A: So in spite of how hard it is, you’re still doing it. So what’s the best part of this job? What do you look forward to? What makes you get up every day and come to the restaurant?
S: I enjoy the people. I learn from the people and share stories with the people. And then what inspires me the most is I can hire more, the top students, and here we have some of the students who are single mothers.
A: So you’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time but I can imagine when you’re starting out there’s some people who helped you. Is there anyone you looked up to when you were in the restaurant business and did they give you any advice that really helped you?
S: I learned a lot from a lot of my previous owners, when I worked in the small restaurants in Alberta, like in Olds and Innisfil, some small town in Calgary. Hong Kong boss. That’s what I learned from them.
A: What did he teach you?
S: Keep up your work and don’t overspend your money. And don’t gamble. You know how the Chinese are?
A: All right very nice. So the last question I have is, if someone wanted to open a restaurant today, someone went to you and asked you, “Sam, what advice do you have for me?” What would you tell them?
S: Don’t take it for granted. Do everything if you can. You have to be sure you’re knowledgeable about what your expertise is. But most people nowadays are too rushed and after 3 months they close. They quit, they close, because they can’t pay their rent and their labour. Never mind about your own salary because it’s your business. Even my sister-in-law she wants to start a bakery with a line of desserts. I told them to go back to Humber, and then apprentice under some Baker first.
Andrew: Thank you so much for your time! That’s all we have.
Sampaguita Village Family Restaurant
322 Wilson Ave
North York, ON