Tiffany Cafe is a new restaurant in the Yonge and Wellesley area, specializing in bao, soups and other lunch time favorites. We originally met James on a whim, noticing his new restaurant and deciding we needed to try it. Great food, great company.
Sadi: Hey how's the business going?
James: It's going like hit and miss.
S: Like usually in the daytime?
J: More like in the lunch crowd, yeah. A lot is like the regulars.
S: So in the evening, it tends to slow down a lot?
J: More like 12-3...
S: What's the most popular dish the one that people usually get?
J: I think right now, it's the roast carrot and ginger soup.
S: Oh really, people really like it?
J: They love it.
S: Are you surprised?
J: Yeah, because when they taste it, they taste its freshness, and all the ingredients in it.
S: So you have alot of items on your menu, so tell us, which is the item you are most proud of?
J: I think...bao. Because they're like our signature right? So we tried it to make it like a bao house. Right now we do the beef, it's the most famous dish, most popular one.
S: Why bao?
J: Bao is actually like the last second idea.
S: Oh really? So why bao? What were the other ideas?
J: I can tell you the truth. I've never tasted the bao before.
J: And the bao idea came from my wife, which is why I named it after her. She introduced me to bao, and that's when I fell in love with it.
S: What did it taste like? What was in the first bao you ever ate?
J: Honestly, I just bought the bun, and cooked it at home.
S: What did you put in it?
J: I put aoili, chicken, and avocado. That's it. Then that's what I ate for the whole week.
J: That's how much I love it. I didn't put anything else. That's it.
S: So you named your cafe after your wife. What did your wife think about that?
J: I think she thinks...for me...when we were thinking about a name for this place, we were thinking for a while...and how can I answer this...
S: Was it important, was it a big deal to you?
J: It wasn't...important, it was just about where I got my inspiration. I wanted to cook something she loves. She loves the bao. We're also not thinking about just opening one. We want to be successful.
S: So you mentioned that your wife was your inspiration for the naming. Could you tell us how you met your wife?
J: Ummm...we met through a friend.
S: In Toronto?
J: Yeah, in Toronto.
S: Oh okay, so how did that happen?
J: Well we met through a friend, he knew her, we met up, and we talked on QQ. We just started talking, we chatted for a little bit, we met up. I brought her to the CN Tower on our first date...that's how we met up. So it's been just over 5 years this year. We just got married this year.
"They were hiring everybody. So I just walked in, I didn't really know English, I didn't have a resume. I was like 'you guys hiring?' and they said 'Yes, what are you looking for?' and I said 'Anything'. 'Dishwasher, peeling potatoes, chopping onions' I said 'Sure, why not?'" - James
J: We got married, we opened a restaurant.
S: So you guys must be really happy.
J: Yeah, everything really came together this year.
S: What is it about your wife that you admire?
J: She is uh...very simple person. She is very...pure. She's been in Canada for over 10 years, but she hasn't been outside a lot. She was born into a richer family. She never had to work with other people. She's kind of...
J: Yeah. So she's very simple, doesn't overthink things, even when we opened the business. She didn't think about what kind of restaurant it was going to be, because I loved the business, she supported it. Either way she was happy.
S: So tell us a bit about your background, with food and restaurants.
J: I have been...in Canada since...2001. I moved here...by myself, when I was 16. Then...I had to get a job, to support myself. But at the same time, to support my family too. I thought that the restaurant industry would be the easiest way to get a job.
S: So you came here in 2001?
J: I came here in 2001, I was 16.
S: Where did you come from?
J: From Guangdong. I came here by myself, I was living with my uncle right? Then when I was 18, I moved out. I was still going to school, in high school. And when I was going to high school, I never thought my career was going to be a chef. I was thinking something like Accounting, I originally starting working in a restaurant to support myself. To pay for rent, so I got into the restaurant, it was newly opening. They were hiring everybody. So I just walked in, I didn't really know English, I didn't have a resume. I was like 'You guys hiring?' and they said 'Yes, what are you looking for?' and I said 'Anything'. 'Dishwasher, peeling potatoes, chopping onions' I said 'Sure, why not?' So I started working there, I was 17. I went home, told my uncle I got a job. He asked 'What kind of a job?' and I said 'Working in a restaurant.' So he said 'What's the name of the restaurant?' and I said 'I don't know.' Because my English was very poor, I could barely speak English. I didn't even know exactly where it was, it was just beside my school. So I would go there after school every day, I started as a dishwasher, I moved up to become a sous chef in five years.
S: What did the restaurant make?
J: It was called Rude Native. It was like a fusion restaurant. Pad Thai, salads...
"I went straight to Susur Lee...without a resume. Because when I was going to George Brown, I wrote a letter, in Chinese, telling him I wanted to work for him. How much I wanted to learn from him, and how much I loved cooking." - James
S: Are they still open?
J: No they're closed now. I started when they had 3 restaurants. At my first Christmas party, they said their goal was to open one restaurant every year. When they had 6, I had been there for 4 years, the owner came up to me and said 'I think you have enough here. I'm going to send you to school.' He signed me up for George Brown Coop, I didn't have to pay for anything, since it was with the company. So I started a two year internship, worked at a couple of restaurants in Toronto. Most of my time was in Burlington. So when I graduated, the head chef gave me a call he said 'Why don't you come back to help me'. So I went back for another five years and worked with him.
S: So this chef that put you through school, and gave you a call and helped you out. Did you look up to him? And what was it about him that you looked up to?
J: I used to live with him together too. For like, 3 years. He's from Ireland. He taught me a lot about cooking. Even when we had a management meeting, he would grab me and drag me along and say you have to sit in too, he made me feel like I'm a very important part of the business. He was a very hard worker too.
S: So when did you move to Toronto, and what do you think of the city?
J: I've been here....4/5 years, and a lot of the time actually I've been in Scarborough. When I finished my last job in Burlington, I moved to Toronto, I went straight to Susur Lee...without a resume. Because when I was going to George Brown, I wrote a letter, in Chinese, telling him I wanted to work for him. How much I wanted to learn from him, and how much I loved cooking. So I wrote that letter in 2007/2008 and I still had it with me when I approached him a few years ago. So I went up to him, I told him I had his book, I had a letter for him and I told him I wanted to work for him. So he felt how much I loved him and he accepted me right away.
S: So you went to work for him right away?
J: Yeah I went to work right away. Not for very long because I knew I wasn't going to be there very long. I just wanted to see how he ran a business. I just wanted to see a picture of the inside.
S: Get an idea?
J: Yeah. I knew he wasn't there. I wasn't going to learn hand to hand from him. All of the stuff he's doing now, he's not there. But if he was there, I would have probably stayed there longer.
S: What would you say you learned from working there?
J: From there? How the real kitchen works. How cleaned and organized things are supposed to be. The high standards things are kept at. It's not like a normal kitchen. There's always something to do, even when it's not busy.
S: What was the most interesting story you have, or one day you'll always remember from your past work experience in a restaurant?
J: Honestly for me, every restaurant that I work at, I love the regulars. That's what makes me more positive about cooking. When a regular comes in, they don't have to look at the menu. They just want me to cook...what I want to cook for them.
S: So where are you a regular? Where's your favorite spot in the city?
J: My favorite spot? ...I love sushi. There's a spot at Victoria Park and Finch.
S: What made you realize you wanted to open a restaurant. It's a very difficult business to get into, so what was the moment that made you decide you were going to open a restaurant?
J: I think...the moment I believed that I could be successful in the restaurant business was when I was still living in Burlington, I was working at a restaurant called the Honeywest. I was the head chef there for almost four years. To me, it was eye opening to see the restaurant and be there from when it was just okay, to when I brought it to its peak busiest. I saw that it became successful. It wasn't all me obviously, there was a whole team involved, inside and outside the kitchen, the customers, the staff. From that point on, I knew. My boss would always sit me down all the time, in good times and in bad times. He would show me his bank account. He would tell me, 'This week, we're a little short. What do we have to do to make it through?' That's how much he trusted me to run his business. And he would also tell me 'We had a good week, let's go party. We're gonna go out.' 'We had a bad week, we're going to have to tighten the staff a little bit, and we have to do the order with a little more detail.' I left the restaurant when it was very successful. They were making very good money. That's what made me think 'I think I can run my own restaurant.'
S: So if it was so successful, why did you leave?
J: I was there for four years right? But even now, when I speak to him, he says 'When are you coming back?' I still go to him for questions, for advice and help, and he says 'When are you coming back?'
S: Why did he trust you so much, with his business?
J: Because I would wake up at ten in the morning, to ask him to go to the Chinese market to get all our stuff that we need. That wasn't my job. That's how much money I wanted to save for his business and how much I wanted to see his business grow to be successful. We would get drunk on a Saturday night, but we would wake up at 9AM on Sunday, we would drive to the Chinese market and would get whatever we had to get.
S: So now that you have the regulars coming in, do you have a favorite person that comes in?
J: Yes. This one guy...he's been here pretty much every single day.
S: Really? What does he get?
J: Every day it's different.
S: Is he a lunch time guy?
J: Yeah every day around 2 o'clock. He comes in, he doesn't have to order. I cook whatever I want for him. Every day he leaves happy, he doesn't worry about the price.
S: What about the worst customer? Did you ever have a bad experience here?
J: No not really.
S: What was the hardest thing about starting a business? What was your biggest challenge in starting it?
J: To be honest, now is the most difficult time. We got the business going, we have it running now, but now it's time to get the customers in the door. I believe my cooking is fine, but the hardest thing is 'How do I get the customers in here?'
S: So if someone was going to open a restaurant, what's the piece of advice you would give them?
J: I would tell them...you need to have money to back it up. That's very important.
S: And what's the best advice you ever got or someone gave to you?
J: Work hard, and believe in what you can do, and it will all come together.
S: And do you believe that?
J: I believe it! I mean...we're not that busy every day. But I don't feel disappointed about what I'm doing, I don't feel stressed out. Because I believe in the business and that it will come together.
S: So that leads us to 'Why should customers come to your restaurant?' What would you tell them to convince them to eat here?
J: That's what I'm trying to focus on right now, to make it into an interesting story. They can come in and I can offer them a bao, but I want them to come in and I want them to know the story. I want them to know what we are selling.
S: So what's next for the restaurant?
J: We're looking at another location. Not a franchise, maybe something different. Right now, we might not be making the most money here, but I believe in it. In like three months or six months, we'll be fine here. That's the business I am in now. It takes time to open a business. It took me almost two years to open this one. We took almost a year just to negotiate the lease, the deal with the building owner. The number of places we looked at before settling on this location...you have no idea.
S: Well best of luck in the future, and I wish you nothing but the best with your business.
J: Thanks for asking, I hope I could help. I tried to answer as honest as I could, however I felt about things.
S: For sure, we loved it. Thank you for giving us the time, I'm sure you guys will be doing great here!
648 Yonge St.