Lotus Garden is a well renowned Hakka restaurant in Scarborough. It's long had a reputation for having some of the best Hakka food in the city, a fact that we can attest to. Dave and his family were kind enough to sit down with us after yet another visit and tell us their story.
Sadi: So I just wanted to start by asking how business is going these days?
Dave: Uhh, not bad.
S: Is this usually a busy time for you? When is the busy time for you?
D: December is kind of busier...but closer to the next two weeks before Christmas - it gets really busy.
S: And how long have you had this restaurant?
D: Well we’ve been here for five to six years.
S: And why did you end up deciding this neighborhood?
D: Well we did not plan on deciding on this neighborhood. It sort of came to us by accident. Uhh...someone my dad knew had owned this restaurant. It wasn't making a lot, and so he found another place...and so we kind of took it over for him.
S: Was it Hakka at that time too?
D: Yes but under a different name.
S: So what is the idea behind the name change...or why Lotus Garden?
D: Honestly, we just came up with that name.
S: It just sounded nice?
D: There wasn't any significant meaning or anything.
S: So then what would you say is the most popular dish here?
D: The most popular...it's the chilli chicken.
S: Chilli chicken.
D: Ya. That's probably...uhh...in any Hakka restaurant - chilli chicken is definitely doing to be the most popular dish.
S: Which dish is the one that people really do not order that often but you would really like them to try. You really want them to order it?
D: Uhh Mongolian is really good.
S: So Mongolian chicken.
D: Yeah the Mongolian chicken. Not a lot of people try it but it's really good.
S: So then what would be the dish you are the most proud of I guess?
D: We're proud of all our dishes. Ya - we do chilli chicken really well here. That is why a lot of people like it. And the chow mein is quite popular here as well. The noodles.
S: Umm is there anything that you guys haven't put on the menu that sometimes you guys think about or are unsure about? Anything like that?
D: We have, yes. Of course we have a lot of stuff that we don't put on the menu. It depends on the clientele right? So Hakka people - so we get a lot of local Hakka, our own Hakka people come. Sometimes they ask for more traditional Hakka dishes. We only make that on special request?
S: So you guys are telling me you have a secret menu? You have a secret menu? [laughter]. Can you give an example?
D: Like the noodles. You guys had the noodles right?
S: Ya the chow mein.
D: So we have two or three different versions of that. One is a sweet one. That is quite popular. And one is plainer with less veggies and stuff. We mix that with wonton.
Andrew: So that sounds pretty tasty.
D: Some of these dishes are more Hakka traditional dishes. I don't know how familiar you guys are with Hakka food, or what you know about it - the version that is in Toronto.
A: Ya so that is the version that I am familiar with at least. Is there another version I should be aware of?
D: It is not traditional Hakka food.
A: Ok I see.
D: The reason is that many of the Hakka people here are from India. So the food we make in the restaurant is like a fusion almost. It is a bit more spicy than normal Chinese food, you know. So...but traditional Hakka food is a little bit different too.
S: That is interesting. That is good to know. So are there places in Toronto where you can get that traditional Hakka food? Do you know to your knowledge?
D: Not to my knowledge. Nobody. Some may do it but most won't do it.
S: So that leads to the question for me that I am curious about. So when you have a day of, I know in the restaurant industry that is very rare - but when you have a day off and you want to go out and eat, where do you like to go?
D: Uhh, we try all sorts of restaurants. But mainly like Cantonese or mainlander China food. And we eat a lot of Indian food of course.
A: So do you guys have a favorite place you go to or try out a lot?
D: We just go all over the place. Ya.
A: Were you always in the restaurant industry or...
D: Well my father has always been. He's been...well probably among all the Hakka chefs in Toronto, he's been at it the longest. I mean from India...uhh we already had a catering business all the way from my grandfathers.
A: Oh wow. Like what did your...do you happen to know what your grandfather catered?
D: Chinese food. Hakka Chinese food.
S: So I guess was it almost, it was not difficult for you then to decide that you were going to be in the restaurant industry?
D: My dad, even when we came here has been working at different Hakka restaurants. But for us, me and my brother - no it wasn't until we got older, then you know, "let's try it." Yeah.
A: So then how did the decision come to be made? Do you remember that day when you went to your brother and was like "we're going to open up a restaurant?"
D: Well, my dad came and said you know, my brother has been thinking about it. He went to George Brown, to chef school there. So he had been thinking about it. So when the opportunity came up, he just said "why not try it out?" You know, pass the skill on from my dad. So it was actually more him than me.
S: So then what would you say is the best piece of advice your father gave you, ever gave you guys?
D: You mean in terms of cooking?
S: It can be even life.
D: I don't know. My dad is just easygoing. You have to be in the restaurant business. Easygoing. Just easygoing. There is always - like when it is a rush, everybody is yelling and screaming all the time right? You know the restaurant in the back. So you know, you gotta be easygoing.
A: And just kind of another question. So you know, many people they discover restaurants by searching online and then some of them might post reviews. So out of curiosity, do you - have you ever read any reviews about your restaurant.
D: I have. I have looked it up once in while on Yelp.
S: Do you guys pay attention to that sort of thing? Does it matter to you guys?
D: Not too much, no.
A: We ask - like when you see a good review what do you think versus say when you see a bad review for example?
D: Like of course, when you see a good review, it makes you feel good. And the bad...well you know. Most of our customers are regulars. You know so.
S: So to your knowledge, how has the neighborhood changed over the last 5 to 6 years? Have you noticed a difference in customer base or the type of people coming in or anything like that?
D: No. Not really. Typically we get a lot of people from Bangladesh. This area. So we get a lot. Most people who eat Hakka food are from India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. They like our style of Chinese food. So we get a lot of people from those countries.
A: So just kind of a question - back to when you were starting out. It sounds like business is going well now right? But has it always been the case it has gone well or has there been tough times?
D: First year was completely dead when we took over. That is why that other person before was in a hurry to get rid of this place. It takes time to build a restaurant. You not going to get successful right away. You do not buy a business that's thriving right? You buy one that has no business - it's going to take a while. Any place, it will take a year or two. Then after the first year, you see your customer base building, right? People start learning about your food. And we never really advertised our food. We never delivered flyers. We never done any of that. All our customers are from word of mouth.
A: So during those tough times, was it hard for you guys or did you know this was going to be temporary? How did you get out of it?
D: We know our food is good. Right, you know? And just, we know that if we slowly build it up, people will slowly come back. So that is how it starts. So as time goes on, you see your customer base building.
A: And that has kept you motivated to keep cooking?
A: Cool. And what would you say, and I believe you alluded to it but what is the best part of this job?
D: You know, I think it's the freedom of owning your own business. You get to control a lot of things whereas if you are working for someone else, you cannot do that. Like we do most of the cooking ourselves. So we control what we make. That's why our quality is much better, then say where the owner is absent and it's all cooked by somebody else. In that case, you cannot control your food quality.
S: That's interesting.
D: So if you take pride in your food and cooking like us, then you will make it better right?
S: That's very cool. So let me ask you - if someone was going to open up a restaurant today and you could only give them one piece of advice, what would you tell them?
D: Be prepared. Be prepared that in the beginning, it will be tough. It is always very tough in the beginning. In the restaurant - it is not easy. There are a lot of long hours. And a lot of situations come up all the time. You know? Any place. You know one day, the heating is broken. Another day the stove is broken. I'm sorry. You know. People break in. All sorts of stuff happens all the time. You have to be able to deal with that.
S: If you were to eat one last meal, what would your last meal be?
D: Last meal...hmm...I need to think about this. This is a good question. Probably a chilli fish, dried.
S: Really? Who would be making it?
D: Well I will be making it myself. [laughter]
A: That's pretty awesome.
D: You guys tried the chilli chicken and fish right?
A: No. We did not try either. We tried the Manchurian fish.
D: Chilli fish, you have to try dry. Because chilli chicken and fish, most people serve with gravy. But dried is different. It is the same flavor, but it comes out different.
S: I see. Does your dad still cook these days?
D: Ya. That there is actually my dad. (Pointing)
A: Oh nice.
D: Ya he still comes out and helps out.
A: And since you are from a family of cooks and since we're interested in cooking, what would you say is a piece of advice to someone who is just interested in cooking? Not necessarily owning a restaurant but just cooking.
D: You have to love to eat to cook. I see people who cook. You can teach them all you want but unless they love food, they are not going to cook well. You got to love the food to eat and to enjoy the food. Then you will cook well.
Alex: I am kind of curious. What is it like to own a family business, working with your dad or brother? I mean your brother is slaving away back there. It's amazing.
D: I don't know. It has its pluses or minuses.
S: Do you think it's easier or worse than say if it was a business with somebody else?
D: Working with family? I think it's easier. It's easier to communicate and if I have a problem, I just say it right? My brother cooks something that does not look right. I just tell him it doesn't look right and he'll cook it again. You won't - like if you tell someone else they might get insulted or whatever right? It's easier with the family to just communicate I guess.
S: I think that wraps it up for us. Thank you very much!
Lotus Garden Hakka Indian Style Chinese Cuisine
3460 Danforth Ave