As I walk into the restaurant that is under construction I get that countdown to Christmas feeling. You know, when it’s around the 5th or 6th day of December, and you have less than three weeks until you get to open up all your gifts. Time is moving in this weird slow/fast motion. But here, Christmas Day is when the much anticipated GongFu Bao finally arrives and opens its doors! I eagerly await to open all of my presents, which in this case are the variety of delicious bao buns that I need to chow down on immediately.
From being inspired at an early age by Chinese Cinema and John Wu movies, to immersing himself in the Chinese culinary history and discipline, Tarek brings humble ideas of chinese food to the city, with a little bit of funk added to the mix.
Working in Ottawa for the past decade myself, it’s people like Tarek that I’ve seen here and there, but have never gotten the opportunity to sit down and actually talk to. What’s great about our community is that the moment I reached out and asked to chat, he was down. The second we formally shook hands and the conversation started, it was like we were catching up on old times. That’s something you can’t get without a mutual respect for what we do and the love we put into our food.
5 years ago Tarek Hassan decided to open up a food truck, and we’ve been reaping the rewards ever since. It’s a daunting task to start your own business, whether it’s a food truck or a full scale restaurant. But through those 5 years of owning the cart, Tarek learned how to build a business, how to brand himself not only as a Chef, but as a concept (specializing in Bao, with everything else being extensions of that), and how to make that concept come together to establish his name in the Capital.
A huge lesson I learned from my talk with Tarek is the idea of Scope, and how that can really benefit a Chef when they realize what they want to do with their food. Once you realize what your scope is - as it pertains to your ideas and how that extends to the food you’re creating - you become more disciplined and stay within a range that allows you to become successful and in actuality more creative. This goes back to David at The Ketchup Project who talked about staying away from doing a “spicy ketchup” because you can find that pretty much anywhere and isn’t unique to what he’s doing. Once you know your scope, you can specialize in what you focus on. When you don’t have this direction, you sometimes find that people will start with an idea and then create too many extensions of that, becoming a jack of all trades but a master of none.
There’s a reason why Tarek talks about scope and why he chose the name GongFu Bao. Through hard work, perseverance, and practice you achieve a discipline and skill set. This couldn’t be any more truthful when it comes to the craft of culinary arts. This becomes the fundamentals for becoming a great cook and in time a great Chef. Tarek formed this discipline that we can see come forth through his bao buns with years of perfecting what flavours work together. He honours the Chinese cuisine influences while adding a little taste of home, but not the other way around. For example, he’s created a sticky pork belly Bao that uses maple syrup instead of rice syrup which is what the Chinese conventionally use in Hong Kong. Taking an R&D trip to Hong Kong gave Tarek the inspiration on how to recreate and bring a lot of what he was eating over there back to an Ottawa market and thus into a restaurant environment.
As young cooks go to work for Tarek I get a good sense about one thing for sure, you will have the GongFu Bao discipline instilled in you. There might not be fancy dots on plates but the food is love. You learn fundamentals and comprehending the idea of bringing two or more cultures together with respect, through the creation of his food.
Tarek couldn’t speak highly enough of the Chefs and owners in our community who’ve helped him along the way not only for the past 5 years, but through the process of opening up 365 Bank St. It’s really great hearing this because that’s what Sauce / on Side is all about as well, that sense of community and everyone trying to do a good thing. GongFu Bao is going to be the place where you see a lot of familiar faces on a constant basis, because we already know what Tarek can do. Now, with his new platform to showcase his Baos I can guarantee this is going to be a regular spot for many people in the city!
EpilogueAs I rush to close down my station after a Saturday lunch service I’ve got one thing on my mind: get to 365 Bank street! The night prior I see on GongFuBaos instagram that the soft-opening is happening and I want to be one of the first to get my hands on his buns! Oh relax I’m talking about BAOs!! A quick Uber over and there’s already a line up out the door an hour into opening. I order a Beef Brisket Bao and an order of Turducken Sui Mai dumplings. A couple of minutes was all it took for me to inhale the food, so much so that I forgot to take a picture of the dumplings for the ‘gram. If this is only the beginning, than holy smokes I’m excited for what’s to come. We’re in good hands Ottawa, as long as what’s in ours are these delicious buns.