As part of the Canada 150 celebrations happening this year, we’ll be exploring Canadian food from coast to coast all year long. In our Canada’s Chefs series, Tiffany Mayer will be profiling Canadian Chefs from every province embracing Canadian cuisine. This month she interviews Chef Matthias Fong of Calgary's River Café, who brings a creative and academic focus to finding Canadian alternatives to common but non-local ingredients.
Matthias Fong was a studious sociology major in university.
Problem was, he was more inclined to bone up on food scientist Harold McGee’s findings rather than those of sociology’s elder statesman, Emile Durkheim. Even when writing essays, Fong always tried to tie his theses to food — not an easy task given his concentration was crime.
“A lot of my reports I wrote in school were about what was happening in kitchens,” Fong recalled with a laugh.
If there are any wrongdoings the young chef theorizes about these days, it’s missing the opportunity to incorporate local ingredients into the dishes he skillfully turns out at Calgary’s River Café. Fong is a master at using cherry and pear juice in mimosas instead of tropical orange, for example, sumac for brightness instead of lemon, and beer tap runoff to make vinegar. In the process, he’s establishing the norms of truly Canadian cuisine in the heart of Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park.
“In Calgary, there are tons of restaurants and many are opening as we speak,” Fong, 28, said. “But our location is unique and we’re in a position now to have an impact. There was no one giving Canadian food a chance. All other foods were flourishing, like Italian … but no one was putting that effort into Canadian food. For me, it was an opportunity to put the research into it.”
Fong’s approach to food is as creative as it is academic. His work could easily be a book one day if not a PhD thesis. But Fong is as humble as he is thoughtful about cooking. Rather than rest on laurels (they aren’t native to Canada anyway), he pushes himself harder in his search for Canadian alternatives to menu items that we, as diners, take for granted.
“I don’t feel we’ve accomplished anything yet,” Fong admitted. “That’s maybe some of my own restlessness. I look at all these cuisines and they all have cookbooks. They all have unique stories to tell. There are so many great chefs. It’s not a competition of who’s a better chef, it’s what we’re putting our time towards. For me, it’s putting it toward the Canadian experience.”
Fong’s own experience with food while growing up seems typically Canadian. His family immigrated from Hong Kong and not unlike many first generation Canucks, Fong ate foods that harkened back to his family’s homeland and others that channelled their new one.
He remembers sitting on the kitchen counter of his family’s Calgary home as a boy to watch his grandmother make dumplings and chicken feet. He tried to help as much as he could. “Helping or hurting, I can’t tell sometimes,” he said.
But he also ate his fair share of bologna sandwiches on gummy white bread.
“My parents worked very hard to raise us,” Fong said. “We ate a variety of things. At school, it was always sandwiches — two slices of white bread with lunch meat and a slice of processed cheese. I’ve had very mixed experiences with food growing up.”
It was those countertop sessions that really got him excited about the alchemy that is cooking, though. And it was in university that his curiosity became nearly insatiable. There were McGee’s distractions from his course syllabuses but Fong also fell for fine dining. He credited that to a short-lived career as a competitive badminton player that took him across Canada and allowed him to eat at many different tables.
Badminton doesn’t pay well, he noted, so he was at a bit of a crossroads as he got closer to graduating from the University of Calgary with his sociology degree.
Cooking or going to grad school were both options to purse. It was a good word, put in by River Café cook Joy Lee, that ultimately led him to a professional kitchen.
“It definitely helped to know someone. I joke with the chef who hired me, I say I don’t know why he bothered or took the chance because here was a guy with zero knowledge,” Fong said.
He was a quick study, though. Self-motivated and seeking an outlet for his competitive side that needed satisfying since stepping off the badminton court, Fong’s athleticism and agility made it easy to keep pace with others in the kitchen.
Behind the burner, he drew on a palate influenced by the diverse flavours of his childhood, even though today he eschews soy sauce in favour of fermented local grains to create a similar salty, umami profile. He continued reading every cookbook he could find then headed overseas.
He did a short stint in Marcus Wareing's London kitchen before returning to the River Café where he worked his way to executive chef nearly 10 years after first stepping into the kitchen.
“What the River Café offers is a philosophy of real food, sustainable food, food that gives back to the land, food that is local. Those values really stuck with me,” Fong explained.
They’ve remained relevant in a world where food security and provenance are now part of the diner’s lexicon. That’s why Fong has made it his mandate to forgo ingredients like citrus in his kitchen, and so deftly replace it with something Canadian — sumac, tangerine marigolds, lemon verbena.
No one misses what isn’t there, and that’s the goal, especially with those mimosas. “It’s ‘I have a glass of something in front of me that’s really delicious.’ ”
Still, it would be much easier to use the usual suspects. Fong knows that but his choice to do otherwise isn’t about being precious.
“I’ve had people look at me and say ‘That doesn’t make any sense. There’s lots of value of in those ingredients,’ ” he explained. “For me, for the food I want to develop, it’s not focused. If I don’t narrow the focus, I’m always going to be cooking so many types of food and someone else’s food.”
And Fong wants to cook Canadian cuisine, even if, so far, there isn’t a textbook definition of the concept.
“But we need the exploration of it and someone should do it,” he said. “It is worth pursuing. I hope one day people will look into it and say that’s interesting and apply these techniques to their cooking.”
- Canada's Chefs: Chef Ilona Daniel of PEI
- Canada’s Chefs: Dana and Cameron of Joy Road Catering
- Canada’s Chefs: Shawn Adler of Pow Wow Cafe
Canada’s Chefs is written by Tiffany Mayer, a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at eatingniagara.com. You can also listen to her newly launched food podcast, Grub.