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Asian and Pacific Islander chefs shaping the culinary future: A spotlight on API innovators

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By Sophie Brochu

In honor of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we spoke to a few chefs about what they love to cook and how they’re paving the way for the next generation.

How would you describe your cooking style?

C-Y Chia (Lion Dance Cafe) : I was born in Singapore, and I spent my childhood there before moving to France until my early twenties. Now, I’ve been in the US for just over a decade. I think that the techniques, ingredients, and flavors that I gravitate towards reflect my mixed heritage, personal taste, and past environments that I’ve been exposed to.

Sachin Obaid (Tiffin): We cook based on memories of home, staying true to tastes we know and love.

Nuit Regular (Kiin): Traditional Thai home-style cooking…but I’ve been expanding in style.

Melissa Miranda (Musang): My cooking philosophy is to keep it simple but honor the ingredients in ways that bring the most flavor without jeopardizing the integrity of each dish.

Thai Dang (HaiSous Vietnamese Kitchen): Progressively moving Vietnamese cuisine forward.

Apurva Panchal (Rooh SF): Simple food made desirable with local ingredients. Cooking is not always about using a lot of ingredients. It’s about how creative you can get with the minimum ingredients available.

Do you have a signature dish at your restaurant that pays homage to your heritage?

Melissa Miranda: Musang’s signature dish would most definitely be the short rib kare kare. This ulam dish—ulam translating loosely to “to be eaten with rice” or “large entree”—is traditionally served with oxtail. The addition of the short rib is our generation’s modern version of this classic dish with the same Filipinx flair that was instilled in my childhood.

Thai Dang: All my dishes pays homage to my birthplace of Vietnam.

Sachin Obaid: Our butter chicken is special because it’s the way we personally like it. It’s not too sweet and has the right level of spice, which makes it extremely well balanced. It immediately takes me back to the first butter chicken I had in Delhi; those flavors have stuck with me ever since.

Nuit Regular: Khao soi (coconut curry noodle soup) represents Northern Thailand, where I was born and raised.

C-Y Chia: The one that encapsulates my feelings about my Singaporean family is our a.s.s cookies. The acronym is a pun, making this dessert unforgettable just like them. A is for almond, s for sesame, and the second s is for shallot. Teochew people tend to put shallots in everything, and desserts are no exception. The aroma of shallot is actually very sweet, especially when cooked, and they lend a buttery depth to these cookies that crumble and melt in your mouth.

Apurva Panchal: We have traditional butter chicken with a twist. [We] use roasted red peppers along with tomatoes to give a subtle, smoky, yet traditional flavor.

What is a dish from your culture that you think deserves more spotlight?

Sachin Obaid: India is a very big country, and there is a general focus towards a certain style of “Indian” cuisine. There are a lot of regions that do not get their due, and our mission is to slowly introduce these dishes. Our aubergine dish is something you would have versions of in Kerala and Karnataka. It incorates mustard seeds, curry leaves, and coconut milk, which gives it such a distinct and lovely taste.

Nuit Regular: Khao mun gai (chicken rice) and boat noodles. We will be featuring these dishes in an upcoming concept.

Apurva Panchal: Khichdi, a humble combination of rice and lentil, is the best comfort food. It has various names in different parts of India (Khichuri, Pongal, Khichri, and many more).

Thai Dang: More shine is to showcase Vietnamese food is beyond bánh mìi, spring rolls, and pho.

C-Y Chia: In regards to my Teochew-Singaporean heritage, I would say Teochew kueh—which can encompass many things from dumplings, cakes, and pastries—is underrepresented. It makes sense given how labor-intensive they are, and how much dexterity and practice it takes to get them just right. Png kueh, chwee kueh, and bakchang are three of my favorites since childhood. [My business partner] Shane and I have learned to make from my aunties, who learned it from my ah ma. They are very close to my heart.

Melissa Miranda: The first dish that came to mind is dinuguan (pork blood stew). Growing up, the dish was a hard sell to us kids due to the pork blood sauce; elders always told us this was “chocolate meat” to get us to eat it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to truly appreciate this iconic ulam dish and hope that more of our generation’s young people will highlight their love and memories of it.

Any favorite cooking memories growing up? Is there someone in your family you liked to cook with?

Sachin Obaid: Like most Indian family gatherings, it’s always about the food. We’d have a full spread and my best memories are having a bit of everything on a plate, mixing and matching flavors with each bite. I didn’t have a word back then but now, I know it as umami.

Nuit Regular: Making curry paste with my mom. And now cooking and baking with my kids.

Apurva Panchal: Making papad (lentil crisp) during my childhood summer breaks where all the family members join as tradition and festive culture. I would like to cook with my mentor, my mom and my wife, my better half.

Thai Dang: My favorite cooking memories were growing up seeing my sisters help my mother with dinner, and then being old enough to help out.

C-Y Chia: My second eldest aunt and my ah ma were always the main ones cooking for the family, but it wasn’t until I was a young adult that I started actively cooking with my aunts. Fresh pandan, the fragrance of rice steaming, the brightness of just-sliced ginger, it all takes me back. Food—cooking, eating, shopping for ingredients at wet markets—was a way to reconnect with them, my heritage, and my birthplace without anyone needing to find the words.

Melissa Miranda: So much of Musang is based entirely on my dad and his love for cooking when I was a young girl. It was my dad who was primarily in the kitchen cooking—teaching me how to correctly fry tortang talong, wash, cook, and season the garlic rice, and knowing which vegetables worked best with what dish. Musang is Tagalog for “wildcat” which is my dad’s nickname ever since he and my mom migrated to Beacon Hill from the Philippines. This establishment is in honor of those memories and teachings that made me the storyteller I am today.

For newcomers looking to start out in the industry, what advice would you give them?

Nuit Regular: Do not settle. Always do the best you can. Toronto is hungry to explore a diversity of traditional and authentic cuisines.

C-Y Chia: Be realistic about how much work it is to be in this industry. This work is stressful and can be absolutely crushing mentally. It’s invaluable to know how to stay grounded, take deep breaths, and unwind in ways that aren’t harmful to yourself or others around you. This industry is about creating wonderful experiences for others, and too often the workers are left out. This industry is made up of people who deserve care, and when we are connected with one another, we can build the conditions favorable for sustained, fulfilling careers that redefine hospitality.

Sachin Obaid: It’s not the fairytale you see on TV. You’re going to have to put in long hours, work very hard, and do anything that is required in and outside of the kitchen. There should be no task you are not willing to dive in and sort out. If you dedicate yourself to your craft, the rewards are beautiful. There is no better feeling than delivering a beautiful experience to your guests.

Apurva Panchal: There is no alternative to hard work, it always pays off in the long run. If you can develop talents that are unique, then it becomes a great combination. I also firmly believe that one should always keep learning, whether its cooking techniques or new technologies. Focus both on skills as well as knowledge.

Thai Dang: Don’t give up! Keep pushing and become a better operator.

Melissa Miranda: My advice for folx who are passionate about their love of cooking and community would be to slow down, know that this profession is a marathon, and to always take care of yourself and those you build with. The ethos of all things culinary is rooted in identity, culture, and community building—always making sure to highlight those that provide the ingredients for us, all the way to how it is executed and served to each guest.

How are you paving the way for future API chefs?

Thai Dang: I’m paving the way for future AAPI chefs by staying true to myself and my cooking. Pushing for Vietnamese food through my work.

C-Y Chia: We’re keenly aware of how we wouldn’t be able to do what we are doing now if it wasn’t for the countless Asian and Asian-American chefs who opened restaurants long before us. Even as we continue to face discrimination and violence targeting us, we have the privilege of being a part of a wave that can more easily be found on “best restaurant” lists, not just “best Asian” or “best Chinese.” But I hope that future AAPI chefs feel like they can be free to express themselves without having to be boundary-pushing, meet the outside expectations of what they should cook, or feel like they have to exploit their own stories to matter.

Melissa Miranda: Musang is rooted in childhood memories, and a lot of what we do at Musang is to allow those stories shine. From Musangtino’s (Musang’s snack-centric sibling) to Wildcat Cooking Classes for the youth to working directly with high schoolers who are curious about the industry from a Filipina-American Chef’s perspective—we always strive to create opportunities to focus on the generation that will take over the storytelling that we know today and hope to see more of as the future unfolds.

Sachin Obaid: We try our best to find API chefs and give them opportunities. We spend a lot of time training and sharing the knowledge we have and to help them grow professionally.

Nuit Regular: I hope future API chefs see the passion and love I put into my cooking. I’m so proud to have the opportunity to share my Thai cooking and culture with others. It has been an honor to teach diners more about Thai cuisine, and I hope future API have that same passion and love when sharing the foods of their heritage, and teaching others about their cultures, even if it might not be as widely accepted at the beginning.

Apurva Panchal: Persistence, passion, and an urge to learn are the path for the rising star and a brighter future.

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