For the August issue of Gourmet, I wrote a story entitled “The Last Chinese BBQ,” for which Si-fu Jackie Wong and family were kind enough to let me into their shop, Ho Ho BBQ in suburban Toronto, to observe the life of a Cantonese barbecue master. There were many stories that didn’t find their way into the printed piece, and I’d like to share a few of them with you now.
A lot goes on in the basement. The intense action is upstairs, where there’s an oven and fire-breathing wok burners, but down in the basement is where the blood of Ho Ho BBQ flows.
To get down there, you have to pass the tiny shrine at the bottom of the stairs, where I watched Mrs. Wong, Si-fu’s wife, leave devotional offerings of duck wings and pork tripe, burning money on the floor to send to her passed-on ancestors. And you have to pass the bathroom, barely big enough to stand in, which doubles as a changing room, and where they keep the bucket and laundry soap to wash their aprons by hand at the end of the night.
Down in the basement is where I met Kevin, one of Si-fu’s part-time staff. He had thick hands and a thick, calm voice. He asked me if I made a good living as a writer. It was late afternoon, and he’s been working since 7:30 this morning at a factory making window blinds. Now he’s down here, butchering pigs, cracking their chine bones with a heavy cleaver and a fist wrapped up in a towel. On weekends, he works at a supermarket, roasting their meats. He does this seven days a week, every day for the last 18 years. “You live in New York?” he asked. “How much do people make in New York? You know, regular people?”
I felt sheepish talking about flying in, staying at a hotel to work here, about the magazine picking up the tab. I felt a little better when he asked, as if in a fantasy, if I made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. That I don’t do.
Si-fu’s son Will came down and washed out the sink next to mine. He’s a civil engineer who tests municipal water quality and comes in to help out on weekends. He asked me, somewhat incredulously, why I’d want to write a story about this place. He’s been coming here every Saturday for ten years. “My friends are all out partying,” he said, looking down at the sink full of ducks waiting to be gutted. Then he cracked, “You know, I come here from my job and it’s like I’m going to be the one causing an E. coli outbreak or something.”
We worked together, digging our fingers inside the birds, pushing hard against their rib cages to scoop out the lungs, turning the sinkful of water red. We stuffed the ducks with marinade and closed the cavities by threading a skewer through folds of skin. It’s tricky, but it’s important to get it watertight so that nothing will leak. Will showed me the motion, a coordinated twist of the wrist, with an inherited patience.
We racked the ducks up and kept talking—about politics, about the economy, about growing up in a business he hopes never to inherit. Finally he asked me a favor. “Will you write about how hard people work in this business? So that customers driving up in Mercedeses will stop thinking they can treat people like crap just because they’ll spend $2 on a chicken leg?”
I went upstairs as Will pulled out a huge propane stove. He boiled water to scald skins, the steam gathering against the ceiling. Soon this place would be a Slip ’N Slide, only one with sharp edges, dangling animals, and little giggling.
From the first day I spent with him, Si-fu encouraged me to check out his competitors next door. He’s never bothered. He says he can see the pigs they’re getting delivered and knows they’re not dealing with good-quality stuff, but that I should try it for comparison. So, on my last afternoon, I went to a tiny shop a few doors down. I was ready, my loyalties pledged to Ho Ho BBQ, to Si-fu’s pride and integrity, to dislike it.
I walked in to see a weary man at the butcher block with wan skin and enormous bags under his eyes. An old woman ahead of me asked about his tofu, and with slow, tired voice, he talked about its freshness with calm cheer and a warm smile. I could tell it was an effort for him just to speak. I looked at their display case, weirdly clean and sadly bare but for a few items.
The woman who rang me up was hardly less tired than the man, but pleasantly noted that it was late for me to be having lunch. “Were you working? What kind of work do you?” she asked. I said I’m a writer. “A writer!” she exclaimed, pleased. “Well, you shouldn’t work so hard you forget to eat. Next time you come, bring me one of your books to read, okay?” She gave me an extra packet of sauce and reminded me to come back so she could read my book. Sure enough, the pig was bland and the duck was pedestrian. But the man and the woman? They were lovely.
Ho Ho BBQ 3833 Midland Ave #7, Scarborough, ON, Canada (416-321-9818)