TO TELL OUR STORY, WE MUST FIRST TELL THE STORY OF CHEF LI WANG, PART ONE
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
Li Wang is not the type to sit still. Moving from her native China in 2005 to work in Vancouver, she did whatever it took to build a strong foundation in what she loved to do: cook! When she heard about Niagara College’s culinary program in the Niagara Region, nothing stopped her from changing her course to bring her skills to a new level. And although she has now established herself here, she still continues to go back home to China to visit. But when she’s there, you’re not likely to see her taking in the Great Wall or lounging around taking it easy. Instead, you’re more likely to see her in a cooking class, such as the one she took in 2003, when she signed up for a class in Chinese pastry for a couple of months to continue to help bring a higher standard to the table. That little class helped her develop the incredible sauces guests now come back to experience at restaurant, East Izakaya, and Wind Japanese & Thai restaurant. True to form, Wang is currently thinking about what she wants to develop next. Her sights are on building a bakery where fresh and light desserts will be created to add to her well-crafted menus. Ultimately, the different tastes she has accumulated on her travels from one continent to another express the one ingredient in her life that has remained constant, despite the numerous changes in destination she has made: the joy she finds in cooking. It’s where Wang Li has been able to stake her own slice of heaven.
No matter where Li Wang wears her chef’s hat, those in charge have consistently recognized her ability to deliver. When she worked part time at Queen’s Landing while attending Niagara’s culinary program, the head chef saw something in her that made him want her back at the restaurant full time after she completed her program. Similarly, when her instructor at Niagara College discovered her experience as a sushi chef, he took her on as his assistant in her international cooking studies class. And when Leo King Xiang, her former boss at restaurant, East, took on the restaurant under new ownership, he wanted Li Wang right back where she belonged.
Having seen her skills develop over the years that she worked at the former East in a part time position while attending school, he wanted her to run the kitchen full time after she received her degree.
Continuing to see the same key people reappear in her life is par for the course for Li Wang. She met her current business partner, Peter Li, at culinary school. It was here that they both discovered that they set the same standards in their ideas about food, which has led them into a simpatico partnership. Wang describes Peter as the visionary – the one who has all the ideas, recognizes the trends and pushes them forward, whereas she sees herself as the soldier, the one who puts the ideas into practice, keeps the ship running and puts out the fires where needed. “We balance each other out,” Wang says. Forming that bond together at school and then working hand-in-hand part time at East restaurant under Xiang King when it used to be a Japanese restaurant, the next natural step was to go into business together.
When internal issues began to surface within the ownership of the former East, Li (Peter Li) and Li (Li Wang) took the next step. They started their own restaurant: a Chinese fusion establishment down the street. Getting some experience under their belts, they honed their skills in all areas of the business to prepare them for the next chapter in their careers. In 2011, their strong teamwork made them perfect candidates to direct the helm, once again, at their former place of employment, East restaurant, under new ownership. Wanting them to work for him again, Leo Xiang King’s unwavering interest in this dynamic duo, led to the development of Li and Peter’s current positions at East Izakaya. Now boasting 160 items on an all-you-can eat Asian menu, East Izakaya restaurant offers seafood, sushi and sashimi, as well as vegetarian-friendly dishes and some of the more traditional items you’d find on a Japanese menu. The focus is specifically on food quality, such as AAA grade beef and presentation. Oysters have been added as a recent item, following the current food trends that Peter never loses sight of, currently offering oyster specials several days of the week. Peter’s eye on what people want to eat also led to the idea of opening a Thai-based establishment. In 2012, renovations on restaurant, Wind, began: building the kitchen, renovating the interior and starting the new menu, which offers an assortment of Japanese and Thai fare in addition to all-you-can-eat sushi. Located at 131 King St. in St. Catherine’s and 7241 Lundy’s Lane in Niagara Falls, 4.4 star-rated Wind has become a local favourite and Thai food enthusiast destination. Rounding out this restaurant group is Ma Chinese Cuisine, which focuses on traditional and modern Chinese dishes made fresh daily with an emphasis on indigenous ingredients. It is where Li Wang adds her expertise as a pastry chef to the Dim Sum offerings.
When asked what she’s proud of, Wang Li’s first thoughts do not focus on her accomplishments as a successful business owner, chef or entrepreneur. The first words out of her mouth are how proud she is of the food quality her menus at East, Wind and Ma offer. “I have tasted many menus at different restaurants, but ours always taste better,” she confides. She sees her job as bringing out the best qualities of the food she prepares. “Food has its own personality, its own flavour,” Wang states. “Good food is determined by how well you bring that food’s unique flavour or personality out.” Despite being able to reproduce a dish from her taste of it alone, which traces back to her Niagara College days (once she had to make apple pie by relying only on her sense of taste, because she could not fully understand her instructor, due to her language barrier), Li Wang does not consider herself to be a leader. Instead, she sees herself more as a follower, or at best, a good copycat. “If I can taste it, I can make it,” she adds. And rather than seeing herself as someone whose hard work has led her and Peter to where they are today, she will tell you that she’s been lucky. “I’m lucky that my hard work went in the right direction. And I’m lucky that this country gave me a chance to be something I wanted to be.”
Li Wang’s humble attitude is refreshing, but also one that will guarantee her success in a very competitive and challenging industry. It will continue to make her strive and search for the best quality of ingredients, people and places to work – all of which has added up to a consistent theme that is ever present in her life: the more that things change, the more they stay the same.