Reality TV celebrities are a funny bunch. The premise of taping "ordinary" folks doing ordinary things—like running a busy restaurant, for example—can catapult anyone to overnight celebrity, be it for an until-now-overlooked talent, notoriously callous behaviour or even a lovable vulnerability that we quickly identify and attach ourselves to.
When it comes to reality cooking shows and celebrity chefs, however, it would be a mistake to think of these shows as a starting point in their career. The Gordon Ramsays and Anthony Bourdains of the cooking world didn't spring to success after their shows: they're simply capitalizing on a lifetime of hard work, sweat equity and commitment. In other words, there are no overnight success stories in the cooking world.
Such is the case with Edmonton's Quon family, who have owned and operated the Lingnan Chinese restaurant for nearly four decades. The Quons were profiled on the third season of Family Restaurant for the Food Network Canada and the show proved to be so popular that the Quons were brought back for their own spin-off series called The Quon Dynasty, scheduled to air sometime in summer 2011.
Husband and wife Kinman and Amy head the family business, Kinman having worked in it since 1972. Their children Miles and Mandy are poised to take over the family business, and the show's dynamic is driven by intergenerational squabbles and, in particular, Amy's bubbling, magnetic personality.
Alongside her desire to see the family business succeed, Amy also possesses a passion for sharing her recipes and a pride in teaching others about the particulars of Szechuan and Cantonese cooking. When she and her son Miles took to instructing a Chinese cooking class at NAIT last year as part of an episode for the upcoming season, she was able to combine her love of teaching, cooking and, as she playfully puts it, "being bossy."
"I started the cooking class because a lot of people like my cooking," the youthful matriarch grins. "My cooking isn't traditional, and people want me to show them how I cook. And I really like to cook! When I was young, I was a teacher in Hong Kong, so I know how to teach people, and I enjoy sharing with people too. And I like to be bossy."
Between running Chicken For Lunch at Scotia Place and hostessing at the Lingnan, Amy has little time to spend developing new recipes, but when she does, she's not afraid to shy away from innovation alongside the strong expectations of traditional Chinese cuisine.
"When I get some new idea, the first thing I do is create my recipe, then I try [it] many times," she explains of the creative process. "One of the things that's really good is what I call 'purple curry,' and not too many people do it, but I put peanut butter sauce in it. It's really good, and so popular, so I made my own recipe."
Her approach to cooking is reflected in her teaching style, where she observes the basics of tried-and-true traditional fare while entertaining guests and students alike with her sense of humour and personal touches.
"Because Lingnan is the oldest Chinese restaurant in town, we have very traditional dishes—chop suey, a stirfry with bean sprouts, chicken gai ding [diced almond chicken], lemon chicken—those are all traditional, Western Chinese food," she admits. "Some of these combination dinners haven't changed in 60 years.
"But one of the dishes, Amy's Chicken, is very popular because young people like something crispy and spicy, so I came up it on my own … I always ask Kinman [before adding new menu items], because he's conservative, he says, 'My restaurant's been here for 60 years … ' he doesn't want to change. Me and my son Miles like to change," she laughs. "The only thing that hasn't changed in 37 years is Kinman!"
When it comes to her cooking classes, the key to Chinese cooking, she says, is learning the basics while embracing the full spectrum of the flavour palate.
"When my students come to do my cooking classes, they don't know too many things, so I have to start from the beginning—even basic things, like how to thicken sauce with corn starch," she points out. "And I teach people how to eat spice. I teach them how to eat spicy dishes by giving them just a little bit at a time. At first they're scared, they don't want to try, they only want sweet and sour. And I have to say, 'No, try just a little bit at a time,' just to give them a chance to taste it and love it, and [then] getting more and more spice. You have to give them opportunity and variety. And they're so nice to listen to me, the students and my customers, because I'm bossy!" V
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(Courtesy of Amy Quon)
"I wanted to make something different. It's eggplant in a bean sauce, and it's a little bit sweet. Some people just steam the eggplant, but Szechuan style is fried, so it's a little crispier. We coat with some corn starch and fry it in the pan. Easy, right?
"Then we make the yellow bean sauce, and the Szechuan spices you can get buy in the grocery store, but we add some vinegar. People who are vegetarian can just get it without meat, or you can try it with chicken or beef. And it's really good with steamed rice.
"Beijing-style eggplant is different from the regular-style, because Chinese always eat it with fish. Because we don't eat too much fish in Canada, we don't put any fish in it. Beijing-style is a little sweet, so this style is perfect for Western people."
1 1/2 Chinese egglants (long style)
1/4 cup green peppers, diced
1/4 cup red peppers, diced
1/4 cup onion, diced
1/4 cup pork, meat minced
1 tbsp spicy bean sauce
1/2 tsp garlic, minced
1 oz dark vinegar
2 oz water
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
3/4 tbsp ketchup
1) Cut eggplant lengthwise into 2 inch-long pieces.
2) Soak eggplant in water for 5 min to moisten. Drain water and coat with 3 1/2 tbsp cornstarch.
3) Heat 3 cups oil in medium deep pot. When oil is hot, add eggplant and deep fry until golden brown.
4) Remove and drain excess oil. Set aside.
5) Prepare sauce mixture in bowl and set aside.
6) Heat 1 tbsp oil in frying pan. Add minced pork and fry. Add spicy bean sauce and fry. Add garlic, onions, green and red peppers.
7) Add sauce to vegetable mixture.
8) Bring to a boil and thicken with cornstarch mixture (2 tbsp water and 1 tbsp cornstarch).
9) Bring to a boil again and turn off heat.
10) Add eggplant.
11) Serve with steamed rice and Alley Kat's Pi Jiu Ginseng beer, available at Sherbrooke Liquor.