Posted : August 17, 2022
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In life, we quickly learn that not every idea or plan that we hatch goes precisely as we expect it to – and yet, when we zoom out, the realization is often that it’s not what happens, but our response to what happens, that truly matters.
The Choo family got into the restaurant business in full-force back in 2019 when they launched Chef 88 Oriental Cuisine in Scarborough, and shortly thereafter opened up Chef 88 Fine Dining in Markham. Alfred Choo put forth the vision, and then Stephen managed the Markham establishment, while his brother, Kevin, led the charge at the Scarborough location.
In the case of Chef 88 Fine Dining, they opened their doors in January of 2020, but it wasn’t long before they had to close their doors, and then think, seriously, about what they could do to help the restaurant thrive in an environment of unprecedented uncertainty.
Speaking to Stephen, I got the sense that this was a family that was willing to put in whatever work it took to find success. Well, when they were closed indoors, and takeout wasn’t going as well as they expected, they decided it was time to go all in on the patio. They knew they had the food to bring people back, they just needed to get people to come in the first place.
By June 2021, Chef 88 Elite officially wore the crown of Markham’s largest outdoor patio for dim sum dining and chinese food. “It was the evolution of the patio that kept us alive,” Stephen said.
“The patio has connected us to the community, and it’s amazing to see the diverse customers that have come our way by word of mouth. They’re now noticing us from all over the city, and as far away as places like Oakville as well!”
That patio has been such a success, by the way, that they even keep it open in winter now.
Traditional Cuisine for Modern Times
Stephen walked me through growing up and visiting restaurants in his youth where you’d only be able to order in Chinese. In his restaurant, he seems intent on ensuring that everybody has a chance to order and relate to his restaurant’s cuisine.
All of their menus are in both Chinese and English, and laid out in a straightforward manner. This means that some of the older generation of Chinese descent tend to come in during the mornings for tea and dim sum and are able to speak their mother tongue in a familiar setting, but it also means that families and residents less familiar with traditional Chinese cuisine are sometimes coming out to try dim sum for the first time, and often falling in love with a dining experience that’s a lot more focused on sharing dishes.
It also doesn’t hurt that their dim sum was voted best in Markham by CommunityVotes last year, which Stephen was extra proud of considering the dim sum they serve is quite traditional all things considered.
“Our goal is to reach new people,” he told me. “I love it. I see new people everyday.”
A Freshly Made, In-House Approach
They do a lot more than just dim sum at Chef 88 Elite, but it’s still perhaps what they’re best known for, and thus worth the try. Their dim sum hours, for the record, are from 9am – 4pm.
If you’re new to dim sum, then perhaps start with their Classic Combo, which features steamed BBQ Pork Buns, Crystal Shrimp Har Gow, and Shrimp Sui Mai. They also have a Vegetarian Combo that features Mushroom and Zucchini Dumplings, Snow Pea and King Mushroom Dumplings, and Fried Dough and Spring Onion Rice Noodle Rolls.
Many people don’t realize that they also have a frozen dim sum menu for take out if you want to bring some back to your freezer for another time.
Their all day menu is available after 11am, and what’s on offer is remarkably extensive. Stephen let me know that the chefs that they’ve got on board aren’t just some new hires, but rather longtime friends of the family that they knew they wanted to have on the team the moment they conceptualized the idea of opening this restaurant.
Personally, I love the eccentricity of it all. You’ve got Cold Jelly Fish and Cold Sliced Pork Hock with Sea Grass on the same starter menu that has more well known dishes such as Crispy Chicken Wings with Honey Garlic and Deep Fried Vegetable Spring Rolls. All that to say, you can be as daring as you want, but still know that, regardless of who is sitting at your table, there’s going to be a little something for everyone.
When I asked Stephen what people shouldn’t leave without trying, he was quick to mention the Sweet & Sour Sliced Pork, as well as the Peking Duck. Personally, I love the variety that’s offered in the Dinner Combos. Take, for example, the “Cozy Gathering for 4” which features Double Boiled Soup for four, a steamed half chicken, Sweet and Sour Sliced Pork, Braised Abalone and Fish Maw, Steamed Green Bass, and a mixture of desserts and house pastry. They’ve got dinner combos for two, all the way up to eight.
Putting in Work
Towards the end of our call, I asked Stephen what it’s been like to be running Chef 88 Elite during the past couple of years, and he was very straightforward in noting that this has been a difficult time, and he’s had to sacrifice a lot to see this restaurant succeed.
“We’re open 7 days a week,” he said. “I start my day off early in the restaurant, then often I go home to see my kids after school, and it’s back to the restaurant after that. And my brother is doing the exact same thing.”
After a brief, reflective pause, he continued, “I try my best to make everyone who comes here feel at home. We’re just a small, family friendly restaurant that loves to provide the best quality service and food that we can.”
“Yes, it’s hectic…but most importantly, it’s so rewarding.”
By Christopher Mitchell