New Year's Resolutions

A return to a favorite restaurant is a reminder of what’s important.

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It’s December 28th, 2011. Chunky snow flurries fall in all directions outside the window — the first snowfall of an unusually warm winter. The owner of the restaurant, a small Chinese woman wearing a puffy jacket and knitted cap, crosses the crowded dining room to greet me, and I am flattered that she remembers me — I haven’t been back in Toronto for over two years. And at the Chicken and Noodle Restaurant nothing seems to have changed. I run my hands over the plastic disposable tablecloth and pick up the oily menu to have a look at the pictures and Chinese characters, but I don’t really need it. I know what I came here for; I knew it before I got on the plane the night before.

I order their specialty: cold soya chicken, chicken rice, and pickled radish. The owner rushes back to the kitchen and yells my order at the cooks. I can see their silhouettes behind the frosted glass wall that separates the kitchen from the dining room. They are blurs of motion. The sounds of fire, heavy woks and clanking metal instruments are soothing to my ears. Oh how I’ve missed this place.

My meal arrives and my heart is racing. I’m nervous. But the first bite confirms what I expected — nothing’s changed at the Chicken and Noodle Restaurant. The chicken is perfectly cooked, marinated in a salty brine, with white pepper and ginger before it’s steamed just until the meat is cooked. It’s then chilled overnight and served cold, chopped up into manageable-sized pieces with a dip of peanut oil, salt, ginger and chopped scallions. The rice is drizzled with subtle yet incredibly delicious chicken drippings and garlic, and the pickled carrots and radish strips are crisp and perfectly sweet. I’m having one of those moments where all the problems in life recede; all that exists is the plate in front of me. My wife is trying to tell me something, but her words can’t quite penetrate the euphoria.

Finally, she breaks through and we begin to talk about New Year’s resolutions. The beginning of the year finds most people determined to wipe the slate clean, to start again. Many focus on losing weight. Crash diets, green smoothies, HGC drops. A week of running on the treadmill, two weeks of knee pain, and back to eating Twinkies in front of the television by February. I think about all the resolutions I’ve ever had and wonder about them.

My cold soya chicken makes me think. I ask myself what makes it good. It’s simple and healthy. The goodness comes from the skill of the cooks behind the frosted glass. They’ve done this with a thousand other chickens since I’ve last been back. Each chicken, slightly better than the last. The art polished and honed over time. It’s healthy, it’s good and it’s cheap.

I also look around me and see a very busy and successful restaurant. The tables are too close together, there is cheap plastic sheeting over the tables, there are no knives — just chopsticks and spoons, and the two servers are wearing winter jackets inside because every time someone opens the front doors a draft of frigid air lets a generous helping of snow into the dining room.

But every table is full, the kitchen staff is churning out dishes as fast as they can, and there is a line of customers waiting to come in. People all around me are smiling over their dinners. Friends and family serve each other and share food from the middle of the tables. My kid is eating rice out of a bowl with her hands, and when I pick up my bowl to slurp out the last drop of chicken bone soup, no one seems to mind.

This place just feels like home. The food is amazing, and people are happy to be here. For a chef, this is an invaluable lesson: at the heart of every successful restaurant, the food is key. You can have less than perfect service, a bad location and ugly tables, but if the food knocks your customer’s socks off, you’ll be successful.

My resolution for 2012? To be more like Chicken and Noodle: eat really good, simple, healthy food; continue to give my customers food that knocks their socks off; and share life with friends and loved ones across an ugly dinner table more often. And to be more practical: Why use a spoon, fork and knife when a couple of chopsticks will do?

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