Skipping culinary school, Ken Yau still managed to work his way to a Michelin 3-star restaurant. But realising it didn’t make him happy, he has now found joy in his own food venture.
To capture Ken Yau in his natural habitat, we brought our camera equipment and set ourselves up for one of his dinners. Hosted at Fiorentina on Danforth Avenue, Ken’s K Dinners are a pop-up kitchen experience featuring experimental food, and a communal dining set up. Cooking for 2 big tables, the intimacy of these dinners serves to bring random people together to eat, drink, and hang out.
Speaking to Ken throughout the night, it is clear that he absolutely loves what he does. There’s a genuine feeling that he is cooking for his guests, as if for friends and family, and it makes for a truly unique evening. There’s a completely different energy to the restaurant space with this kind of dining, and Ken readily admits he would happily do this for the rest of his life.
But he didn’t just luck out and find the ideal job easily. It took a number of positions, some gruelling hours, and many battles against self-doubt before Ken would find himself in a place that made him happy.
Yet despite his love for cooking now, the start of Ken’s journey with food didn’t come until a little later in his teenage years. Unlike many others we have featured in Faces of Food, there has been no life-long love affair with food that extends to his earliest memories.
Instead, it was in high school that Ken had his first ‘a-ha’ moment with cooking. “[My first memory] that involved me cooking was probably when I was cooking for one of my exes – my girlfriend at the time. It was an anniversary thing in high school, and I cooked a really crappy meal. But she was so happy, and I was just like “damn, this is what food can do. This is so dope.””
So did this inspire Ken to apply for culinary school and become a chef? Not quite. Instead, he was very reluctant to go to college or university at all. He looked at the veterinarian program at Guelph, and while he loved animals and thought it was something he could do, he thought it was stupid to spend another 8 years of his life studying. He was ready to forego the whole thing and look for a job, but his girlfriend at the time had other plans. “I was ready to go [into] work, and then it turned out my ex actually applied for me, and I got into the program. And I ended up going.”
However, Ken did not enjoy himself at school, and it was eventually starting to severely impact his mental and physical health. It reached breaking point when the stress brought on by his master’s thesis hospitalised him for 4 days with fever, which in turn affected his nerves and caused Bell’s Palsy. “I was in hospital, just ruined, and I thought “I can’t do this anymore”.”
While these were incredibly tough times for Ken, with hindsight it would be fair to say that the path it lead him to take was certainly a positive. When in hospital, he had the chance to reflect on where he was, where he was going, and what he really wanted to do. “In the hospital, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do. [I thought about] all the times I invited people to come eat at my place, just to cook for people during university. [It] made me think “oh, I would really like to cook. [That] sounds kinda fun!””
The problem now was where to go from here. Throughout school and during his masters, the only plan he had was to continue with school and eventually move into further research in a PHD program. But one thing Ken knew for sure was that cooking made him happy, and so he owed it to himself to give it a go. Yet, despite having spent years studying animals and having no experience in the food industry, Ken’s first step into the business sounded remarkably straightforward.
“I went onto Google and just searched “best restaurant in Canada” and found the best new one, which was Nota Bene, and I literally went and knocked on the door and said “I want to learn to cook.” I told them what was going on, and that I just quit school, and I wanted to learn how to cook.” Somewhat surprisingly, they agreed and told him to come back the next day at 9am. We were quite taken aback by the apparent ease with which he got the job, and so naturally we asked whether his lack of experience bothered them. “I think they wanted free labour for 2 weeks.”
Whatever their reasons, Ken was now staging at Nota Bene. “I was just back there punching fries, slicing onion rings, and just doing a bunch of stuff. But I really wanted to learn, and I asked questions.” So while it wasn’t the most glamorous work, Ken took the opportunity to fully immerse himself in the experience, and to learn as much as possible from some of the most talented people in Toronto’s food scene. His keenness to learn was clearly noted, and he was offered a job at the end of the 2 weeks. “It was 2 weeks, and then they hired me. So that’s how I started.”
Now he was finally in the kitchen, he found that it was actually pretty similar to what he expected. But maybe not in such a good way. “Like most people, I would say I was very caught up in [that idea of] what kitchens are like on TV. And this kitchen was a little bit like that, so I thought “that’s normal”. There was a lot of verbal aggression, but nothing physical.” Yet despite this, Ken thrived in such an environment. As he explained to us, once he is told he is doing something wrong, he will never make that mistake again. And this kitchen environment made it abundantly clear when he’d made a mistake.
“I think it was good to have this experience, and for this to be my first. And it was kind of my only experience with that kind of aggression so it really put me in a position where I could be told “that’s wrong, don’t do that” and now I know for the rest of my career that that’s not cool. So it really really helped me, and I learned everything really quick. At Nota Bene it was very much just learning how the industry works. I did learn about food, but it was not the most important thing that I learned there. It was more how I hold a knife, how I work quickly, and get clean and organised, and how a restaurant ran. It was more about that. For me at least.”
While he revelled in the learning experience, after a little over a year at Nota Bene, it was onwards and upwards for Ken. He had decided early on in his time at Nota Bene that he would not go back to culinary school. Instead, now he had learned about the industry at his first restaurant, he wanted to move on to learning about the food itself. But he felt that Nota Bene wasn’t the best environment in which to achieve that, and so he left for Scaramouche.
“Scaramouche was so different. It was really where I started learning about the ingredients and produce and flavour combinations. And also the classic French techniques…There were a lot of ingredients I didn’t know. They’d be like “Ken can you grab this from the fridge?” And I’d have no idea what that is. So that’s when I really started learning about food.”
But it was not just the learning experience that was different. The atmosphere in the kitchen was also more positive, without any of the yelling or verbal aggression. At Scaramouche, if you made a mistake you wouldn’t have to be told to try again – you just did it. This might be explained, at least in part, by the fact Nota Bene was dealing in far higher volumes, which meant the pressure was more intense.
For Ken, this also meant that other cooks in the kitchen could find more time to help him. “There would be a lot of time to talk about food, ask people what they thought about stuff, for people to show me techniques. There was a lot of mentoring…I had about 3 mentors from Scaramouche.”
But now Ken had begun his food education in earnest, he soon got a yearning to push himself further and make the next step. This was something we were learning about Ken by now – once he gets the feeling he could improve more by moving on, he won’t hesitate to quit and make that next step in his career. What’s more, he has a sheer determination to make sure every one of those steps is meaningful and moves him up in the food world. “Every career step I made was always towards trying to get somewhere higher every time.”
Beyond determination, he is also not afraid to mix things up. Once that urge to better himself struck again at Scaramouche, Ken decided to leave Toronto altogether. With no job lined up, he headed to Hong Kong to find opportunities at restaurants in a new part of the world. He told us he chose Hong Kong as it was a “safe” choice: “I had family there and [so] I just wasn’t really worried about ending up on the streets if I didn’t have a job.” And he wouldn’t have to worry about not having a job for long. He soon found himself in the kitchen of a pretty well-known chef in Hong Kong, but wasn’t afraid to give that up once he realised it wasn’t the place for him. The restaurant made claims as to the freshness and locality of its ingredients, and Ken could see that these claims were mostly false. He realised that the story a restaurant tells about its food is essentially a “seasoning”, and in Ken’s eyes the seasoning here was a lie. “I just got really turned off and thought “f**k it, let’s go back to Western food.”
And so, after taking one more job in Hong Kong, Ken returned home to Toronto believing he was done with his travelling, but was only back for a mere two months before he set his sights on London, England. “[It was the] first time that I didn’t really know anybody, but it was all based off a guy that I met – a French pastry chef that I met in Hong Kong. He was in London at the time and said “get a visa and just swing over.””
So that is what he did. And with the hustling, can-do attitude that had been working so well for Ken so far, this time he scored his best job yet. “I didn’t have a job, and I was emailing places and one of them was the Fat Duck. My strategy was to [send out] as many emails as I possibly could until they responded. And then they finally responded, and said to come for a work trial. But nothing was guaranteed.” With some decent cooking experience under his belt, combined with his email persistence, Ken had a shot at a restaurant with not one, not two, but three Michelin stars.
Yet even though the actual job wasn’t guaranteed, we have seen that Ken is not a man who needs a guarantee to act. “[I] flew over [on a] one-way ticket, [and] crashed on my friend’s couch.”
Ken’s trial was 2 nights at the restaurant. The first night, he simply observed the service and tried the food. On the second day, it was a baptism by fire as Ken was plating food. “I was actually surprised that they would let a random person go in and plate. Literally one of the guys’ lives depends on you performing.”
Despite the immediate high pressure, Ken got through it. “I was very lucky. I got the job the next day…I was so happy when I got that. Because before that I didn’t have any Michelin-star experience. So going from zero to three was so amazing. I was shocked. It was also stupid hard.”
And when he told us it was hard, boy did he mean it. Each day at the Fat Duck he put in a monster shift of 18 hours. “[I] get to work at 6am, work and prep, grab lunch…or try to grab lunch. Then we’d do the service, break down, get ready for the second service, and you’d finish service by 11:30. Then we would clean and everything would be done by around 12am. Debrief, and then go home. It’s a long, long day…”.
This work environment was new to Ken. He had never worked hours like this in the past, and standards had never been so high. He noticed a difference in the standard between this kitchen and where he’d worked in the past. “[You’d think] “is that the best [I] can do?” If not, you make a new one. And if they’re waiting for it, you better get moving. He (the chef) won’t let it go if it’s not right. That was how intense it was…There were some moments where I thought “oh my god, I’m going to die.”” Yet despite the intensity, he told us he would never give up the experience.
Ken stuck with the Fat Duck for a while, even moving to Australia to help the team open a place in Melbourne. All in all, he spent 8 months in Australia, and over a year in England, before coming back to Toronto. However, it didn’t work out too smoothly on his initial return to Canada. He tried a new job in Newfoundland, but Ken really did not enjoy it. He had placed an immense pressure on himself to always go one better every time he moved on, and he felt like this time he might have slipped.
“[I] came back and thought “what am I doing?” A big stress on my mind was always to get to a better spot. “I just did the Fat Duck, what next? I’ve got to beat that.”…And it was either trying to chase a title, be a sous chef or a chef at some place, or go to a better restaurant. Another place that is better than Fat Duck. I ended up in Newfoundland…[but] I was in a very, very dark place. It was winter, and I [felt like] “I’m not doing anything with my life. I’m not taking that next step.” And I came back to Toronto super down on my luck, and I just [had to] do something.”
And that “something” brings us back to where we started in this issue – at K Dinners. Rather than opening his own restaurant or kitchen, Ken wanted a pop-up style kitchen where he could cook alone, and have the freedom to cook his way. He wanted an experimental approach to food, and he wanted a more intimate dining experience, where there was a greater connection between him and the guests he was cooking for. So he pitched the idea to a friend he met in Australia, and they put him in touch with the owners of Fiorentina. They were happy to let him use their kitchen to cook on Monday evenings, and for him to test out his pop-up kitchen idea.
From there, he thought: “let’s just cook, and see if I can even make a full menu, and see what people think…The first night, I invited someone who wrote about food. And she helped so much, and was super honest and told me everything that was wrong.” But even with the food on the right track, getting people to come and eat here was another challenge completely. “ It was really hard, I didn’t know how to get people’s attention. Slowly it just built traction…and people started talking about it and it just grew and grew and grew.”
But beyond trying to build himself his next career step, and trying to establish a successful food business, what Ken ended up finding was genuine happiness in his life. The purpose of K Dinners evolved over time, from simply being a way to express himself, to being something that was helping his mental health. Having worked his way to a restaurant with three Michelin stars, constantly chasing a title or a better position, it was crushing for Ken to return to Toronto and feel as though he was exactly where he started.
“It really broke me down mentally. And then this [started]. At first, the whole communal table thing wasn’t my initial intent. I just thought it would be easier to service two groups of people in two big tables. Then I realised that everyone was just talking to each other, and that became a part of the narrative. It really helped me [see] “this is why I’m doing it. This is it. It’s making me happy and it’s bringing people together.” It doesn’t happen every night, but most nights people come in and introduce themselves, and as they drink more, which helps obviously, everyone is just chatting and chilling. It’s a lot of fun.”
Bringing people together was hugely fulfilling to Ken, and it reminded him why he loved cooking in the first place. Just like back in high school, cooking for his girlfriend, he loved what food could do for other people. “I would say it was just this huge reminder for myself. It was at different times in my life when I was very ambitious and I didn’t want to be like “oh I gave up the whole academia side of my life to be an average chef.” I wanted to be something better than average, and I was making that my narrative. But now, when I translated it into a work of love, it’s [been] a lot easier…It makes it a lot easier to cook, and it allows me to be more creative versus the other way…where it’s constant questioning and critiquing yourself.”
And this journey to his own happiness has changed what food actually means to him. “It’s definitely changed over the years. Right now, I don’t think food is that important. By doing these dinners, and providing the space and providing the opportunity to interact with people, I think food is less and less important. I could literally do pub food, or a family style dinner, and the feeling would still be quite similar…It is definitely something I can’t live without. Not in the sense of “I need to eat”, but I need it in my life. I need to cook, I need create…But yeah, I think less and less of food. I don’t think it’s the most important thing.”
To reflect this idea of prioritising happiness over food, or over a job, we felt we should end this month’s issue on the same theme. So here’s a little bit of inspiration from Ken, showing the importance of doing something you love:
“I’m doing [this] now, instead of trying to be the best, or have my own restaurant. If I can do this for the rest of my life, working two or three days a week, and have it be sustainable, then it’s the best thing in the world. It’s fantastic.”