Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Kum Koon Garden is Winnipeg’s longest-running dim sum restaurant.
In 1977, with no formal cooking experience and a recently minted business degree, Geoffrey Young and several university classmates purchased a failing Chinese restaurant on Main Street. The local landmark now lives on King Street in a contemporary, purpose-built space fit for banquets and large lunch crowds. It’s safe to say Young’s vision has been realized.
"When I started my restaurant I wanted to be very modern, the best Chinese food in town and also nice and clean," he says. "I wanted to change people’s idea about Chinese restaurants and we spent a lot of effort to make it where it is."
Young, 68, was born in Hong Kong and moved to Winnipeg by himself to attend school.
Prior to opening his own, Young’s initiation into the restaurant world came while working on the railroad during his summer breaks from university. He was a waiter and occasional cook for Canadian National Railway’s Winnipeg to Vancouver route.
This year was poised for a busy wedding season at Kum Koon Garden, but the coronavirus pandemic has put large events on hold for the time being. Young is thankful the restaurant was able to accommodate all 11 of its Chinese new year parties at the end of January before the virus made headlines in Winnipeg.
"Besides the dim sum, the banquet is our major thing," he says. "I’ve been proud to run this restaurant for so many years... we own the building and everything in here so there’s less worry than other restaurants, but I’m still concerned.
"This is a difficult time and we have to overpass it."
Young works closely with his wife Louisa, who is a seafood importer at Midland Foods on Nairn Avenue and sources top-quality shrimp for the restaurant, as well as his daughter Michelle, who manages the books and handles marketing. His two other children have been lending a hand during the pandemic while the restaurant adapted to curbside pickup orders.
What was it like moving to Winnipeg?
At that time I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know that the country was so big, I figured it was very close to Toronto. I tried to apply to so many different places, but the first one accepted me was Winnipeg, so I figured, OK.
Was a restaurant something you always wanted to open?
I wanted to start a business, to be honest. At that time I thought this was an opportunity because this restaurant, originally, they (brought) a new idea to Winnipeg, there was no such thing as dim sum.
I was still young, I gave myself two years to try to do it, if it worked I would continue. I’m happy that I can carry it on and make it bigger and bigger and make it famous in Winnipeg.
What do you think is special about your restaurant?
All the other dim sum (restaurant owners), they used to work here before. We’re the original one. I insisted on doing things the way it should be done, like using top quality ingredients. Like our custard, it’s lots and lots of layers (of pastry) and it’s a lot of work. Now, other restaurants use pie pastry to do that and it looks the same, but it doesn’t taste the same.
What do you think of the number of Chinese restaurants that are in Winnipeg now?
Compared to the days we first opened, wow, there’s 10 times more. To be honest, in those days when we first started, dim sum was very limited to just Chinese people. When I took over there was no Caucasian customers. My accountant who used to work for me, he was the first Caucasian customer who came to the restaurant. People didn’t know what dim sum was and… they didn’t want to explore things in the ’70s. But now it’s different, people try everything.
What has been your role in the kitchen at Kum Koon Garden?
I was almost always the head chef. I used to hire chefs from Hong Kong and other places, but usually after their working permit is up then they left, they went to Toronto, Vancouver. Winnipeg is not a city that they like — it’s too cold. Finally I figured, you know this part is really important. Can you handle (cooking) yourself? Or do you depend on these chefs?
So I picked it up. I would go to Vancouver and Toronto and go to all these different restaurants and try all this different food. Once I try it, I know how to cook it.
So, you were learning by tasting things and trying to replicate them in your own kitchen?
Yeah, I also read a lot of books. In those days there’s no such thing as YouTube-ing, so I was reading all sorts of books about northern food, southern food in China. You pick up all these things and try it and give it to your workers to try it and if they say it’s very good you can put it on the menu. So many items on the menu I’ve done it like that.
How would you describe your cooking philosophy?
Well, I think people come to your restaurant, they want to enjoy your food. You have to present them the best with all your heart, this how I do it all these years.
I want to make all my customers really happy. Even a wedding party, you know, I always have to talk to the wholesaler to make sure everything’s OK.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
There’s so many. Pan-fried beef noodles. We make our own rice noodles here, I don’t buy it from the store, and it’s my own recipe. Out of 10 orders you’ll probably get seven requests for (beef noodles), it’s very popular.
Is there anyone in your life who has influenced your cooking?
My grandmother and my older sister, they’re both very good cooks. My grandmother, when she goes out and tries something at other restaurants, she can do it at home. Just like her, I can have the same instincts. These two people I think they’re the best chefs in our family.
What do you like to cook at home?
It used to be that the family dinners were always here (at the restaurant) on Sundays and it was always Chinese food. So at home, I try to give them western food, like prime rib. I used to work at Glendale Country Club and they served that and the chef at the time he taught me the technique, so I can make a pretty good prime rib.
I do lots of pizza for them and it’s very good. The kids like cheese so we do lots of cheese. And lots of salad and salmon because my wife loves fish.
What’s an ingredient you always have at home in your fridge or pantry?
How do you usually spend your downtime when you’re not at the restaurant?
I have no other time, I spend seven days a week here. I’m here day to night.
I have a garden at home, it’s not big, but I like to make it nice and unique. And I like fish too, I have tanks here and everywhere and I have some koi. That’s why I have fish tanks here in the restaurant because I can enjoy it, it’s very relaxing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
The Winnipeg Free Press invites you to share your opinion on this story in a letter to the editor. A selection of letters to the editor are published daily.
Letters must include the writer’s full name, address, and a daytime phone number. Letters are edited for length and clarity.