Shea Robinson is managing partner and chef at Miijidaa Cafe…
Thompson Tran has brought his culinary experience through education and teaching in British Columbia to Waterloo Region — and along with it a rich, delicious cultural history and even some family recipes. Tran owns and operates The Wooden Boat Food Company and is producing specialized Vietnamese foods for the local retail market.
Born in Edmonton, Tran, 38, and his parents soon moved to British Columbia where he spent his youth in the restaurant industry. He now lives in downtown Kitchener with his own family.
“I grew up in a Vietnamese restaurant and started there formally when I was 14 doing all the menial tasks like cleaning, bussing tables and dishwashing,” he says before working at other restaurants. “I cut my culinary teeth there.”
Tran studied classical guitar for several years at UBC before enrolling at Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA) in 2007. “I had already been cooking in a variety of restaurants, everything from bagel shops to bars and pubs to catering.”
The magical elixir that is Nước Chấm
The Wooden Boat set sail about about three or four years ago as a British Columbia catering company that specialized in Vietnamese and French cooking — and was as much a response to a classic quality-of-life issue that he wanted to solve. “I was away from my family too much, so we developed a business that could create revenue while I slept, so to speak. I work just as hard, but I get to see my kids and wife,” says Tran.
The result has been foods such as their flagship nước chấm (“nook chum”), a umami-rich Vietnamese dipping sauce. “Nuoc cham (water for dipping, literally) is synonymous with Vietnamese food. It’s like a magical elixir,” Tran says. Currently, the sauce is being sold ($5.99 per 250 mL bottle) in B.C., Alberta, Nova Scotia and Montreal. “I moved here to expand the Ontario market.”
The sauce is magic in its simplicity too: water, sugar, vinegar, fish sauce (with anchovy extract), garlic and red pepper. Notably, the salt content, Tran points out, is under control. “We are 400 percent less sodium than many, many other types of sauces and condiments,” he says. His team in south Vancouver produces and distributes food products there; Tran will produce the sauce at Kitchener’s Courtyard Kitchens, just off Courtland Avenue. Look for Kho, a caramelized coconut and ginger sauce, and Xa, a lemongrass marinade, to be available as the company gets up and running. He’s also working on a version of the sauce that is made from plant material — given that fish stocks are under pressure. “It’s all about innovation,” Tran says. “Demand for fish sauce is going up and stocks are depleting. Part of my business model is to find a vegetable-based sauce that is Canadian.”
Growing food and Growing Chefs!
While all of that is being worked, Tran still does the odd cooking competition — “I just got back from Vancouver and a big chowder competition and an event at the Royal Ontario Museum for Ocean Wise” — and he teaches Vietnamese cooking classes at the Kitchener Market. “Vietnamese food is growing in popularity,” he notes, and he’s interested in boosting its profile further in Waterloo Region.
At the end of January, Tran will be preparing a five-course meal, “This Whole Sturgeon,” as a fundraiser for Growing Chefs! a registered charity he supports in London, Ont., that teaches children about food, agriculture, nutrition and cooking from Monday to Friday. Local chefs volunteer to do the teaching. Both the dinner and the program are held at the former London landmark restaurant Auberge du Petit Prince. “Growing Chefs! teaches 1,600 kids about cooking every year in London alone, with 40 more schools on a waiting list,” Tran says. “It’s about promoting food literacy and accessibility.”
The sturgeon event-partner, Northern Divine, a B.C. aquafarming company recognized by Ocean Wise, produces the only organic sturgeon and caviar in the world, he adds.
Becoming a part of the local food landscape
As for their arrival in Kitchener mere months ago, Tran and his family are settling in nicely. “We love it here,” he says. “My wife is from here, and it just made business sense to come here too.” Tran has his products in the big grocery chains in B.C. and hopes to be available in stores locally very soon. “I have a long list of retailers and shops that we are hoping to be in,” he says adding that there was quite a bit of coordination and navigation of health and packaging requirements to be satisfied. That’s where most of his cost is, according to Tran.
“It has taken us six months to get things up and running, but everyone has been on our side,” he says. “In B.C., we moved quickly from being a smaller company to being a larger one, and we want to do that here too. We really want to be local.”
[Banner photo: Jodi Kaldestad]