Replicating Julia Child’s classic recipe for beef bourguignon is no easy challenge. We’re talking multiple skillets on the stovetop, volumes of ingredients and an afternoon, at least, for simmering together all those flavours. This is what Brian Ng calls a holiday.
The chef at Wayfarer Oyster House in Whitehorse had some time off during the Christmas season and decided to try his hand at Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was more ambitious than the typical day off for Canada’s next great northern chef. Normally, Ng might throw a couple of fried eggs on some short grain rice with Japanese furikake seasoning and some miso soup. “Or, I’ll have a smoothie,” he says. “It depends if I’m super lazy.” Make no mistake. Brian Ng is far from lazy.
Over the past three years, Ng and co-owners Andrew Seymour and Eddie Rideout have built up the Wayfarer brand from an oyster and seafood catering company into an acclaimed restaurant on 6th Avenue. The spot was named one of the best new restaurants of 2019 by En Route magazine (the only northern eatery on the list) and last year the Globe and Mail dubbed Ng one of Canada’s next top chefs.
All of which is pretty impressive for a 29-year-old, ex-government employee with no formal culinary training or all that much cooking experience beyond working the grill section at Dairy Queen back in the day.
How far he’s come is the totality of “a lot of trial and error,” Ng admits, and an undeniable passion for cooking.
“I just love it. I live, breathe, and eat cooking. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes just thinking of recipes.” You can thank his parents for that passion. Ng’s mom ran Whitehorse’s Great Wall restaurant. His dad co-owned and managed the Town and Mountain Hotel in the late ’80s. Both are now retired, but Ng credits his years spent watching his parents cook—and his dad’s attitude about not taking shortcuts when preparing meals—for inspiring his own zeal for cuisine.
But it took a while for that passion to become more than a hobby. Ng spent most of his adult life as a civil servant working for the Yukon government. It was only a few years ago that he began a path towards sharing his love of food with others. The appetizer was a Thai-themed pop-up restaurant in a “guerrilla setting.” For a main course, Ng approached business partners Seymour and Rideout, who had been running the Wayfarer oyster bar and catering business.
“I mostly just wanted to learn how to shuck oysters,” Ng says. “I thought it was super fun.”
The trio eventually pooled their talents into a physical restaurant location, which opened its doors just 18 months ago. Business since has been solid enough for Ng to leave behind his public service job. It’s also given the chef a lot more creative room to experiment than he had as an aspiring home cook. “The restaurant is really a place to fill the void of me being able to execute all my crazy ideas,” he says.
Said crazy ideas are composed, first and foremost, around seasonal availability (look for a lot of fresh asparagus and peas this spring). The menu wades heavily into seafood, as one would expect from an oyster house, but doesn’t shy away from field and forest. Smoked bone marrow is accompanied by a leek vinaigrette. Lamb chops are served with Romesco sauce (traditionally reserved for fish) and shishito peppers. Try some lamb shank tagliatelle, baked oysters with black garlic butter, or roasted sablefish with green pea curry and braised radishes.
There are Thai, Italian, French, and Chinese influences at play in Ng’s creations—along with a lot of fresh pasta. “I do believe I was an Italian grandmother in another lifetime.”
It’s a smorgasbord that caught the attention of southern publications like the Globe.
“It was a little bit shocking, at first,” Ng says about being named one of Canada’s next culinary superstars. “I never really accept compliments very well. It’s definitely super happy and fortunate, but it came as a big surprise.”
He’s hoping the momentum that comes from this national spotlight, coupled with the Wayfarer team’s creativity in the kitchen, will help Whitehorse’s restaurant scene continue to evolve.
“I’m just hoping to open Whitehorse’s and the Yukon’s perception on food, and hopefully just keep expanding their palates to have a more open mind about different cuisines and styles of food,” Ng says. “Meat and potatoes and big portions isn’t the end-all, be-all.”
All due respect to Julia Child, of course.