If you’re lucky enough to have tried chef Eva Chin’s cooking, you probably know it’s not your average meal. The Toronto-based Avling head chef and former Momofuku Toronto Chef de Cuisine has made a name for herself by putting thoughtful and often cheeky twists on classic Asian dishes, introducing new ways of conceptualizing food all while keeping the integrity of the original dish intact – no easy feat.
Case in point: her sweet corn congee topped with a delicately poached egg, pork floss, dried shrimp, Chinese mushrooms and scallions, served with a side of sweet corn Turtle Chips, an essential Korean convenience store snack. I got to try the dish when I visited Avling during peak corn season, and was instantly transported back to my childhood, sitting around my grandma’s kitchen table. The soothing texture of the congee combined with the sweet corn, sophisticatedly salty toppings and nostalgia-inducing Turtle Chips were like a 1-2 punch of food and emotion. I wanted to cry and give Eva a hug.
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For Eva, that connection between cuisine and culture drives her passion in the kitchen: “It’s the layers of stories and culture behind the food that inspire me creatively when I’m cooking,” Eva explains. But it’s an outlook she’s found more recently: “After six years of working in very intense fine dining situations, I felt like I lost my way. I was cooking food that felt very empty to me. And then Stop Asian Hate happened and I took a good long look in the mirror. I thought, ‘Why am I cooking? How do I connect cuisine and culture together? That was a huge break for me, and that’s when I launched the first Lunar New Year Menu at Momofuku. They offered me that platform and it was probably the most meaningful menu of my whole career. It wasn’t tweezer-friendly, there were no accolades, but it was food that felt authentic to me.”
It’s the layers of stories and culture behind the food that inspire me creatively when I’m cooking
Having the freedom to cook food that reflects her wide-ranging Singaporean, Samoan, Hawaiian and Chinese backgrounds is what drew Eva to Avling after departing from Momofuku. “I could have joined another big name restaurant, there were so many offers, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted long term. Max Meighan [Avling’s Founder], showed me an ethos and vision that I believed in, and I believe that even though it’s harder to execute, it’s always hard to do the right thing but it’s so worth it in the long-run. And our staff turnover is low for that very reason.” In hiring Eva on as head chef, Avling’s menu shifted from typical pub food (think burgers, wings) to a Nordic-Asian fusion menu featuring inventive takes on classic Asian dishes like shrimp toast, lo mein, drunken chicken and more.
“It was a major milestone for me when I took the burger off the menu,” says Eva with a laugh. In its place, she swapped in a double patty bbq pork bao featuring rhubarb char siu and ginger scallion relish on a black sesame bao. There was resistance from local regulars at first, but gradually the restaurant has become a buzzy destination in the Leslieville neighbourhood where a more diverse crowd can see themselves reflected in the menu. Beyond the food offerings, the restaurant and brewery features gender-inclusive bathrooms, a mural and bar fixtures created by local artists and artisans, and a Pride flag on the front door.
Another detail that makes Avling so special: its abundant rooftop garden, where much of the fruits, vegetables and herbs on their menu are sourced from. It’s home to all the essential crops the kitchen needs, but also less common Asian veggies that Eva introduced after joining: “I’m educating my staff here on the Asian vegetables I’ve introduced. Every little bit helps.” Beyond their rooftop garden, Avling makes an effort to support small local farms nearby, with each farm listed on the back of their daily menu. “Fancy farms don’t need my support to survive,” says Eva.
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Similarly, Eva outsources different menu items from local purveyors: “I love making bread, but I don’t make bread as good as Tung Hing Bakery that’s been making banh mi baguettes for 42 years. I’ll bring in bread from her and support her, says Eva. “To me, that’s being sustainable. I’m supporting someone that’s three miles away. That’s shopping local to me.”
I want every female Asian chef in the city to feel like they can cook this type of food without being called out for it
As a BIPOC woman head chef, Eva recognizes her unique position. “I hope to continue to inspire the women of all races and ages, but that’s something that’s new to me, is realizing that it’s not about what I can do for myself, it’s what I can do to set up the road for the next generation,” says Eva. “I want every female Asian chef in the city to feel like they can cook this type of food without being called out for it. I want more Asian eateries to have the courage to take burgers off the menu and put a bao on instead.” Still, Eva recognizes there’s so much more work to be done for Asian representation in the Canadian food scene: “Right now the best thing we can do is take up space. I’m just one very small kernel in this corn – I can’t do much, but within my power I’m doing what I can do. I can get people to want congee over a burger – that’s already a big deal for me.”
That said, Eva is still dreaming up new ways she can push the boundaries of Avling’s menu and celebrate Asian cuisine. This winter, Avling will offer a North American Chinese-style Christmas menu, or as Eva refers to it: “an immigrant’s holiday package”. Think: sticky rice-stuffed turkey, Christmas ham XO, stir-fried green beans and Chinese five spice duck egg rolls. “I didn’t grow up eating French onion green beans, but my family makes an effort to have a traditional American Thanksgiving spread in their own way,” says Eva. “My grandma would make green beans with XO, she topped it with pork floss instead of crispy onions. I want to share with people the fusion Christmas I grew up with.” One thing’s for sure no matter what season you visit Avling in, you’re in for a treat.