Although those in the restaurant industry know that it can be cyclical in trends and fortunes, judge Nick Liu has definitely come full circle. Years ago, when he first dreamed up plans for what would become Toronto’s restaurant, Nick ran up against difficulties with procuring a space in the city’s hot real estate market. Undaunted, he started a series of pop-ups to promote his dream and his food, and eventually parlayed those temporary events into a full-time space on bustling College St. “Doing the popups gave me the ability to shift and move and really come up with a bunch of ideas really quickly,” Nick told Food Network Canada in a recent interview. Once the bricks and mortar restaurant opened, it quickly gained popularity and top 10 list mentions and expanded to include an outpost in the trendy collective known as .
Then, the pandemic hit, and like so many of his peers, Nick was faced with a mandatory shutdown of his restaurant as social distancing became the norm. After three months, he revived the pop-up strategy that had served him well before, offering the Spot Prawn Betel Leaf, Hakka Wontons and Big Mac Baos that had won him a loyal customer base.
Part of Nick’s ability to pivot comes from the wide array of influences drawn from his own life, including a father hailing from Kolkata and a mother born in the South African city of Port Elizabeth. The Hakka cuisine of his Chinese Canadian childhood are flavours that Nick grew up with (one of his earliest cooking memories is — an ingenious way to keep boisterous Nick and his brother occupied) and would form the basis of the New Asian style of cooking he would develop throughout his career. Trained at Toronto’s , Nick worked in some of the city’s most recognizable kitchens: at French landmark , under at Splendido, and taking the lead at Niagara Street Cafe as executive chef. During that time, he also traveled and experienced as many cooking elements as he could — , , cheesemaking in Bath or winemaking in Italy — Nick wanted to try it all. “Every place I’ve ever visited, I’d find my way into someone’s kitchen, like a family I met in Turkey who I met at their restaurant,” he says. “All these cultures, when you have these connections with food, want to invite you into their family.”
Now that he’s back home at Dailo, Nick has definitely learned some lessons about adaptability to the unfamiliar — and he’s sharing those lessons with the home cooks on Wall of Chefs (he’s also no stranger to the competitive television world, having taken on Susur Lee as a contestant on , ). As a judge, Nick has seen contestants crumble under the pressure, often self-induced. “I think that the home chefs get into their own heads,” he says. “People start scrambling and changing their recipes and plating to make it a little bit more restaurant-worthy.”
The top piece of advice he offers to anyone looking to win his approval as a judge (and top marks at the pass) is to keep from overcomplicating a dish. “I tend to gravitate towards simpler things. I don’t like too many things on a plate,” he says. “I’m looking for technique and balance of flavour, which are the most important things for me. And I really like when people try and get creative, but also pare that creativity down with confidence that they’re serving a great dish.”
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