Based on tuning in two-thirds the way through the fifth episode of the Food Network reality series, Family Restaurant: The Quons, and just for a few minutes, I was willing to write the show off as a trainwreck. My PVR managed to pick up on a few more episodes (3, 4, and 6) and I delayed watching them for some time in part because of my initial impression, but also because I needed to pay attention and make notes.
Based on a few minutes of the cacophonic scene of Miles and Pan Pan’s wedding in Beijing, some cursory exploration of the Lingnan restaurant website, I had formed a stereotype to be proved wrong. You see, there is this wildly successful restaurant in Halifax that, in its original incarnation, was decked out from top to bottom from the pages of some Oriental Decor Magazine–so much red, gold gilt, arches, dragons, phoenixes, all that blaring decoration the unsophisticated dining population wanted to see to prove the fare is authentic. The owner was the female version of what I thought Amy would be like and he was married to an Amy–double trouble. And Miles, with his barrel chest, a joke that fell flat, and unaware how overbearing he seems, reminded me with some distaste of a former boyfriend.
In the first episode I watched, “You Cannot Choose Your Family” it seemed to meander between the issues of the week like setting up the security system and stocking the vending machine. But it provided for me a good introduction to the players, well mainly the brothers, Miles and Marty. Younger brother Marty’s tagline is “part-timer” and initially I thought I would like him better, being easier on the eyes when Miles vaguely reminds me of an ex-boyfriend. But he’s edited to be a slacker who uses school as an excuse to skip from putting in a few hours during the weekend rush, flouncing in and convincing himself he’s been instrumental, and at other times avoiding Amy’s phone calls just as the dinner rush starts. I know those phone calls as I got them from mum; they invariably are shouted out and succinct, “喂! Come to work! We’re busy!” I can understand that having also worked from the age of 14 like them (perhaps they lied to not get the parents in trouble and actually started younger) until… well, forever. There’s no excuse not to help your family’s business and livelihood if you’re living in the same city.
As for Miles, the manager I wanted to despise, they filmed him doing everything: doing prep work in a frumpy apron when the kitchen is deserted before the shift starts, running the show and shouting orders in Cantonese from the long counter that divides the kitchen, snaking a clogged urinal, and trying to set up the security system himself to avoid calling in an electrician. My parents end up having to do every job in the restaurant and my sister is the Take Out Packing Queen–I bet she would kick both their butts in a Pack Off. Meanwhile, I’m more like Marty, as I had a phase of trying to avoid work citing school and I deal better with customers and taking the phone orders than the pressure cooker that is the kitchen. So I reluctantly became endeared to Miles during the sibling rivalry showdown in the form of a Pack Off and Blind Taste Test. In both, my sister would have beat me!
In the next few episodes, I learned more about the restaurants they run–like us they have one sit-down restaurant and one fast food one–and their Chinese-restaurant-family dynamics. I try to read between the lines and editing to see the portrayal as my own experience which, of course, is the real, raw version. It would be some kind of boon if both parent figures were equally super-keen on running the restaurant; but it can work if one parent is decisive and the other is compliant–Kinman seems much more easy-going but definitely not the pushover I thought he would be to shrill (I haven’t changed my opinion about that) Amy. Miles and Amy are the entrepreneurs, spearheading new dish ideas despite the reluctance that Kinman and I were feeling. I’ve never been to Edmonton so I don’t know the state of advancement of their Chinese cuisine–still, I was really surprised that they were only introducing a Kung Pao chicken at that time, a couple of years ago. Heck, Halifax even had a Szechuan restaurant (Hungry Chili on Blowers?) that served 家鄉/home-style cooking and I first had numbing peppercorn there back in the early 2000’s. That fried fish pieces with dipping sauce still might not fly in Halifax. Miles is really capable and I saw that when he reviewed the game plan with his parents and did extra prep in advance of leaving two weeks earlier than the others for his trip to Beijing.
In short, I wish I had caught more episodes of the Family Restaurant but there is the spin-off, The Quon Dynasty I blogged about earlier, set to air this spring that I should be able to catch from the top. I had other observations from the few episodes that are a little scattered and as follows:
- I love how Miles brought chefs to Edmonton from Beijing. I feel a little for the chefs on account of culture shock but laughed when Miles is shocked by having “dinner” for breakfast and the chefs didn’t know what to do with sweet pancakes Miles made and so rolled up their savoury food in them! The chefs live together in an apartment with Miles and I wish we had been able to bring in skilled chefs like that.
- Perhaps our CBC tastes are getting influenced by Americanized versions of every kind of ethnic and we forget ours isn’t The Authentic Beijing Style. But when you visit Beijing and end up in a so-so restaurant? You’re wishing for the quality food of Canada! Miles and Kinman had very different eating experiences in China where mine aligned more with Kinman’s and we were not thrilled; Miles had his Beijing-based wife as a guide and they avoided the signature Beijing overly spicy and greasy chicken and onions dish!
- Evaluating along with Miles and Pan Pan the chefs interviewing by preparing a dish was fun. They were so slow–which is not expected from chefs and Chinese people–and they basically plated overpoweringly spicy and oily dishes.
- I tried to observe the staffing levels from the dinner rush in one of the episodes: they have two or three delivery drivers who required coordination, and a bookkeeper on staff who hides out downstairs?! I wondered if the bookkeeper wasn’t a relative they sponsored to immigrate from China…?
- It was hilarious how Miles fumed over Amy’s speech at his wedding–instead of the expected topics, she talked at length about the restaurant and congratulated herself on making the arrangements so successfully
- A lot of the take out orders were packed into slim cardboard boxes?!
- Amy praised her Chicken for Lunch employees for their good work and, “I tell them, if no good they have to come tell me–I fix it. But if good, they tell their friends.” My mother should tell her customers this!
- Okay, I liked the name of the numbing chicken dish they created: La Zi Ji Ding (辣椒雞丁, I think)
- Really, they all wore garish cheungsam for the post-mortem interviews? Really?!
- After Amy returned from a couple weeks in China, the queue at her lunch spot was enviably very long. I’m not sure having a camera crew did not hinder things (because she would turn to talk to the camera) and how understanding people at the back of the line were!