Chef Angus An’s Slow, Steady Road to Success

“For me, it’s about ego,” says Vancouver’s master of Thai cuisine. “I try not to have one”

September 11, 2015

By Fiona Morrow / Photo: Andrew Querner

The following story is from our fourth annual Food Issue, on newsstands Sept. 14.

There’s a lot of banging coming from the kitchen. A single expletive rings through the air. “I’m breaking things already,” a voice calls out, only half laughing.

Chef Angus An jumps up to lend help to the source of distress. It’s a sweltering day in August, and we’re sitting in Fat Mao, his long-delayed Chinatown restaurant, the week before it opens. The menu is short: five noodle dishes, eight sides. Initially, 120 portions of noodles will be made daily, and when the kitchen runs out they’ll shut for the day.

“I know it doesn’t look like we’re ready,” An shrugs as we survey a floor covered in workman’s tools, half-built tables leaning against the walls, and the chaos underway in the restaurant’s tiny open kitchen.

He turns his attention back to the plumber currently trying to squeeze a regulation-required storage unit into a skinny space by the sink. “This will work,” the man asserts emphatically as he and An raise the unit up from the floor a few inches by fixing casters to the legs. It squeaks into place by a hair. There are smiles all round.

This, An proffers apologetically, is what life is like for him right now. We’re spending the day together, and rather than watching him manage and prep for dinner service at his Kitsilano flagship restaurant, Maenam, we’ll be flitting between Chinatown and New Westminster, only arriving at West Fourth Avenue later, when service is underway. Before then, there will be endless texts and phone calls, punctuated by several meetings to discuss new projects. And food. Lots of food.

Now 35, An is undoubtedly one of Vancouver’s best chefs. At Maenam, he creates perfectly executed and authentic Thai cuisine in modern surroundings. It’s chic, but casual; top-quality, but at approachable prices. The accolades have flowed freely, from taking the Best Thai trophy at the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards every year since 2010, to storming in at number 26 in this year’s inaugural edition of the Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list (just behind Cioppino’s, at 18, and inches ahead of Vij’s, in the 29th spot), ranked according to the votes of dozens of chefs and industry insiders.

An is happy for his work to be recognized, but careful not to set too much store in plaudits. He prefers to keep a lower profile. “When people talk to me about Maenam, they’re obviously polite and say good things about me,” he says. “But it’s also because Maenam has been consistent and we’re not competing with many restaurants in town.”

This misplaced modesty speaks volumes: Maenam was the phoenix that saved An from the ashes of Gastropod, his first restaurant (in the same location), which went down in flames in 2009. He may not have been the only restaurateur hammered by the economic downturn, but you can hardly blame him for taking it personally.

Gastropod was An’s dream. It was the restaurant that would bring together everything he had been working toward. He’d studied fine art at UBC, then headed to New York to train at the French Culinary Institute, working under Jacques Pépin and apprenticing at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s JoJo. He started his culinary career proper under Normand Laprise at Montreal’s legendary Toqué, before heading to Michelin-starred rooms in the U.K.: Heston Blumenthal’s the Fat Duck; Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons; and then David Thompson’s Nahm, the first Thai restaurant in the world to receive a Michelin star.

As a classically French-trained chef with more than a passing interest in modern gastronomy, An’s decision to work at Nahm, though serendipitous, was not an obvious choice. “I always wanted to cook European food,” he says. “So I treated my experience working with David as something that was going to eventually benefit my Western cooking. Learning about how to balance intense flavours and seasoning, I believed, would help me when I opened Gastropod.”

(Nahm changed his life in more ways than one: It’s where he met Kate Auewattanakorn, who would become his wife and business partner. When they moved back to B.C. in 2006, they were struck by how few Thai restaurants there were in Vancouver and pledged to make casual Thai their second project.)

It’s easy to forget how radical Gastropod was when it opened at the tail end of 2006. An was drawing on what was then an innovative molecular toolbox, presenting food that took Vancouver to a culinary cutting edge. His signature oyster—served with sauternes jelly and horseradish snow—was such a perfect bite that, almost a decade later, the memory of it has the power to make your mouth water. “All I was interested in was cooking the food I wanted to cook,” he recalls. “I wanted it to be the best restaurant around, and I think we made great food.”

Gastropod won this magazine’s Best New Fine Dining Award in 2007, but just two years later An was forced to close its doors. After six or seven months of losing as much as $25,000 monthly, there was no other way out. Fortunately, he and Auewattanakorn had the concept for Maenam all ready to go, and they were able to open a brisk three weeks later. But despite the city welcoming this reinvention with open arms, behind the front-of-house smiles, things remained uncertain. “There were some dark days,” he confides. “Even the first couple of years at Maenam—I was doing it, but I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is the right path for me.’ There were times when I thought we could just stop doing this and we could move somewhere. I could get a job where I’m paid a lot better. I thought about moving to Thailand with Kate. Our son, Aidan, was born in 2007, so that added to the stress.

“We lost a lot of money with Gastropod,” he adds matter-of-factly. “Even though Maenam is profitable, we’re still making that loss up.”

***

There’s a sigh, followed by a low groan.

“I can’t believe it. You stop paying attention for a second… Last time, I came out and they’d painted everything the wrong colour.”

We’re in New Westminster’s River Market, and An is staring in dismay at the height of the sneeze guard that’s been installed across the front of a kiosk at Freebird, soon to be his fourth restaurant. (At the time of this writing, its opening date could not be projected.) “It’s as tall as me,” the five-foot-10 chef remarks about the mandatory shield that protects the kitchen’s foodstuffs from public exhalations. “What were they thinking?”

An has had a presence at this waterfront development for a while. He opened Longtail Kitchen—a second, more casual Thai eatery—two-and-a-half years ago. The food is simpler than at Maenam, but no less fragrant and bright. New West’s geography, he tells me, makes it the perfect place to build a presence in the suburbs: Maple Ridge (where he grew up), Richmond, and Surrey are all fairly near. Headed up by chef Justin Cheung, Longtail also fits An’s recent business-development model: small space, tight menu, good value, low risk.

Freebird distills that model even further. “It’s basically a chicken shack,” An explains. “I’m really fascinated by Asian street markets where a stall will sell one thing—one thing they do really well.”

His first thought was fried chicken, but a lack of ventilation scotched that idea. Instead, he bought a rotisserie oven with which Freebird will serve roasted, marinated chicken prepared in the traditional Thai gai yang style. Also on offer will be khao man gai, the Thai version of poached Hainanese chicken.

“I hope you’re hungry,” he says, as Cheung brings a succession of dishes to our riverside table. There’s a zingy compressed-watermelon-and-tomato salad; perfectly crisp fried chicken wings served with lip-smacking nahm jim dipping sauce; a revelatory bowl of laksa (it’s clear why people go wild for this Malaysian noodle soup whenever Cheung puts it on Longtail’s menu); and a plate of the poached chicken and rice that will be served at Freebird.

The dipping sauce is under fierce discussion. Today we have the spicy Thai version, not the traditional Hainanese ginger-based accompaniment. “Kate wanted this sauce,” he says. “Being Chinese, I wanted the other.”

He pauses for a smile. “We’ll see who wins.

Working so closely with his wife is, he admits, a challenge. At Gastropod, Auewattanakorn managed front-of-house and An was king of the kitchen; at Maenam, she rules the roost. “She’s really the only qualified person in there to judge what I need to do—and she does judge, and she does change things.

“I pick my battles, and I think we have learned to deal with things. I’m not going to say it’s easy and we do a great job of it, but I think we do a good enough job to still have a good marriage and raise a family.”

For efficiency’s sake, the couple splits tasks, both domestic and professional: An is responsible for the daily school run; Auewattanakorn takes charge of the weekly order of imported Thai ingredients. She sticks to Maenam, while he stick-handles their growing empire. “Kate has many strengths,” he says, “but multitasking isn’t one of them.”

Again, he smiles. “Maybe that’s why I’m out opening all these restaurants.”

He jokes, but family is key for An. His parents have always been involved: Dad provided handyman services and grew herbs in the early days; Mom looks after Aidan, and Fat Mao’s scallion pancakes will be made by her (“Only a hundred portions a week, so she doesn’t work too hard,” An says). He’s working as hard as he is so that he can secure his family’s future—one he envisages will include retirement in Thailand.

***

Maenam is almost full by 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. I perch at the bar and An heads to the kitchen. He comes back and waves a stick of Thai lemongrass under my nose. “So much more fragrant than the Mexican stuff.”

The food is, as always, spectacular: refined, beautifully presented, yet uncompromisingly Thai. There’s the appetite-stimulating betel leaves wrapped around grilled prawns in galangal dressing; a seared albacore tuna curry; ridiculously moreish ribs; and a delectable fermented-sausage salad with clusters of crispy rice. (“I wanted to make the rice grains separate, but Kate won.”) Just when I think I will burst, Auewattanakorn insists we need vegetables, and appears with a perfect plate of greens studded with pork belly.

This year, An pruned Maenam’s à la carte choices, putting more emphasis on the chef’s menu. He’s also offering whole crab and fish dishes, available with advance notice. These are signs, I suggest, that he has his confidence back.

He agrees. For the first time in several years, he says, he is comfortable with who he is and what he needs to do. “For me, it’s about ego,” he states. “I try not to have one. The failure of Gastropod was such a confidence-shatterer that I don’t have an ego anymore. I used to dream so big. I really wanted to change the world with my cooking.”

His plans, though relatively modest in scale, remain big in concept. Among them is a good-quality food court, currently in the early stages of development. (All further details are, as yet, closely guarded.)

Using his own experience to help younger chefs is also high among An’s priorities. Cioppino’s owner/chef Pino Posteraro has been a huge help and mentor to An, and he wants to pay that forward. He’s playing around with a restaurant co-op idea that would provide practical as well as financial assistance. “Being able to help someone better themselves is part of bettering yourself,” he states. “Surrounding yourself with good people is also part of that. It’s about professional pride.”

Learning to be a businessman has been, he says, his toughest life lesson. “The hardest decisions involve not only yourself but people who depend on you to feed their families, to pay their rent. It’s difficult. Believe me, it’s so much easier to just stand in a kitchen
and cook.”

Eight years ago, says An, he was showing up to work with no idea where his life was going. He may still be some way from financial security, but at least his vision has become clearer. “Now I understand what I need to do to be successful—and it’s not to have a TV show, it’s not to write 20 cookbooks. The ultimate goal—the reason we’re doing Fat Mao and Freebird and Longtail—is they’re brands we can reproduce easily. I set up a place, I spend a bit of time there, and it’s fine. It can run with minimal oversight from me. And I can concentrate on Maenam.”

He references celebrated New York restaurateur Danny Meyer (of Gramercy Tavern and the fast-growing Shake Shack chain) while talking about opening restaurants that fit every sector of a pyramid that begins with fine dining at the top, then Maenam, followed by more casual places, and finishing with fast food at the bottom.

“Apart from fine dining,” he’s quick to clarify. “I don’t need to chase that glory anymore.”

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