It’s Monday night and at a closed, downtown Toronto restaurant, Chef Ken Yau is quietly producing an impressive, 12-course tasting menu of interactive, playful dishes.
The first time I met Chef Ken, he introduced himself as a ‘part-time chef’. He (annoyingly) underplays his ingenuity and the remarkableness of what he’s created. Chef Ken is not a ‘part-time chef’, but rather is the brains behind k.dinners, an intimate, private, and pop-up dinner series featuring an innovative and whimsical tasting menu.
Torontonians looking for a good meal should find themselves at Fiorentina on the Danforth on Monday evenings. The cozy venue is the site for k.dinners. The private dinner brings together 16 people for a night of delicious dishes, but moreover, getting to know one another through the power of good food.
Take, for example, the final amuse-bouche of the night. Diners are served with a plate featuring a wishbone placed in the middle, two pieces of pâte de fruit on either side – one larger than the other. Guests must break the wishbone with a table mate to see who gets the larger piece of pâte de fruit.
The menu changes every few months but keeps its core of Asian-inspired, seafood-forward tastes. The menu is influenced by Chef Ken’s cultural background and upbringing. Chef Ken’s parents come from Hong Kong and many of the dishes he puts on the menu are derived from meals he grew up eating as a child, incorporating ingredients and methods from his family. An XO sauce recipe from Chef Ken’s mother is used in his fried rice with the roasted pork dish.
For dessert, guests are surprised with a taiyaki filled with salted yolk, accompanied by a side of Yakult-flavoured panna cotta. For many (myself included), and especially for those of Chinese, Japanese, and Chinese descent, Yakult (a probiotic yogurt drink) was a daily beverage as a child. Chef Ken pays homage to childhood with a tongue-in-cheek play on McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets. A faux McDonald’s nugget box arrives at your table filled with mouthwatering fried chicken bites to dip in lobster ketchup and top with lumpfish caviar. The nostalgic treats deliver a trip down memory lane but elevated, tailored more to your (now) grown-up palate.
The imagination behind k.dinners is notable, it’s hard to believe that Chef Ken ever wanted to be anything but a chef. Once on track to become a vet, Chef Ken was halfway through completing his masters at the University of Guelph when he decided to pull the plug on his burgeoning veterinary career to pursue his love of cooking. “I kind of fell into cooking. For me, cooking was just this amazing thing that brought people together,” explains Chef Ken.
Not knowing much about the industry, Chef Ken decided to jump in feet first. “There was no point in trying not to aim for anything but highest,” he says and he did just that. A quick search for Toronto’s top restaurants later and Chef Ken dropped by Nota Bene asking for a shot in the kitchen. He was told to come back at 9 a.m. the next day – that was the moment he became a chef.
Moving on from Nota Bene, Chef Ken looked for a new experience at Scaramouche. There, he says he “learned how to cook, and really – what food is.” Driven to learn and discover cuisine beyond Toronto, Chef Ken was prompted to go outside of Canada. After two years in Hong Kong, Chef Ken travelled over to the U.K. to work at The Fat Duck. His experience at The Fat Duck was a formative period. “Scaramouche gave me classical, proper training,” he elaborates, “but at The Fat Duck, I was taught to think outside the box.”
As he details his career so far, it feels like Chef Ken thinks quite strategically about his moves. When asked about where his drive and ambition come from, he explains that “In the beginning, I was really just hoping to learn as much as I could. Coming from a different industry, and starting later in the game than others, I didn’t want to just be ‘average’.” Chef Ken is authentically, all about the food; putting aside ego, he’s more hungry for knowledge and expertise than he is for fame.
Chef Ken’s appetite for acquiring skills, while propelling him forward, has an admitted edge to it. “In the middle of my time overseas, my motivation shifted away from being about bringing people together and making them happy. I was really solely focused on owning a restaurant and it went into a darker place.”
“k.dinners was what brought me back to a place of love with cooking,” says Chef Ken. “It reminded me of why I cook in the first place. It wasn’t about owning my own restaurant. It was about sharing a love of food with others. I wanted to create a communal dining space where food can bring strangers together.”
k.dinners not only provided a creative outlet for Chef Ken, but a chance to create his own opportunities – on his terms.
After eight years abroad, Chef Ken had returned to Canada with years of culinary expertise now under his belt. It seemed like Chef Ken was poised to take on any job he wanted to – but nothing felt right. He wasn’t seeing the opportunities that he wanted in the city and he didn’t feel at home in the city.
Though make no mistake, Chef Ken’s goal was never to bring ‘an international flavour’ to the Toronto food scene. “I think it would be pretentious of me to think that I could massively change the food scene here. That wasn’t really the goal of k.dinners. It was more about trying to find my identity in cooking and trying to figure out what my style is. It was also a personal challenge for myself, I wanted to see if I could actually cook a menu that is completely and fully mine.”
And that he does; k.dinners is primarily a solo project. On the night of, Chef Ken works with a server but otherwise, the dinner is prepared by him. It’s a large project to take on, but this change in schedule and how he works has actually allowed Chef Ken’s work-life balance to drastically change for the better.
I don’t think it’s any secret that working in the foodservice industry can be a challenge. “I have a love-hate relationship with the industry,” Chef Ken admits. Being in charge of his own schedule, making his own hours, and opening himself up to having more time off has allowed Chef Ken to pursue other opportunities – personally and professionally.
He recently hosted a two-day, dumpling and noodle pop-up event at The Beverly Hotel in Toronto. During the event, Chef Ken slung comfort food dishes like dan dan noodles, fried rice with salted yolk, and fried dumplings for 100+ covers a night.
Having dined with Chef Ken during his pop-up and his regular k.dinner series, I was struck primarily as how much fun I had at each event – this is a purposeful move on Chef Ken’s part. “I ate at Del Posto in New York and the biggest impact that the restaurant had on me was watching the next table over receive their dessert,” he explains.
He expands on this, saying: “The waiter brought over an incredibly thin Italian wafer and threw it on the table so it crashed and broke apart. I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants where the food was incredible but they just didn’t leave a lasting impression. However, I’ve remembered the dessert experience for years. I want guests to walk away struck by the k.dinner experience. I want people to be talking about the dinner they had with me 10 years from now.”