Reprinted from TheStar.com
The following is an excerpt from author Cheuk Kwan's book, "Have You Eaten Yet?":
OUTLOOK - On a frigid January day in 2000, with the mercury at –30 C, Kwoi and I drove the two hours from Saskatoon to the town of Outlook. We were deep in the Canadian Prairies: a vast, flat countryside with a big sky and endless wheat fields. The late-afternoon sun cast a golden hue on a landscape dotted with railroad crossings and grain elevators, criss-crossed by empty roads and emptier train tracks.
It was both bleak and strangely beautiful.
Five kilometres from town, at a T‑junction, a road sign pointed left, just over the South Saskatchewan River, to “Outlook Pop. 1,200.” The sun was setting. We rode into town like gunslingers in a John Ford Western.
The New Outlook Cafe was in a corner building, across from a car dealership, halfway down Saskatchewan Avenue — a main street with no traffic light. The restaurant’s sign protruded diagonally at the corner, so you couldn’t help but notice it.
Inside, three rows of booths, seating 50, ran down the length of the room and led to the kitchen. There was also a lunch counter at the service area, facing a Coca-Cola fridge, stainless-steel display shelves for desserts and the omnipresent coffee maker.
A sign advertising “Noisy Jim’s Homemade Apple Pie” was posted on the far wall.
Jim was convivial as he refilled coffee and chatted up his customers, very much the proud owner of the Chinese café.
Well, not quite.
When Jim retired seven years earlier, he sold his business to Ruby Lee and Ken Chan, an immigrant couple from Jim’s village in Hoiping county. But he continued to show up every morning at six to serve coffee to his loyal customers, just as he had since 1959.
“I wake up at four every morning,” said Jim in his hoarse voice. “OK, they get too tired working long hours, so I get up and help them, open up for them. I’m not doing anything else, so why not get up and help other people, eh?”
“Is there anything in this for you?” I asked.
“They offer me but I never take it. Because the moment I take any pay, I’m not a free man.” His voice boomed across the room. “This way, I come and go when I like. And I don’t like to owe anybody a favour. I like it when I do you a favour and you go help others. I’m happier this way. That’s my way.”
According to Lloyd Smith, a customer of 30 years, Jim couldn’t give up the habit. “He even takes the coffee home with him. He can’t get used to his home coffee.” Lloyd had the keys to New Outlook’s mailbox in a nearby town. He picked up the mail for the restaurant, which Jim still opened and read before passing it on to the new owners.
“This is not a bar town, it’s a café town,” Lloyd pointedly told me. “The town’s social life is at the café. We come here and visit with each other. It’s more fun than watching television at home anyway.”
The Chinese café is more than just a place to eat; it is an institution in towns across the Canadian Prairies: a community centre, a place where families grow up together. The bond that Jim created with his customers was so deep that, for many years, he gave them keys so that they could open up in the morning and make their own coffee if he wasn’t there yet, or even go into the kitchen to make their own breakfast. On their way out, they would leave money in a wooden box on the counter.
Generations of locals were loyal to the restaurant: farm workers, having their first coffee at dawn; school bus drivers, stopping by every morning after their runs; mother-daughter pairs, having a lunchtime chat; and retirees, dropping in for a second visit of the day.
Lisa Cooper, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, ate lunch there every day because “it’s just too far to go home, and you get a nice home-cooked meal.”
As Kwoi shot in the kitchen, I crossed the room to talk to three men in their mid-thirties. Jeremy, wearing a John Deere hat, said there was a time when they spent upwards of six hours a day in this place, “just sitting around, drinking coffee and eating whatever, playing cards.”
Jon, his buddy in a Blue Jays baseball cap, told me he first came with his parents when he was seven. “And I’ve liked Chinese food ever since, so I just kept coming back.”
Curtis, the third diner, noted that as soon as they sat down, “Jim would know exactly what we want — cheese, fries and gravy.”
Prairie cafés are not really Chinese restaurants. They don’t serve anything remotely resembling Chinese food. They are about a nice cup of coffee with bacon and eggs in the morning; a generous cut of pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy at lunch; and maybe a coffee and dessert after dinner.
“And, as much coffee as you want for a dollar … Better food than McDonald’s,” Jon added.
I asked Jim what kind of food he served.
“Canadian … Chinese. Well, it’s not really Chinese. It’s what you call American Chinese food, eh. Egg roll, chow mein, chop suey and all that. It’s not the same as what Chinese people eat, right?”
Chop suey is American Chinese, of course. Or, as Jennifer 8. Lee, in her book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” calls it: the biggest culinary joke one culture plays on another. In Cantonese, chop suey means “odds and ends.” In other words, whatever is left over. The dish is essentially meat and vegetables stir-fried together in a cornstarch-thickened soy-and-sesame sauce. Bean sprout is a popular ingredient because it is cheap.
There are many legends surrounding the dish’s creation. But it is generally accepted that it was created sometime at the turn of the 20th century by Chinese immigrants — most likely unemployed railroad workers — who settled in California. The ingenuity of the dish is that it can be made with any ingredients.
This creative use of leftover ingredients is not limited to early Chinese workers. High-end chefs do it, too. I once sat in on a morning menu meeting with Susur Lee, who has for years dazzled Toronto diners with his epicurean Sino-French fusion. The first thing he asked his staff was: What do we have in the fridge and the pantry?
"Have You Eaten Yet?" is available where books are sold.