Spice girls

The Standard

5 May 2022

Behind the fiery Sichuan dishes of Chilli Fagara is the combined force of mother-and-daughter duo Chan Kai-ying and Tracy Wong.

Born in Chongqing and into a family of chefs meant that Chan started learning Sichuan cuisine young.

"I have a lot of siblings and my parents had to work so as the eldest child, I had to take care of my siblings and prepare their dinners daily," Chan recalled.

"My first dish was the Sichuan-style stir-fried egg, which is also my favorite dish. It can stir up an appetite as it's tangy, sweet and spicy. Our whole family loves spicy food so this dish was loved by kids and adults alike."

The satisfaction which arose from seeing others enjoy her cooking helped her decide to become a chef.

So when her parents opened their own Sichuan restaurant when she was in her late teens, Chan helped out in the restaurant and stayed in the kitchen most of the time to observe how her father prepared his dishes.

She would also cook for the employees and her family.

"My dad always told me that whatever dish I cook, I have to use my heart to make it and I have to understand what ingredients work with what climate," said Chan.

She opened her first restaurant when she emigrated to Winnipeg in the 1970s.

"Starting my own restaurant was a big responsibility. I had to do a lot of things myself and would work all day without fatigue registering. The ingredients there were, of course, not as nice as in Hong Kong. It's not bad but it's different for new immigrants like myself," said the chef.

It took time to adapt to the different ingredients available in Canada.

For example, the frozen meat on offer meant that the food lost its freshness. As such, much depended on the chef's ability to work with the ingredients.

The restaurant was also a big part of Wong's childhood. Having a chef as a mother meant that she would often spend time in the restaurant with Chan after school.

Chan said: "I didn't have time to see her at home. If she came to the restaurant after school, I could look after her. I could ask her if she was hungry and make something for her.

"Or I could see if she finished her homework and watch her do it in the restaurant. And when it was late, I would take her home. That was how she grew up."

Growing up with the buzz of her "second home" made restaurants a familiar atmosphere. Wong recalled helping out by making dim sum with the staff.

Even though Wong grew up in Canada, the family would travel to Hong Kong for vacations. This cemented her love for Hong Kong and her decision to move here.

As the Chinese saying goes: "To raise a child for a century means worrying for 99."

Chan went back and forth between Hong Kong and Canada until the family finally decided to open a restaurant together in Hong Kong.

"We just felt like our version of Sichuan food was quite different to what Hong Kong had at that time," said Wong.

"Even though I was born and raised in Canada, I have always been exposed to Sichuan cuisine because of my mom. It is something I feel comfortable with because I have lived with it all my life. I grew up with the spices, the fragrant smells and the strong flavors."

The mother-and-daughter duo started Chilli Fagara in 2005 and the rest is history.

The restaurant held a Michelin star from 2011 to 2013 and has been a Michelin-recommended restaurant since 2014.

"I am very lucky to have the opportunity to work with my mom," said Wong.

"I would be lying if I said there were no arguments but I think we have learned how to communicate with each other. She is full of ideas and I love working with her because she is so creative, innovative and full of energy."

Having served the Hong Kong scene for 17 years, Chilli Fagara continues to adapt traditional cuisine to serve the ever-changing demands of diners.

For example, Chan created vegetarian versions of traditional dishes so more people can enjoy the cuisine regardless of their dietary preferences.

"The world is focusing more on healthy food and we have to follow this trend and adapt," she said. "It takes experience and constant improvement."

The favorite parts of the day for Chan and Wong are meal times as they can spend time with one another and discuss the restaurant.

"This is how my family has been since I was young. We did not go to the park or watch movies," said Wong. "When we sat down, we talked about different dishes."

Chan and Wong also share memories of preparing dumplings together.

For Mother's Day this year, Chilli Fagara is returning with its wrap-at-home chili dumpling kits, with which children and parents can enjoy making dumplings together.

There are pork and vegan options and all kits include Chilli Fagara's Ma and La sauce. The kits will be available for preorder at least one day in advance until Mother's Day.

"When I was a child, I loved helping my parents in the kitchen, especially when preparing dumplings with them," said Chan.

"This inspired me to bring our family tradition to Chilli Fagara this Mother's Day. What better way to celebrate motherhood than with a family activity filled with fun and flavors?"