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Joël Watanabe modernizes traditional Chinese dishes by grounding them in classic French techniques and local ingredients.
Growing up in Ottawa with early onset alopecia (an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss), Joël Watanabe faced constant teasing from the age of six and often swung back with his fists. “I wasn’t afraid to stand up for myself,” says our Chef of the Year, shortly after returning from Toronto, where he scooped yet another national award for his Japanese-Italian knockout, Kissa Tanto. While it might be difficult to reconcile this portrait of a young scrapper with the “gracious, humble” culinary artist hailed for his “quiet confidence” and “lack of ego”—both in person and on the plate—it is kind of funny that one of our judges described the chef’s breakout moment, the 2010 launch of Chinatown’s Bao Bei, as “a big, hairy deal for Vancouver.”
That Taiwanese-Shanghainese brasserie was “borderline revelatory” in the way it modernized traditional Chinese dishes by grounding them in classic French techniques and local ingredients. Still, those delicious handmade dumplings and steamed mantou buns stuffed with free-range meats and organic produce were also misunderstood. “There was a backlash,” recalls Watanabe, who was again forced to defend himself. “People said, ‘This isn’t Chinese.’ I had to say, ‘Look, I’m not cooking your grandmother’s food.’”
The transition from Bao Bei to Kissa Tanto, where Watanabe now has some skin in the game as one of three owners, was a smooth progression that brought the chef closer to his roots, both personally (his heritage is half Japanese, half Corsican-Italian French Canadian) and professionally (the refined fusion cooking—“humming with clarity,” “honesty,” and “elegance”—is a better reflection of his classic training in French, Italian and Japanese fine dining).
“In every dish, he is able to find a thread of what the two disparate cuisines are trying to communicate and distill it into a cohesive whole that never feels forced,” says one judge. “There is aha-ness in his food,” adds another. This time, there hasn’t been any blowback from customers. “We’ve had a lot of compliments from Italians,” says Watanabe. “Japanese people think it’s odd, but they love it.” And the chef is feeling much more relaxed, as he rightly should. “I love to cook. That’s why I’m here. There’s not much need for me to be angry.”