From Passion to Profession: Chef Ken Yau
Toronto’s vibrant food scene is made up of over 7,500 restaurants, many of which are locally owned businesses. This week, RCIG is shining the spotlight on one of those small business owners, Chef Ken Yau, the creative mastermind behind k.Market. Ken’s food has been featured by several major news outlets and blogs, including blogTO, Taste Toronto, Curiocity, CBC, and more. With over 10 years of experience, Ken has managed to build a name for himself in the Toronto community and find creative ways to thrive, even during the pandemic - but that wasn’t always the plan. When I sat down with Ken earlier this week, I was surprised to learn that he was halfway through his master’s degree when he decided to pursue cooking full time. So how does one go from studying animal behaviour at Guelph to cooking full time in downtown Toronto?
Ken was inspired to experiment with cooking during university, “Not having much money, you have to be creative with what you have.” After falling in love with cooking for friends and hosting dinner parties, he ended up quitting his masters to start working in kitchens, first at Nota Bene (a now-closed, critically acclaimed restaurant on Queen West), and then at Scaramouche, where he learned the skills and secrets behind classic French cooking. Somewhere along the way, he decided it was the right path for him, “I don’t know what drew me to it. Maybe it was the stress, maybe it was the comradery.”
It began with pop-ups between jobs, a flexible way to make income and cook his own food. Two and a half years later, when the pandemic began, k.Dumps and k.Market were born. When I asked Ken why he chose dumplings, he explained, “during the pandemic, you obviously can’t have fine dining - it just doesn’t translate that well at home - so I wanted to make some comfort food for everyone. It’s easy to make, it freezes well, and it doesn’t take too much effort to cook.” k.Dumps was intentionally named “to make people laugh a little bit during the pandemic”. Needless to say, it was a success.
k.Dumps now lives on k.Market, which encompasses all of Ken’s cooking and business endeavours. k.Market primarily features pantry items that showcase traditional Asian ingredients, and Ken’s goal is to make these flavours more approachable to western customers. Regarding a recent experiment with caramelized winter melon, “...winter melon and sugar are very much found in traditional Chinese pastries and desserts… I find that people understand what you’re doing more when it’s rooted in tradition.” One of Ken’s personal favourites is Yau’s Everything Seasoning, “It definitely showcases what I can do with simple ingredients and how I find balance in bitterness, sweetness, saltiness, and sourness… I think it shows people what my palette can be like, so I’m pretty proud of it.”
Ken mentioned that he misses being able to see people eat and react to his food since the pandemic, although that’s not the most rewarding part of his job. Rather, Ken says his favourite part is inspiring others to cook, including those in his own family. Encouraging other people to try his recipes, which he is very transparent about, brings him the most joy. Ken says he would love to teach classes one day, but doesn’t have any plans at the moment.
For students interested in pursuing their passions professionally, Ken had a few parting words of advice, “It’s not good to have a backup plan because then you’re not really doing it.” He explained that figuring out whether something can bring you joy as a hobby versus making you money as a job is one of the most important parts. Next to that, every industry is different, and extensive industry research is crucial. “I kinda went into it blindly. I didn't know how much sacrifice and devotion I needed to put in. I thought it was simply to cook, which was fun, I just didn’t know that I’d be working 18-hour days and 6-day weeks.” While the journey sounds long and hard, Ken’s drive and ambition have earned him a strong following and a place among Toronto’s top chefs.
While writing this post, I had the privilege of eating Ken’s pork and chive dumplings. They are, as Ken said, easy to prepare and impossibly tasty for those still cooking at home during the pandemic.