Chef’s Corner: Thompson Tran, The Wooden Boat, Kitchener, Ont


Raised in Langley, B.C., Thompson Tran’s earliest food memory is eating a Vietnamese duck-blood salad when he was seven years old. He even helped his mother bleed out the duck.

“Growing up relatively poor was a challenge in many ways, however, it rarely meant we had to go without delicious food. My parents [sourced cheap ingredients] and [added] sauces composed of fish, sugar, salt and garlic,” says Tran. Growing up in a home where there was always cheap and pungent but delicious Vietnamese food for dinner set a high standard for what would constitute a good meal.”

Alternating his life between music and hospitality as he grew up, Tran went on to obtain a Bachelor of Music from the University of British Columbia (UBC) while working as a server for AMS Conferences & Catering at UBC and a part-time cook at the campus pub, The Gallery. However, it wasn’t until Tran visited a tapas bar in Granada, Spain with his wife that he realized he wanted to pursue cooking professionally.

“I’ve never been one for academia. I’ve always been creative, so a career in the restaurant [industry] was almost inevitable,” says Tran. “Cooking, studying music and working with my hands has always been a huge part of my life.”

Soon after, Tran earned a diploma from Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA) in Vancouver and his Level 2 Wine and Spirit Education Trust. For many years, Tran honed his skills at several restaurants in Vancouver, including Bishop’s, Il Giardino and Westwood Plateau Gold and Country Club. Then, Tran’s idea of one day opening his own restaurant came to life with the launch of The Wooden Boat Food Company in 2015.

Initially starting in B.C., Tran moved to Kitchener, Ont. in 2017 to run his eco-friendly catering company from an “eclectic industrial kitchen.” The Wooden Boat also operates as a ghost kitchen, as well as a seasonal restaurant in St. Jacob’s, Ont. Tran serves a rotating array of Vietnamese- and Southeast Asian-inspired dishes, such as Vietnamese Smoked Fried Chicken with Ghost Pepper Hot Honey, Whole Pig Thit Kho, Wok-Fried Bnh Canh and Tapioca Noodles and Beef

“I tend to eat fatty and pungent foods with good acidity and bold flavours that are a balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy, with accents of freshness and textural contrast,” says Tran. “I cook the way I like to eat.”

To date, Tran says his greatest accomplishment has been his ability to navigate and work through the COVID-19 pandemic. “My greatest accomplishment has been the success I’ve seen in the last two years. We’ve been able to pivot, change our business model and grow our business without sacrificing our values and ethos. The fact that we’re still able to support our local farmers by purchasing high-quality proteins is a blessing.”

Exploring other avenues of entrepreneurship, Tran has also launched a restaurant retail-product line. So far, the product lineup includes Nuoc Cham, a flagship Vietnamese dipping sauce, and Ot, a sweet chili sauce, which can be found in more than 300 retailers across Canada. In 2022, Tran will be rolling out additional products.

Tran is ambitious and hardworking, and his future is bright as he looks to expand his sauce business into international markets and help develop the Growing Chefs! charity and its programs further in the Waterloo region.

“Food accessibility, food literacy and food education are incredibly important to me and it’s where I ultimately see my future in the foodservice and hospitality space,” says Tran.

Throughout his career, Tran has naturally found that the chef and the musician have a lot in common. The more they practice, the better they get.


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