After being classically trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, Angus An — owner of five popular restaurants in Vancouver — was skeptical about the opportunity to join chef David Thompson’s team at his Michelin-star Thai restaurant Nahm, in London.
“I had a very closed-minded notion that Asian food was a more lacklustre, less formal and spectacular cuisine than French or European cuisine,” An says. “When I first had the opportunity to work with David, I didn’t know if I wanted to learn [to cook] Thai food because my experiences with [it] in North America [weren’t good.]”
But all this changed when An first experienced Thompson’s food. “I realized how closed-minded and naïve I was, because the food was amazing — full of balance and layers of robust and sharp flavours.”
Realizing joining Nahm would broaden his culinary horizons, An took advantage of the opportunity. Ultimately, An believes, his decision saved his career.
When he returned to Canada in 2006, he opened his first restaurant, Gastropod, in Vancouver. The restaurant specialized in European food prepared with modern cooking techniques. “It was very well received when it opened, but within a couple of years — when the economy was bad in 2009 — we were forced to either close or rebrand.”
The choice to rebrand was successful, as Maenam — An’s flagship restaurant — is “still going strong ” 10 years later. The dishes at Maenam are based on traditional Thai recipes, which incorporate local, sustainably harvested ingredients when possible, with a balance of hot, sour, sweet and salty flavours.
“My [cooking] philosophy is keeping things simple and doing it well and with integrity,” says the 38-year-old native of Taiwan. “When I was younger, I was more interested in techie, modern food, but now understand food just has to taste good.”
An has opened several other restaurants including Longtail Kitchen, Fat Mao Noodles, Freebird Chicken Shack, Sen Pad Thai and, his latest venture, Popina Canteen — a collaboration with three other local chefs that opened in summer 2018.
Located on Granville Island and built out of shipping containers, Popina Canteen is An’s only project not focused on southeast-Asian cuisine.
Popina’s menu offerings include a grass-fed, B.C.-beef cheeseburger ($12), an organic white quinoa and kale salad topped with a Japanese-curry dressing ($10) and a seafood tray featuring half a Dungeness crab or half a lobster, nahm-jim-marinated swimming scallops, peel-and-eat side-stripe shrimp, albacore tuna crudo and mussles escabeche ($45).
“Having a restaurant right on the water, in shipping containers, [with] a bit of a patio [is] quite an amazing concept,” says An. “We’re very proud and happy with the result.”
Written by Shelby O’Connor