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Chef Eva Chin's multicourse pop-up, which launched in 2021, brings her unapologetic vision of Chinese food to life.Supplied

Chef Eva Chin’s Toronto pop-up dinner series, the Soy Luck Club, is more than a place where she can reimagine Chinese-Canadian food.

The supper club’s name is inspired by Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, the best-selling novel about the fraught relationship between mother and child, which echoes the difficult reality of Chin’s own relationship with her mother.

“My parents and I haven’t talked in eight years since the day I married my wife,” says Chin, who was born to a Chinese-Samoan-Hawaiian mother and Chinese-Singaporean-American father, and grew up on her grandparents’ farm in Hawaii. Soy Luck Club became a “platform to share stories of being an immigrant child” and the generational challenges that can come with that.

The multicourse pop-up, which launched in 2021, brings her unapologetic vision of Chinese food to life. She combines old-world flavours with a modern Canadian spin to create dishes such as a lightly steamed Dungeness crab with sweet summer peas, egg white and huatiao wine custard and wild rice cheung fun (steamed rice noodles), or a playful summer dessert of Ontario strawberries and raspberries with purple basil, madeleines accented with Milo (malted chocolate powder) and crème fraîche ice cream.

The series gives her a place to connect with like-minded chefs, who have helped build the Soy Luck Club into a collective. A prime example is her recent Lunar New Year collaboration dinner with celebrated chef Nuit Regular of Toronto restaurants Kiin and Pai, where they bonded over a shared connection to the Yunnan province of China, which borders northern Thailand and produces ingredients like lime leaf, cilantro and lemongrass. Chin would visit there with her mother, and Regular’s ancestors originated from the province before settling in Thailand.

The menu beautifully blended dishes from Yunnan province and Pai, Thailand. “That was such a special dinner. I learned so much and was so proud when people were like, ‘This is Chinese food?’ It’s not Chinese. It’s not Thai. It’s unique.”

Chin’s interest in cooking started young. Growing up, she wanted just two jobs on her grandparents’ farm: “I only wanted to take care of horses and cook with my grandmother,” she recalls. “I would always watch my grandmother cook breakfast in the morning. She wouldn’t let me stand there and watch for free. So she’d be like, ‘Okay, start cracking eggs.’ The next thing I knew, she got me working breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

She eventually moved on to a series of internships in renowned kitchens around the world, including Brae in Australia and Maaemo in Norway, moving to British Columbia in 2011. A volunteering stint with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms took her to agricultural regions including Similkameen Valley and Agassiz. “I really fell in love with B.C. just for the land and what it produced; knowing that made me want to cook there.” From there, she became the head chef of Vancouver’s now-closed farm-to-table restaurant Royal Dinette.

She describes the restaurant as “the greatest lesson of my life. I was very young, and I wouldn’t say angry but hot-headed. I burned myself out. I burned my team out. It didn’t matter that I had a four-star review from The Globe and Mail or all these accolades; I was not a person I wanted to be around.”

Fortunately, Alex Chen, the award-winning chef behind Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar, offered her a safe space in his restaurant to learn about leadership – and heal. “Cooking has always been the focus of my career; I forgot there were other skills involved. I always tell my cooks you’re never too qualified to be mentored again.” Having worked up the ranks to chef de cuisine at Boulevard, Chin moved to Toronto in 2020 to take the reins of Kojin by Momofuku and, most recently, Avling Brewery in the city’s east end.

At Kojin, Chin had a clear vision of her ideal sous chef. Then she met Steve Allery – “a very tall blonde British man” wanting to learn how to use a wok – and the experience changed her mindset.

“Nobody wanted to cook Chinese food within my own community. Yes, I want another young female to look at me one day and say, ‘Hey, if she can do it, I can do it too.’ But it is more powerful if I just teach everyone,” she says. “Chinese cuisine will die if we continue to gatekeep it. I don’t want it to feel like only my community can promote it – that’s what will limit the cuisine. It doesn’t matter who I’m giving a platform to as long as I’m sharing the platform.”

The Soy Luck Club attempts to remove some of those barriers, and her melding of cuisines is a way to recognize the beauty of immigration. “I was born and raised in America, and there are moments where I just want a bowl of Alfredo, and days when I want to eat a birthday sprinkle cake with a glass of cold milk,” says Chin. Now, it isn’t uncommon for her Chinese cooking to contain dairy to reflect the layers of who she is – and the natural evolution that comes with living in the diaspora.

Learning about China’s diverse-but-intricate foodways allows her to feel closer to her parents and their cultures, even if she is still not in contact with them.

With the next Soy Luck Club pop-up slated for July, Chin has even more ambitious plans for the future. She has secured a business partner and her sights are set on opening her own restaurant, hopefully in the next year.

“A pop-up is eventually meant to lead you to a home,” she explained. “Having a restaurant is simply a home for people to visit.”

One in a regular series of stories. To read more, visit our Inspired Dining section.

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