The culinary lives of Angus An

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      On a balmy day in Pemberton, Vancouver chef Angus An is beaming. In a black t-shirt and faded jeans, he looks confident and relaxed. He takes a moment to chill out—and he’s certainly earned it.

      The evening before, he and a group of chefs cooked an Asian-inspired dinner for the two-hundred-plus guests of CooksCamp. So he really does deserve the break, and it’s likely the only rest he’ll get this week. It seems that hardly a day goes by when An isn’t serving up a new project, celebrating a milestone, or drawing up plans for what comes next.

      Case in point: this same day, he talks about his frequent trips to Whistler, where he helped to open the Thai-focused fine dining restaurant Mekong. Months earlier, An was spotted at Longtail Kitchen, his Thai street food eatery in New Westminster’s River Market; there, he cooked prawns on the charcoal grill to celebrate Longtail’s 10th anniversary. Soon after, An hosted winemaker John Weber of Orofino Vineyards and sommelier Kurtis Kolt for a private event; Weber and Kolt were two of three collaborators on The Riesling Project, a special-edition wine developed to pair with An’s cuisine.

      The point here is that An is no longer just a chef. For nearly two decades, Vancouverites have been treated to his culinary delights—but his craft has now moved beyond the pass. He has multiple food projects now—Longtail, Sen Pad Thai, Fat Mao, Maenam—all of which fall under Full House Hospitality, the holding company that An is a director of. Intentionally or not, he has become a businessman, equally comfortable in the kitchen and the office.

      Perhaps the poster child for his success is Maenam, the Michelin-recommended Thai restaurant that An opened in 2009. The Kitsilano eatery is in the midst of a dinner series to celebrate 15 years in business. As part of it, An has celebrated chefs and friends joining his team to cook exclusive meals (all of which are currently sold out).

      “It’s not a farewell tour,” An explains in response to the observation that these events feel eerily similar to the final days of a rock band’s life.

      “I think if anything,” he continues, “we’re going stronger than ever.”

      Alaina Michelle Photography.

      IN MANY WAYS, Maenam’s—and by extension, An’s—achievements make perfect sense. They represent decades of learning, as well as both personal and professional growth. He is thriving in a difficult industry and a challenging local market. And as multiple conversations with An over the past year confirm, his route from student, to chef, to restauranteur was not as easy as he’s making it look.

      An is a graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York City. Culinary school student to chef: seems straightforward, right? That’s only if you ignore the statistic that only 10 per cent of culinary school graduates become head chefs. In that sense, An is an outlier, and he says a lot of people have to find this out the hard way. 

      “There’s so much false advertising about cooking schools,” he says. “You come to this cooking school, and you’ll be a chef—so many people think that way. I went to cooking school in New York, and I believe I might be the only one from my class who is still cooking out of 25 people.”

      Cooking schools have a big job to do, he continues, because students are forking out $25,000 a year at some institutions, “and you’re lucky to get $25,000 a year after you graduate.” (It’s no wonder enrollment is dropping, even as industry demand for cooks is increasing.)

      Despite internships and stages at some of the top restaurants in the region, An describes his time in NYC as “cold.” The temperature was only part of it; he lived in Princeton, which is an hour and a half away from Manhattan. 

      “I had to get up at five in the morning, catch an express train, get to school by eight,” he remembers. “It was a very lonely experience. I wanted to be with my friends in Montreal.”

      So that’s where he went, with his mind firmly set on achieving one thing: getting a job. To do that, An dropped resumes off at five restaurants he’d read about in a Canadian dining book. Almost nobody called him back. But the one call he did get was from Normand Laprise, the head chef of the fine dining institution Toqué!. An started work there soon after.

      “Little did I know,” he admits, “it was actually the best restaurant in the country.”

      In Montreal, An became linemates with chef J-C Poirier, who would later go on to open the one-Michelin-starred Vancouver restaurant St. Lawrence. Together, they learned about animal aging, butchering, the importance of high-quality produce—and what actually to do with it.

      “It was probably the nicest kitchen in Canada back then,” An recalls. “It was state of the art. The kitchen is the size of the dining room.”

      They had three walk-in fridges, which he and Poirier put to work, often aging whole animals. The kitchen was also used to store and take advantage of all the organic produce grown just for the restaurant. 

      “This was before Noma made foraging so popular,” An says.

      Sometimes, they would purchase up to five different types of heirloom strawberries at a time, using some immediately and transforming others to save for the winter. 

      “And at the time,” An says, “I was always thinking, ‘Well, what a shame we spend so much money on fresh strawberries and we’re pureeing them for sorbet or something.’ But then I realized: it’s good because then we can use them all year round.”

      In Montreal, An got to spend time with friends and work on his craft, but he still felt the classic North American chef’s pull to go train in Europe. Eventually, he travelled to England and staged in multiple Michelin-rated restaurants including The Ledbury and The Fat Duck.

      An’s time abroad had the desired effect. It changed his perspective; it introduced him to new techniques and flavours and ingredients; and ultimately, it made him a better chef.

      His experience staging with chef David Thompson at Nahm, previously one of the most famous Thai restaurants in the world, is most emblematic of An’s culinary transformation. 

      “I just got blown away by the food—about how little I knew,” he admits. “I think I was so naive and arrogant.”

      Working with Thompson opened An up to a whole new world of cookery: “In Thai food, you’re seasoning with ingredients and you’re seasoning with flavour; you’re building layers of flavour. You’re seasoning with texture. It was completely new to me.”

      An hosted a Published collaboration for Maenam’s 15th birthday.

      Armed with his new ideas and gastronomical insights, An moved back to Canada in 2006. But new cooking techniques and a fresh appreciation for Thai food were not the only things he picked up. He also met Kate Auewattanakorn, now his partner in business and life.

      After the couple arrived in Vancouver, An wasted no time before he opened his first restaurant, Gastropod. With influences from his classical training and Asian heritage, the food was welcomed with rave reviews and a series of awards. This very publication declared: “This is modern West Coast cuisine—gorgeous and sensual, but with a brain.” But beyond the rosy headlines, trouble was brewing inside the business.

      No matter how good the food is, a restaurant must make more money than it spends in order to stay afloat. An learned this lesson really fast. Amid the global financial crisis, Gastropod was losing upwards of $25,000 a month. It came to a point where there was only enough money in the bank to withstand one more month.

      An and Auewattanakorn considered shutting everything down and moving to Thailand. Instead, and fortunately for us, they chose to close the restaurant for two weeks of renovations before opening up as a new concept: Maenam.

      Still, losing Gastropod—especially with no idea how well Maenam would go on to do—was a significant blow. 

      “I thought it was just me. I was devastated that the restaurant didn’t work. But it wasn’t just me,” An reflects. “Because the same year we had Gastropod, J-C opened Chow and Robert [Belcham] opened Fuel right next door to Gastropod. And all three restaurants don’t exist anymore.”

      Vancouver is now spoiled with upscale, West Coast-focused, internationally-influenced dining spots like L’Abbatoir, AnnaLena, and Wildlight—all of which seem to be making a sustainable go of it. It makes one wonder if Gastropod should make a comeback.

      “I’m definitely not going to reopen Gastropod,” An shares. “I feel like we’ve found something that is accepted, in terms of the market, so we’ll keep doing this.”

      An’s reference to the market is indicative of his evolution. It reflects the types of decisions he’s making day-to-day now—like the opening of a commissary kitchen to more effectively service his two Fat Mao locations; or the decision to switch Maenam to a set menu to streamline operations. He calls this maturing.


      AMONGST HIS BUSY SCHEDULE, An is also finding time for consulting and advising. His younger chef friends are opening their first restaurants, and they’re calling him for advice on budgets, projects, leasing agreements, and business plans. 

      “It’s humbling,” he says. “I try my best to help them in every way that I can.”

      His feedback is sharp and robust, the result of countless ideas and real experiences rubbing up against each other.

      “Listen to your customers,” he urges first-time chef-owners. “You have to cater to your customer to make it work.” The next point he makes is that restaurateurs need to “keep it real.” It’s easy to overspend and overdream, he says, so don’t waste all your money on one thing, whether that’s food or a space; try to start off small and slowly build up.

      “With my first restaurant, I basically put all my investment in one pot,” he recounts, “and we nearly lost it.”

      Today he’s doing things differently. He’s seen what happens when restaurants are overleveraged, so he’s mapped out the steps to grow slowly yet effectively. It’s a playbook he plans to deploy again in the future.

      So although An turns 44 this year, he says that it feels like he’s just getting started. 

      “I feel like when I was in my twenties, it was when I was learning the trade, learning how to cook. When I was in my thirties, it was sort of learning the business side. Right now, I’m in my forties, and I feel like it’s the time I should be applying both—which I think I’m doing,” he reflects. “I feel like the last 20 years was this—and now I have a clearer picture of what my next 20 years will be.”