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Calvin Eng's Vision for Cantonese-American Food

08 July, 2022
A portrait of Calvin Eng

©instagram/Laura Murray

Eng didn’t come to food through a traditional route. He wasn't born into restaurants or a chef family, aside from one uncle who once cooked in the US Army, and he’s never been professionally trained in a Chinese kitchen. “Everything I know about Cantonese food I learned from my family, and my mom specifically, which is why I named it Bonnie’s,” he explains. 

While he loves cooking, his goal was never to actually become a chef, rather a multifaceted restaurateur. "Building a community and building a brand is exciting, and making an impact in the world in a way that’s more than just food. I think by being just a chef it’s hard to just focus on that," he says, which is why Bonnie's offers that all-round challenge.

So, what is Cantonese food exactly? “I would describe it as umami and savoury-forward, low acid, low heat and seafood-forward. Cantonese food uses a lot of fermented, salted and dried products, that’s utilised in a lot of food on the menu, that’s natural umami, savouriness and salt,” says Eng. 

Menu favourites, char McRib aside, include 'yeung yu sang choi bao' - a whole trout, deboned, whipped into a fishcake-like texture, then stuffed back in the skin along with shrimps, water chestnuts, garlic and ginger, and served sliced with a green mustard condiment and fresh lettuce. It's the most expensive thing on the menu at $52, but Eng is adamant that he wants to keep his prices accessible despite rising costs. The labour intensive dish would only be cooked a couple of times a year at home, but he was determined to give it a place on his restaurant menu.

Eng's go-to dish eating out - shrimp and candied walnuts (hup to ha) - also features. The team has kept it traditional, turning the dish into the best unadulterated version of itself, where fried shrimp is put in a sauce made of the "craziest combination", including condensed milk, Kewpie mayonnaise, honey, vinegar, lemon juice. Eng describes it as "the weirdest creamy mayo sauce," yet at the same time, it's so good that this was a dish he wasn't going to mess with.

He still loves to eat out in Chinatown and it's one of his most visited neighbourhoods. Indeed, his grandparents first arrived in an apartment on Bayard Street 50 years ago, but even in his lifetime he's seen a depleting restaurant community, which has been further accelerated by the pandemic. He worries that Cantonese cuisine is becoming a dying art. "A lot of spots I used to go to as a kid aren't around any more, or they change ownership and it’s just not the same. The older generation are retiring or dying, sadly, and the kids aren’t taking it over. They don’t care to learn it or learn about the food, craft or the heritage.” He's just grateful that his grandparents and mother are still around to see him connect with their traditions.

Back over the bridge in Brooklyn, Eng is fully invested in nurturing that art in the younger generation, and finding a better place for Cantonese food in the US. He's hopeful that a new generation of young chefs excited about Cantonese food will be able to breathe life and energy back into the depleted dining scene, across the small stretch of water and beyond.

An eclectic team from a diverse set of backgrounds - from an ex-nurse to artists and designers - set the tone for his philosophy and approach to life. He's all about hiring good people, training and retaining them. "The only way to grow and do good things is with good people," he explains, while pointing out a stack of coconut water he's just had delivered in to keep his staff hydrated, like finely tuned athletes.

“The goal to me is to have more young people wanting to pursue the food of their heritage, whether it’s Chinese or not. We have the opportunity to finally do it. I thought not a lot of people like me existed, Cantonese-Americans who are into food and cooking. I was wrong," he says.

"As long as this spot exists, for these people to come and work at, and lets people grow and be a part of something, they’re going to come. And then even the younger generation, maybe in their teens now, they think that they can be a part of it and reach towards doing their own thing."

Eng's dream is simple. "To see people come out of here doing something similar, and doing their own version of it, being part of that evolution of Cantonese food with their ideas and their influences, and taking it where they want to take it." 

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