FLAVOUR IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN TREND. BEHIND THE COUNTER WITH LONGTAIL KITCHEN’S JUSTIN CHEUNG
Longtail Kitchen offers a diverse menu of Thai comfort-style food. While staying true to traditional Thai methods and flavours, Longtail Kitchen also adds their own unique modern twist. With staples such as satay, green curry and pad thai served Quayside in New Westminster, it’s definitely a hot spot worth checking out. TEAMCHOMP recently sat down and talked with Chef Justin Cheung of Longtail Kitchen. With such an innovative restaurant, we were curious to hear about the influences and inspirations behind Longtail Kitchen‘s decorated menu and Justin’s thoughts on the culture his food brings to the community.
TEAMCHOMP: Hey Justin, Can you describe your culinary background?
Justin: Graduated from V.C.C. culinary arts, then moved abroad to work with Hyatt in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, then attaining the Red Seal with Park Hyatt in Toronto. Mentored with Chef Alex Tung at Tapenade Bistro before studying Thai cuisine with Chef Angus An. After working at Maenam, I was the opening and present Chef at Longtail Kitchen and a few years later opening Freebird Chicken Shack as well.
T: What are some of your fondest memories of food as a kid?
J: I remember eating fancy. I remember being on cruise ships at the age of 10 and telling my younger brother that he should be ordering lobster instead of popcorn chicken. Even though I was born and raised in Canada, I always remember my mother simmering chicken in curry that she had brought back from Malaysia, to frying prawn crackers, to making fresh popiah, to flaking mackerel into asam laksa.
T: What are some typical foods or dishes you like to cook at home?
J: I love braising meats and making soups and stews in the winter months, and cooking lighter more vegetable forward in the summer when the produce is bountiful. Dishes like coq au vin and sinigang (Filipino tamarind soup) are popular in the colder months. The summer months are perfect for some heirloom tomatoes from the farm with nice olive oil and basil and a splash of vinegar, or a simple pomodoro pasta.
T: You oversee both Freebird and Longtail, how much time do you allocate to being at these locations?
J: I try to be at both places. Each year they are both getting busier and we’re constantly thinking of new ideas, new dishes as well as planning for the following upcoming seasons.
T: What is your management style like at your restaurants?
J: Teaching is important. In the slower seasons I get to spend more time cooking and developing new recipes. In the busier seasons its important to plan for the slower seasons but also to manage the new staff whether seasonal or full-time. I like to push the staff to be creative as well and work on new ideas with them to further their growth as young cooks.
T: What are some of the recommended dishes you have at Longtail?
J: Chicken wings have almost become a religion here. When it gets busy and there’s no time to eat, we throw a few extra down for the staff to eat. Hours later, surprisingly they are still crispy and delicious. I always recommend the specials as well as we switch up the menu quite often. I recommend to eat with the season, soup noodles and curries are great for the winter, and lighter snacks, salads and quick stirfry dishes are perfect for the summer.
T: How do different seasons inspire you to change up the dishes on the menu?
J: It’s very important to change as the season changes. It’s important to cook what you want to eat. Often that is the inspiration into menu changes. The weather is getting bleak and damp, so we’ll make a bowl of soup noodles or curry. When it’s hot outside, we’re using fresh local tomatoes and dressing it with a fiery sour dressing, some fragrant shallots and crunchy peanuts. On top of that we have to consider the business and peak seasons to be able to get food out fast such as stirfry and salads.
T: How would you describe the community around your restaurant? Are there certain sub-cultures that are more drawn to it?
J: We’ve recently identified ourselves as a South-East Asian restaurant, rather than purely Thai. It shows through our “Asian” multi-cultural staff of Malaysian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Filipino, Korean and Thai. People love balanced food. Pad thai is salty, sweet, spicy and sour. Our food is different, but it is approachable. It is diverse, yet complicated. My philosophy is not to westernize our great flavours but to express them and educate the diners. That is the only way our community can grow into proper foodies. Flavour is more important than trend. It’s what will draw people back.
T: Are there any dishes you have always wanted to put on the menu but haven’t yet? If so, why not?
J: Nope. We don’t hold back. If there’s something I’m excited to cook for myself, you’ll be able to order it too.
810 Quayside Dr #116
Written: Christopher-Ryan Yu
Photography: Rich Won