Chef Joanna Liu

Working in the Hakka Chinese food space since 1987, Joanna Liu’s family created a flavourful home away from home for newcomers in Toronto, at Yueh Tung Restaurant.

Before the busy season of summer 2021 began, Yueh Tung Restaurant found blessings in disguise behind the line while they had been temporarily limited to takeout only.

We stopped by the restaurant to learn more about her processes in serving her community with the Hakka-inspired comfort dishes they enjoy all year round.

For those who’ve yet to visit, describe the inspiration and flavour profiles behind Yueh Tang Restaurant.

Our food is mostly a combination of Chinese mixed with Indian flavours. We do a lot of authentic Hakka Chinese dishes, which are mostly steamed and very homestyle cooking. One of our most popular items made from the combination of the two countries' flavours is our Chili Chicken.

Yueh Tang is promoted as the “Birthplace of Hakka Inspired Chili Chicken.” Could you elaborate on this, and what makes this dish most important to you?

In Toronto, we had a huge influx of Chinese immigrants from India and I think Chili Chicken is the prominent dish that brings our community together. The profile is very Chinese, you get that with the sweet and regular soy sauce. Then you have the Indian profile, which is from the spices. I believe that dish is the most important to us and it made our restaurant very popular because it has a sweet and a spicy flavour combination to it.

How did you find inspiration in your dish today using the Korean BBQ and the Tandoori Masala? Anything that would be helpful for other chefs or operators to know about it?

Tandoori Masala is usually used as a marinade, like with yogurt. I got this idea from one of our cooks who is from Malaysia. They have a lot of combination dishes there so he said, "why don't we do a Chinese-Taiwanese dish, like deep-fried chicken, and then use the Tandoori spices as a seasoning, as opposed to cooking it?"

When you cook it and get direct heat onto the masala, it starts to burn. This preserves the flavour and the seasoning in itself.

Explain your day-to-day role behind the line, and how it has changed since pre-pandemic? What has stayed the same?

Like with every other business, we saw a huge decline in the business itself. We don't have any dine-in and that was about 70% of our income pre-pandemic. We were able to shift fairly quickly because we always did takeout.

We have a very small team right now as we lost about three-quarters of our staff. We don't operate every day, although we used to be open seven days a week. Now, we're at five days a week.

My main role is to make sure that the kitchen is always going. I am the head chef in the kitchen so I operate it, which means early mornings and long days.

What have been the biggest challenges in the past year, and how have you overcome them?

Our biggest challenge was finding enough cooks. As soon as the pandemic hit, we didn't have enough hours to give anyone a sustainable salary so we had to figure out how to operate with a smaller team. That's why we cut down our days.

Our biggest challenge now is trying to get people back into the kitchen. We would love to expand our hours like we used to have before, however, it’s been challenging trying to get people back into the kitchen.

What do you believe is next for Yueh Tang Restaurant?

My sister and I are still in the transition of taking over the restaurant but what we wanted to do was renovate the whole place. I'm excited because when we have enough funds to do that, we can pivot. I think this restaurant is still the identity of our parents and we want to make it our own.

Any advice for fellow restaurateurs?

Make sure people can find you online. There are a lot of great restaurants out there and it's usually spread through word of mouth on the streets. If people aren't walking on the streets anymore, they will forget where and who you are. Keep reminding them that you're still around. Being on social media helps a big deal.

A lot of restaurants don't have their menus on their websites right now, so it can be hard for people to order. Shift that online as well.

Featured Recipes
Korean Crispy Spice and Pepper Brussel Sprouts
Tandoori Soo Guy with Pineapple Sauce

2021 Edition of Coast to Coast
Club House for Chefs uncovers the behind-the-line tactics and bounce back of chefs and operators across Canada as restaurants navigate not only reopenings but re-inspiration. Explore more

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