by Matthew Johnson
Matthew Johnson's short fiction has appeared in places such as Asimov's Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Fantasy Magazine and has been translated into Czech, Danish and Russian. He recently published his first novel, Fall From Earth, with Bundoran Press (www.bundoranpress.com). He lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada with his wife Megan and their son Leo. His website is zatrikion.blogspot.com.
Dinner for two $120-160 with wine, tax and tip
Don't be fooled by Long Pig's name--it's not another Szechuan hot pot place on the Spadina strip. Chef Nimith Keo is well known from his stints as head chef at Chimayo Bistro and Aubergine, both fondly recalled restaurants, but it's Long Pig he'll be remembered for. It's a fascinating, eclectic mix of haute and low, a fusion (how overused that word, how appropriate here!) of cuisines including his native Cambodian as well as Mexican, Caribbean and even Polynesian; it's also quite possibly the best restaurant in town.
The décor at Long Pig is sparse but elegant, reflecting the chef's Buddhist principles: a mural of the Angkor Wat temples covers the wall and a few bronze figurines are clustered around the entryway but otherwise the watchword is clean and clear, with white tablecloths, bamboo chairs and a simple place-setting, a single wooden fork and spoon for each diner.
Unlike at Aubergine, where Keo was famous for the wonders he worked with bean curd and vegetables, the common theme running through Long Pig's menu is meat. After the amuse-bouche--tiny, succulent bones like short ribs, braised in a chili-fired sauce, one per diner--we begin with a gently fragrant broth of ginger and scallions, into which has been shaved flecks of dried pink meat that tastes surprisingly, but pleasantly, like Spam.
Our server informs us that after the ribs and soup we are to use only the wooden fork to eat the remaining dishes. We find this more than adequate to eat the plate of greens that comes next, a mound of bok choy and Chinese broccoli in which no meat could be seen but which has been soaked through with a deep umami taste (ground bones and marrow, the server informs us). Skepticism arises, however, at the sight of the dish that follows, which the menu refers to as "two-legged mutton": a steamed lotus leaf stuffed with sticky rice and thick chunks of dense, deeply pink flesh. Our faith in Keo is rewarded, though, and the meat falls to pieces at the first prodding of our forks. As with the broth there is a hint of corned beef, intensely meaty and just a bit gamy, but this is a subtle and complex experience to which the canned product stands as a boardwalk portraitist does to Rembrandt. Unfortunately the most intriguing item on the menu--a Mexican dish with pre-Columbian roots called "Precious Eagle-Cactus Fruit"--is not available that night; in fact, we are told it will only be served on the restaurant's last day of operation. We make a mental note to return on that unhappy day.
To our surprise Chef Keo himself comes out to discuss our choices with us. He explains the thinking behind Long Pig's menu. "In my childhood, in Cambodia, we had nothing," he says. "Under the Khmer Rouge everyone who had any kind of Western education was killed or had to run away. When I ran away I met a man who had been trained as a French chef. We were eating grass, worms--anything at all to survive. If we had any meat, any kind at all, we would be grateful for it, but for him it was always not just something to eat but ingredients, things you could make into something more. When he was finished cooking you would not know you had a worm or something worse in your mouth. We all gave what we could, and since I was too small to give I learned from him how to cook what we had. We lived many months like this, and in the end only I survived.
"This makes me very mindful of food," he goes on. "Do you know what is meant by mindful? Then when I come here as a refugee I see people are not mindful of food at all, shovel it in their mouths like coal in a furnace. When I became a chef I want people to eat mindfully--not to eat as though they are starving!
"As a Buddhist, I did not feel comfortable cooking with meat. As I am progressing in my practice I feel this more strongly, which is why I left Chimayo Bistro. But as I am progressing as a chef, I feel the absence of meat puts a limit on what I can do."
As fondly as we recall Aubergine, after the meal we have just eaten we cannot disagree. "It is then I recall the first part of the step-by-step discourse of the Hinayana, which we call dana, 'giving.' Ordinarily in dana we are giving away the things that belong to us, which helps us to release our hold on this illusion of reality; also the receiver is changed, made more mindful by the gift.
"Thinking on this for a long time, I remembered the gift my teacher the French chef gave me. I saw then how I could be a good Buddhist and a good chef, and serve meat that is given freely, without suffering."
I confess that I am not fully able to appreciate the theological underpinnings of Chef Keo's cooking, but I thank him deeply for the gift he has given us with Long Pig. In this city where chefs hop like fleas from kitchen to kitchen and restaurants appear and disappear every week, a place as "mindful" as this is one to savor. Head down to Long Pig while you still can. Reservations are accepted, but call quickly: before he wheeled himself away from the table, Chef Kao showed us a scar on his side and told us that another diner had ordered the braised kidney--so now there's only one left.
This story was first published on Monday, September 27th, 2010
Author’s note: My very first published story (“Closing Time,” On Spec Summer 2001) was about a cook, and ever since then I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a story in the form of a restaurant review. I never quite found it until we ate at a restaurant where the service was so solicitous that it led me to wonder, in that way SF writers do, just how far it could go; this story was the result.
- Matthew Johnson
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