The first time I ate at Patois was mind-blowing. It wasn’t long after the restaurant had opened in 2014, and the city had never seen anything like it. Being Jamaican myself, I knew about the island’s small population of Chinese Jamaicans, but to experience the culture in the form of a restaurant right here in Toronto was unprecedented.
Stepping into Patois is a Caribbean dream on Dundas West. The long ovular bar and wicker ceiling fans remind me of restaurants in Jamaica; reggae beats bump, bright art decorates the walls, and colourful pool floaties adorn the ceiling. For some, a visit to Patois instantly feels like a vacation, for others it feels like home.
“My family’s heritage in Jamaica goes back 100 years,” says Patois’s chef and owner Craig Wong. “We’re three generations in Jamaica. It’s a huge part of who we are … My grandmother was cooking Jamaican food with Chinese ingredients, and Chinese food with Jamaican ingredients. That’s just how it is.”
But it wasn’t always easy for Wong to cook his family’s cuisine. “When I started cooking, it was the late 90s, and almost every restaurant on the top lists in the city was either French or Italian. It was a very different time,” says Wong. As a young chef, he decided to go the French culinary route, leaving Canada for Leon and Paris.
“Early in my career, I picked up a book by Alain Ducasse. I saw it and I was like, ‘I want to work for this guy,’” he says. “Who would have known that four years later, I would find myself in that position?”
After cutting his teeth in Michelin-starred restaurants in France, Wong came back to Canada and eventually opened Patois. “I always enjoyed cooking other people’s food,” he says. “But at the same time, I knew that when I opened Patois, I had a story to tell.” The chef set out to merge two worlds: the food that he made at home with the style of cuisine he cooked professionally.
“When I mashed those two together, it gave birth to a different type of cuisine, that we are familiar with at Patois now, but at the time, we were breaking boundaries. It was exciting. And it was also a bit daunting.”
At first, it was challenging for guests to wrap their heads around the concept, especially Canadians who were unfamiliar with family-style dining. But as someone who is always pushing for better, Wong worked on evolving Patois over the years, from the one-man operation it was when he first opened to the well-staffed cult success it is today. Now Patois is firmly cemented into Toronto’s restaurant scene with its mashup of cultures representing the city itself, and its dishes beloved to the point of fanaticism: “Some of the dishes like our jerk lobster and our brussels sprouts — they were items that I didn’t imagine as mainstays. But there was almost a revolt when I would try to take it off the menu.”
Wong cares as deeply about guests as he does his staff. When he felt his cooks were being overworked, he cancelled Patois’s brunch program. Now the restaurant has grown in size and success, bringing back brunch and expanding to include JunePlum, a shop next door where customers can buy take-home items from Patois along with other goods from local makers.
Patois and its dishes are a reflection of Wong’s background, but also his sense of humour. “I consider myself a bit of a storyteller, and I like to think that people can get to know me a little bit through our food,” says Wong. “The dishes that have brought me the most joy and have been the most successful on our menu are always the ones that evoke a feeling of childhood and naughtiness — dishes that make me feel like a kid again. If our guests can relate to that, it shows me that we’re connecting on a different level than just serving them a plate of food.”
O.G. Fried Chicken
Ashley van der Laan
“When I first started doing this fried chicken, it was very basic. I developed it for about three years before we actually opened Patois. It’s something that we put a lot of care and time into. It’s a naturally gluten-free fried chicken. It uses a combination of Asian starches, and I’ve come up with this technique that results in a shattering, thin glass-like crust that is very different from a typical all-purpose flour, crunchy crust. The brine is a traditional saltwater brine, and we add a ton of aromatics. Then we take the flavours that we put into our brine and we echo that with a finishing powder that we put at the end. So, we have that brined chicken inside, plus this glass-like shattering crust and this umami powder that is dusted on right at the end.”
Trini Mac Pie
Ashley van der Laan
“We had a chef that was from Trinidad — still a good friend of mine to this day. He told me about this mac pie that he always had. His mom would make a cheddar custard to go along with it. It’s different than a lot of other macaroni and cheese recipes. This mix of cheese, milk, cream and eggs gets poured onto cooked noodles and then baked in the oven. All those noodles really swell and take in that custard, and it makes it really flavourful. It sets almost like a pie. It’s custardy, it’s juicy, it’s moist. Then, you finish that with even more cheese on top. We decided to finish that with a cheese sauce that we’re putting on at the end. It’s a decadent and flavourful, cheesy mac pie that is mixed between restaurant style and homestyle. I wouldn’t change a thing about that recipe.”
Chinese “Pineapple” Bun Burger
Ashley van der Laan
“This is that perfect combination of sweet and savoury. The Chinese pineapple bun is a sweet roll covered with almost a sugar cookie topping. It doesn’t contain any pineapple. It’s a Hong Kong bakery-style bun. The texture of it looks like a pineapple, therefore, it got called a pineapple bun. It’s something that I grew up with in Scarborough, and always really enjoyed. I thought it was the perfect vehicle for a burger, but I didn’t want to do a traditional burger. Burgers tend to be very sour and a lot of sour condiments get added to them. People are trying to balance out the fattiness of the burger with sour. I wanted to almost embrace that, so I added condiments that are about boosting the meatiness and that umami factor of the burger. We have oyster sauce mayonnaise, so there’s that robust, creamy, meaty, umami flavour. Plus, we add hickory sticks. Again, being that naughty kid, you’re putting chips onto a burger. But if you think about it, it’s adding a smoky element and crunch. Then a little bit of tomato and lettuce just adds freshness to it as well.”
Ashley van der Laan
“The oxtail was a combination of my techniques with our chef Nick [Beckford] … I was doing more of a French-style, traditional sear and braise, and the ingredients that I was using were incorporating some Asian into a Jamaican-style braise. Chef Nick really liked to take our green seasoning and he would marinate the oxtail. We took both of those techniques, so we’re infusing flavour in several different opportunities during the cooking process … I like to say, it’s possible for one plus one to equal three. And in this case, it was that. We took his technique plus my technique, and we’ve created something even better than when we were doing it separately.”
Jamaican Patty Double Down
Ashley van der Laan
“The Patty Double Down is one of those iconic dishes — everyone knows where the double down came from. But for me, it was more about that delicious combination of Jamaican patties, bacon, Swiss cheese fondue, some sriracha and garlic sauce. That combination of spicy, creamy, meaty, smoky and cheesy — it’s a perfect mashup of flavours coming together that are unexpected, but work so well. When I was coming up with that dish, I remembered how my mom would get upset with me when I would play with my Jamaican beef patties. She’d be like, ‘Just eat the patty. Why are you adding all this stuff to it? Why are you playing around? Just sit down and eat your patty.’ It’s that nonconformist child in me that wanted to be a rascal, that wanted to misbehave; that’s the root of that dish.”