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Author and chef Jackie Kai Ellis hosts a moving deep-dive into culture and cuisine, through the lens of Canada's unique Chinese restaurant scene.
Get your order of fried rice and sweet-and-sour pork locked and loaded: it’s going to be the perfect pairing for the upcoming House Special. The five-part docuseries charts the Chinese-Canadian experience through the lens of small-town Chinese restaurants found in every city in Western Canada—a nostalgic, bittersweet journey best served with a heaping portion of ginger beef.
It’s the work of award-winning filmmakers Ryan Mah and Danny Berish, but host Jackie Kai Ellis is at the heart of the show. The best-selling author and chef knows her way around a kitchen firsthand (she founded beloved Vancouver bakery Beaucoup before passing the torch to current owner Betty Hung in 2018), but as a Canadian of Chinese descent, she also personally connects with the significance of food in her culture.
The project was a chance for her to dig a little deeper into her own relationship with race and identity, exploring her heritage alongside the viewer. “All the Asian hate crimes happening forced me to confront some of the narratives I’d been kind of ignoring and very gratefully skimming on the top of,” says Ellis. “I never really felt I dealt with severe racism—not that it wasn’t there, but it was almost like a self-defence mechanism to not see the subtle things. It’s easier to carry on that way, because if you were bothered by everything someone said you would wind up collapsing.”
Even for someone with immigrant parents, the lessons were shocking. “Chinatowns were essentially ghettos. Chinese people only really recently gained the right to own property and vote,” she says. This sort of oppression created a convention of showing love through practicality. “What really struck me about my culture is the tendency to focus on things like, are you clothed well, are you well fed? You don’t say ‘how are you?’ you say, ‘have you eaten yet?’ We have generations of people who don’t have the luxury to ask, ‘how are you?’”
And so, Ellis jumps from Penticton to Vernon, and hits up Kelowna, Red Deer and Grand Prairie along the way, exploring the proud tradition of Chinese-Canadian cuisine from a deeply personal, compassionate perspective. But riding the rails from small town to small town, the distinctions begin to blur. Over dishes of steaming sweet-and-sour pork and plates piled high with chow mein noodles, she interviews restaurant owners and historians, digging into the legacy of the tenacious Chinese immigrants who helped build this country.
Unsurprisingly, the topic of authenticity comes up again and again, particularly when a decidedly non-traditional lemon chicken appears on the menu. But while these ubiquitous dishes might be unrecognizable to diners in China, they are deeply true to the immigrant experience here on Canadian soil. “When we talk about authenticity, what are we being authentic to? Realistically, this is Canadian food,” says Ellis. “People who have immigrated here found the ingredients they could and made do, replacing hard-to-find ones.”
Ginger beef, for instance, is a uniquely Canadian invention, playing off of the plentiful protein in Alberta that was a rarity back home. “You find ingredients in the place, in the moment, and cater to the taste of the people there,” says Ellis. An enterprising restaurateur in one small town would try something, it would work, and savvy competitors would try it for themselves in their own small town. “I think Chinese people are really practical. You see something selling like hotcakes, and you do it too. Now who eats almond chicken? Everyone.”
House Special premieres online and on Telus Optik Wednesday, November 16. Watch the trailer below:
House Special Teaser from Black Rhino Creative on Vimeo.