Restaurant Series: Sai Woo
Posted: May 19 2015
For those who remember De Niro's & Section (3) Restaurant in Yaletown, original owner Salli Pateman is back again with new Chinatown restaurant: Sai Woo. We were lucky enough to sit down with Salli, at her newly opened restaurant, to gain insight on the story and process behind this new critically acclaimed restaurant and lounge:
Question: What inspired you to work in the food industry, and where did you get your start in the restaurant business?
Salli: In 1993, while I was in full-time acting classes at VFS in Yaletown, I thought, "the chances of becoming a rich and famous movie star are quite slim, so what else can I do to support myself that I enjoy?". I had always worked as a waitress, and spent summers helping my grandmother (the head cook for a private school) in the kitchen since I was maybe 10 or 11 years old.
There was this tiny little spot in Yaletown (before Yaletown was Yaletown); it was a sample shoe store still full of shoes that was 1000 square feet. I went to my dad and said I wanted to open a restaurant there. So, I put together a business plan and took the space, which was a small sliver of [what is now] the Keg's main floor. I named the restaurant after my inspiration, Robert de Niro, and my staff were all fellow actors or musicians inspiring to be in a musical or acting career. The restaurant started to really take off, and there wasn't really any time anymore for me to pursue [the acting] part of my life. [Thats when] I realized what I was doing: I was making people happy through conversation, food and drink, general socializing, having a great time, and that was where my real love was.
(3 years after opening, De Niro's expanded into the space previously occupied by Boys'Co's General Store in Yaletown. De Niro's was sued by Robert de Niro for use of his name in 1999, which led to an international name change contest that changed the restaurant's name to Section (3) (the bylaw they were being sued under). Section (3) continued to operate until 2012, when the restaurant was sold to Romer's Burger Bar, and Salli had her eyes set on Chinatown)
Salli Pateman: founder of the new Sai Woo
Question: We all Remember Section (3) as a popular pacific western casual dining restaurant. What inspired you to start Sai Woo, with its Asian fusion-style menu?
Coming to Chinatown, it was different food that I was envisioning compared to Section (3). The inspiration comes from my chef, Douglas Chang, who is Chinese Canadian, but he also has some Jamaican background. He has cooked at West, 11 Madison Park in NYC, and Bambuddha. We met serendipitously because he had also looked at this place, and this was sort of his dream space. So we met, and we were like-minded in our philosophies for the restaurant, and his vision for the food seemed like something we don't have [in Vancouver]. I wouldn't classify it as Asian fusion, but more Pacific North West food: incorporating all the food we have here in Vancouver that we are lucky enough to have at our doorstep, but also shopping within Chinatown, which chef does daily. We also get lots of deliveries from the local purveyors here.
Pork Belly with Fresh Taro Mash
Question: Sai Woo Chop Suey, with its Chinatown old world heritage fits perfectly with the atmosphere of your restaurant. Did the location inspire the style of your restaurant, or vice versa?
I was really drawn to Chinatown because I felt that, over the last 20 years or so, it was going into disrepair with more and more vacancies. It's such a beautiful old neighbourhood, so rich in history, and I loved it! I loved the rawness; that's what drew me to Yaletown in the beginning. Even in the 2 years that I've been here building [Sai Woo], it has changed dramatically. What is great is the old mixing with the new. The people that owned this building are the Chin Wing Chun Society that have been there since 1925, and they are incredibly kind to me.
[Originally] I had looked all over Chinatown. I looked on Union street, where there are fancy cement walls, perfect plumbing and electricity. I could have moved in and been open in 2 months. Then, I found [this location], and felt, "wow, this is a lot of work." It was an incredible amount of work that I wouldn't be able to do on my own: it was too expensive. Then, someone wanted to buy Section (3). That alleviated for me [the difficulty of] trying to open a place and trying to run another place. I kept walking away and back to it, until I found the original picture of Sai Woo in 1936, with the cooks all standing outside and that was [the deciding moment]. This is where we are supposed to be.
Sai Woo Chop Suey circa 1936
I could feel the energy of it. I could hear the pots and pans clang, the chatter, the yelling in the kitchen, the bustling around of the servers, the customers all having a good time, and I just knew it was the right place. I would say I looked at 35 places, all in Chinatown. I didn’t look anywhere outside of Chinatown. I wanted to be in this old neighbourhood that I knew was going to change, but maintain its roots and heritage. And it’s the last neighbourhood in Vancouver that has that opportunity. There is nowhere else to go.
Question: We hear that you are planning to open a speak-easy style lounge downstairs. Can you tell us a little more about the inspiration and creative process behind the lounge?
I always had the vision to have the 2 separate spots. I didn’t think that the downstairs would actually be open at the same time of the upstairs just because of the sheer work involved. But then we started to tear apart things [during construction]. Everything that you are standing on and above you and beside you has been completely ripped out. The beams have been lifted up to lift the building up. The floor was 40% rotten. The plumbing underneath our feet has been torn out to about 5 feet down. So every square inch down here is brand new electricity, brand new plumbing, brand new everything. Nothing was salvageable. [Since] so much infrastructure had to happen down here, it just made sense to do [the downstairs lounge] at the same time. Originally I had thought, "we will do upstairs and we will do downstairs later," but that wasn’t possible. With the state that the building was in, and how much repair it needed, [construction] had to come from the ground up. But, I've always envisioned the downstairs being more of that Opium Den feel. A little more fun and secret than the upstairs.
The downstairs lounge has an secret speak-easy vibe for a casual fun atmosphere
Question: We recognize some of your fixtures from the IDSwest Central Bar: with lighting fixtures from AndLight, chairs from Bensen, and milled-wood tables from Wiens Studios: all local companies. Can you tell us a little more about the interior design concept/inspiration? Was it important to support local businesses?
Salli: Absolutely. My interior designers are Falken Reynolds and Anna from Domain Creative. They are strongly tied to the local; keep it local if you can. Lucas Pete does the button lights; they are amazing. He has so much international recognition. Bensen, of course, has fabulous stuff. Nathan, who has built stuff for all through [the operation of] Section (3) did the upper bar, lower bar, and all the big thick tabletops upstairs. They all come from the same few trees from the same neighbourhood. We tried to keep it as local as we could. We bought most of our plate ware from a Chinatown mom and pop store nearby that they are closing for retirement. Some plate ware had been in boxes for over 40 years: unused. Most of our plate ware is from there. Also, these screens (on the lower floor) and a beautiful giant vase is coming in tomorrow that we’ve been storing for a year [are from there as well]. I think keeping local is very fun and that people down here are very friendly.
I am hoping to have a beautiful blow-up of the original picture of Sai Woo in a light box to be placed on the wall right where you walk in on the left. We also uncovered the beautiful skylights that have been covered up for 80 years. [We also] had to go through many layers before we uncovered the brick walls. Then above the sealing upstairs. To discover another 7 feet of space. It’s just incredible. A lot of it was just a good hunch.
Interior Design by Falken Reynolds feat. local design by AndLight, Bensen, and Wiens Studios.
Question: Can you tell us any challenges you faced during the transition from Section (3) in September 2012 to opening Sai Woo in March 2015?
Salli: It was very difficult to leave a family that I was very close to. I've worked with some of them from the day we opened until the day we closed. My general managers had been with me for 16 years and my bar manager for 15. A lot of the people had been there for 10 years or more. The biggest challenge for me was letting go of that family [with whom] I had spent half a lifetime. But, at the same time I was happy to be leaving a neighbourhood that had seemed to go in a direction that didn't suit me anymore.
The other biggest challenge of leaving there and coming here was just the sheer state of the buildings and things down here. They are so old. Vancouver is young and to have a building that is 100 years old: there aren’t that many. They are old ladies; they need lots of maintenance and lots of upkeep. So, that was a challenge. We never expected it to be a 2 year period of actually getting open. That was the biggest challenge.
Head Chef: Douglas Chang
Question: Can you tell us a little more about how you came to work with Head Chef, Douglas Chang, and Bar Manager, Justin Anello?
Doug and I met through David Gunawan from Farmer's Apprentice. David introduced us, and just thought that we would be a fit. So, we met down here and walked the space together. We got along immediately. We met several times, and then we travelled together. We went to Portland and San Francisco. Then, David, Justin, and I all went to New York together.
I had met [Justin] through West. [West] has one one of my favourite cocktail bars in the city. I like a place that you can go, "Today, I just feel like something with Bourbon." And Justin would say, " I know what to make you." That's how we met. After leaving West, he pursued the Donnelly Group for a very short period, which he didn't like. Then we sat down to talk, and that was that. He and the chef also got along very well.
Bar Manager: Justin Anello, in the custom-designed Sai Woo bar
It turned out that we all had the same feeling; the same mindset about what we could offer that you can't get anywhere else. Both of them are lucky because it's not often that you get to design your own bar or design your own kitchen exactly as you want to see it. We spent hundreds of hours of design work for them to create their own spaces.
Question: We trust that everything on your menu is delicious, but what are your favourite dishes and cocktails?
Salli: The 'Tuna Salad' with the tuna confit and the tea egg blew me away! The tea smoked egg is done over a 24hr process. It is absolutely amazing. Our 'Gai Lan' (Chinese broccoli) is extremely fresh. The 'Jerk Chicken' is amazing, but it's not something that you can consume yourself. But people really like that: incorporating so many different flavours from Doug's training and travels. His philosophy is to mix many fresh flavours that we are getting right here (in Vancouver), but with a twist.
"The Tuna Salad with the tuna confit and tea egg blew me away!"
For cocktails, everyone must try the 'Smoking Gun' if they come here. If you're going to have a 'Smoking Gun', it's best to be sitting at the bar because you can see the whole fan fare [of the tea smoke]. Justin actually phoned me one day and said, "i just had a dream of this amazing cocktail that I'm going to make." We use tea from across the street, and infuse it into Angustura Rum in mini Oak barrels. Then we smoke the tea leaves into the drink as it's poured. [Justin Anello] is a cocktail genius. The 'Smoking Gun' is very smokey and [strong], so you want that to be the end part of your [dining] experience. The 'Sai Woo Sour' is delightfully lovely with fresh egg white in each serving. The 'Aviation' sneaks up on you. It tastes not quite as strong as it is, but it is delicious! Other popular drinks that have more of a fruity/citrusy flavour are the 'Beijing Sling' and the 'Guava Punch'; both have been extremely popular.
'Smoking Gun': 5 year Angostura Rum lightly aged in Oak Barrel, chilled, and infused with tea leaf smoke
The 'Sai Woo Sour' with fresh egg white in each serving
'Kom Collins' with on-tap Kombucha from local Tea Merchant O5
Question: What trends do you see in the food business do you see on the horizon?
Salli: I think that people want to have food with finesse coupled with a comfortable and casual family atmosphere. Vancouver has become more of a foodie city over the last 20 years that I've been in the food business. Vancouver may have had a history of hospitality that almost felt like they are doing you a favour, but now that there are so many good restaurants around, people expect more than just good food. Thats what we are trying to accomplish: giving people food with finesse, but with a grass roots hospitality sort of customer experience. They can just leave everything at the door, come in to enjoy, and forget about everything else for a couple of hours.
'Cheek to Cheek' featuring pea agnolotti, pork jowl and fresh local chick peas
Question: How do you think food fits into the spirit of Vancouver?
Salli: Chef and I were trying to come up with "What are we?" if someone asked us "What kind of restaurant do you have?" What resonated with me is that we have Vancouver Cuisine because we have all these beautiful things at our fingertips like fresh fish, fresh produce, and great meats in our own back yards; it actually is Vancouver Food. But people won't get that right now, so we are calling it Pacific North West Cuisine, but shopping within Chinatown to stalk our pantry the best we can. So, I think that Vancouver will put itself on the map, and people will come to Vancouver not for great Italian or French food, but come for Vancouver Food.