Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Someday, Roy Oh is going to accept what most people in Calgary and an increasing number of diners from across Canada already know — he’s one of the best chefs in the country. And he’s created an extraordinary dining experience at Anju.
For now, however, Oh is beautifully humble. He even refuses to accept that he’s a chef.
“I still feel intimidated, like I’m not sure if I belong. When I’m around other chefs, I’m there to learn,” Oh says while I dine at his restaurant in downtown Calgary that has elevated how Western Canadians view Korean cuisine. “Even if we’re sitting around drinking wines, I listen to what they say. I’m trying to pick up what they know.”
Oh didn’t go to culinary school. He hasn’t travelled overseas to work for free at a Michelin-starred restaurant so he could pick up some cooking techniques and a good reference for his resume. He doesn’t chase awards — even though he receives a number of them. Rather than attending cooking school, he studied visual communications and worked in a print shop where he designed logos and decals that would adorn Japanese cars.
What he doesn’t have and hasn’t done in terms of the modern culinary career helps to explain Oh’s reluctance to acknowledge his own skills. But he’s executing with a high degree of excellence the most basic fundamental of great cooking — preparing what you know and doing it with love.
Korean Food Gets a Winning Touch in Alberta
Born in Edmonton, Oh spent his early years in the Alberta capital cooking next to his mother. He learned the flavours, textures and balance of Korea. As he got older, he would cook for friends, using one of several cookbooks he had at home. After preparing braised beef short rib for a church Christmas function, and receiving plenty of praise for it, Oh began to seriously think about opening his own restaurant.
“I thought, ‘I got in me, I like this and I’m good at it,’” he recalls.
What happened next was, in hindsight, perhaps predictable. Oh launched Anju, but without much experience and industry knowledge he struggled to make it financially, despite solid reviews and a devoted customer base. The restaurant shut down for one year before relaunching in 2015. In the meantime, Oh journeyed to Montreal to apprentice under Antonio Park, one of the nation’s most acclaimed and respected chefs, as well as a tireless worker.
“Antonio doesn’t stop. He works 14, 16 hours a day,” Oh points out about the owner of Park and Lavanderia. “I learned so much from him about cooking and about work ethic.”
Oh also worked with Justin Leboe, the exceptionally talented chef whose Model Milk and Pigeonhole are among the finest restaurants in Calgary. Pigeonhole, in fact, is just down the street from Anju. While it serves French cuisine, Anju is all about celebrating Oh’s heritage.
“I’m proud of my culture, I’m proud of the food we do make. I want people’s idea of Korean food to change,” he says, noting that most Canadians only opt for Korean food if it’s a fast food-style barbecue place.
He and David Chang, founder and owner of the esteemed Momofuku franchise, are among the chefs of Korean descent who have successfully increased both the appeal and notoriety of the cuisine from the Asian nation. At the same time, Oh is quick to note he is Canadian and his cuisine isn’t traditional Korean food, but rather a reflection of his Korean heritage and his Canadian upbringing.
“Traditional tartare in Korea is a bit sweeter, but we took out the soy,” he says, giving an example of how he has re-worked a Korean staple for a Canadian clientele. “I want people to make a connection to Korean food. Even though we’re non-traditional, we’re not the quick, casual place that most people go to when they go for Korean food. They will go for fried chicken and beers. But Korean restaurants don’t have to be like that. Japanese restaurants aren’t like that. There are many Japanese restaurants that are thought of as more sophisticated, or more higher end than just a sushi bar. Korean food can be thought of that way too.”
Oh’s making that shift in perception happen. His kimchi became famous last year when Albert Adria, the famed Barcelona-based chef, said he wanted to learn how to cook Korean food during the Cook It Raw food symposium in Calgary. Oh was thrilled and also nervous to be showing a chef of Adria’s stature around the kitchen. He expresses similar humility when discussing his accolades, which including ranking among the best restaurants in Calgary and placing 24th on the 2015 Vacay.ca Top Restaurants in Canada list.
A lot of praise, yet not much boasting from Oh. He continues to want to learn and improve. And why not? That approach has served him well. As he says, “I wouldn’t make the food I make now if I had an ego.”
MORE ABOUT ANJU
Location: 344 17 Ave SW, Calgary, AB
Menu Price Range: Korean tapas dishes range from $6-$32; large format plates meant for sharing range from $40-$125.
You Must Order: The KFC Sliders ($10 for a serving of two) is a Korean-style buttermilk fried chicken in a Gochujang glaze and served with chips.
Notable: Roy Oh is one of the chefs who is participating in the “Inspired Cooking” project, a charity cookbook that will be released in fall 2016 and which will benefit InspireHealth, a not-for-profit agency that provides supportive cancer care for Canadians. You can find Oh’s recipes in the cookbook, which is being edited by Vacay.ca’s Adrian Brijbassi. You can pre-order “Inspired Cooking” here.