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Calgary’s Duncan Ly Dreams of Tofino Living

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Duncan Ly does some prep work at Foreign Concept, his award-winning restaurant in Calgary. (Dylan Leeder photo)

Duncan Ly has established himself as one of Western Canada’s most admired culinary talents. After years working at leading restaurants in British Columbia and Alberta, he invested in himself, launching Foreign Concept in 2015. It further bolstered his reputation for skilfully melding the flavours of his culture and heritage with the French-based cooking techniques he studied in Canada. He has built a distinct style based on his bold and modern Pan Asian cuisine.

In 2019, Ly opened Mélo Eatery in downtown Calgary, where he serves classic French fare in a casual setting. A busy restaurateur, Ly also partnered with fellow chef Darren MacLean in September to launch Greenfish, dubbed as “the first, exclusively sustainably sourced sushi takeout and delivery restaurant in Canada and North America,” in the city’s Avenida Food Hall & Fresh Market.

While he has become a star in Calgary, Ly’s kitchen abilities were honed in British Columbia and were greatly influenced by travel. He recently discussed his career and his potential future in the latest Vacay.ca “Chefs Series” article.

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One of the many delights at Duncan Ly’s Foreign Concept in Calgary: Lemongrass confit Albacore tuna salad with olive-oil poached tomato and Russian dressing. (Dylan Leeder photo)

Vacay.ca: Tell us about you and how you became a chef?

Duncan Ly: I was born in Vietnam. My mother was Vietnamese; my father, Chinese.  We moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, when I was four. After high school, my father urged me to enroll in an electronics program.  Six months was all it took for me to realize electronics was not for me. I decided to take a break and headed to Tofino, BC for the summer to do some soul searching and to surf. Not necessarily in that order. After buying a $1,000 surf board and a $1,000 wet suit, I was broke. So I got a job  dishwashing at the Wickaninnish Inn, the famous Relais & Châteaux hotel.

Vacay.ca: Is Tofino where you got turned onto cooking?

DL: Yes. Coming from an ethnic family, we had great home-cooked meals, but I never dreamed of being a chef. The intoxicating smell of west-coast chowder changed my life. I was 21. Then watching chefs plating the food, I realized this is what I wanted to do. So, I did a three-year apprenticeship, two of them at “The Wick”.

Vacay.ca: Was there any one individual who inspired you?

DL: Chef Rod Butters was my biggest mentor. He was a consummate professional and had a huge influence on me. I’ve never looked back.

Vacay.ca: What was the route from the Wickaninnish Inn to Calgary?

DL: First I went to Vancouver and Diva at the Metropolitan  Hotel. I had pretty broad experience and a lot of partners in different restaurants, both in Vancouver and in  Calgary. At some point, you come to a crossroads in your life when you say, “What’s next?” I never felt a restaurant was truly mine. So four years ago, I took the plunge, opening Foreign Concept.

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Vacay.ca: Apart from your culture, where do you get your inspiration?

DL: From travel. To France and Germany and particularly New York, where I went recently for a James Beard dinner. One of the perks of being a chef is that when you travel,  you feel as if you have a friend in every city. I am looking forward to returning to Vietnam next year — for the first time in 40 years.

Vacay.ca: Do you have a favourite Canadian food destination?

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Seafood is dear to Calgary chef Duncan Ly, who lovingly prepares this Lobster Tortellini with snap peas and lobster Thai curry sauce at Foreign Concept. (Dylan Leeder photo)

DL: Montreal. The food scene there is amazing. And Vancouver, with all the fresh seafood and the bit of Asian flair.

Vacay.ca: What are your other passions?

DL: Music. I played the drums in a band which was okay when I was growing up and had drums in my parents’ basement. I could bang away as much as I wanted. You can’t do that when you’re an adult living in an apartment. So, I learned to play the guitar. I love also golf, surfing, snowboarding, and skiing.

Vacay.ca: What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?

DL: Enjoy the moment. Take care of your body, which can be a challenge for a chef.  Work hard, but make time to travel.

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Duncan Ly does what many of his diners can’t resist doing — taking a photograph of his cuisine. (Dylan Leeder photo)

Vacay.ca: Where would you like to be 20 years from now?

DL: I think things go full circle. I love Tofino and I love the lifestyle. Having seen more of the world, I can really see myself back there, having a small taco shack, living a care-free life, cooking and surfing.

Vacay.ca: What’s your best travel advice?

DL: Talk to the locals. It’s fine to eat at the hot spots, but the locals will tell you where the hidden gems are.

Vacay.ca: When I visit Foreign Concept, what would you suggest for dinner?

DL: Beef Bulgogi Imperial Roll. It’s a marinated Korean beef spring roll. Also, Butternut Squash and Papaya Slaw, and Trout Cha Ca La Vong, a Vietnamese fried fish dish, marinated in turmeric and yogurt, and fried with dill.    

Vacay.ca: What would you like to be remembered for?

DL: For my passion for food and cooking;  being a mentor and being kind and generous.

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