I was stir-frying chicken with black bean when I got a phone call from one of my sons. Sea-Hi Famous Chinese Food, a staple on Bathurst Street in the heart of Toronto’s Jewish community had announced it was closing after 59 years. As I got back to my cooking, adding a few tablespoons of water, placing the cover back on the wok as a blast of steam rose up, my thoughts travelled back 50 years.
In the spring of 1970, a high school classmate invited me to come in and bus tables on a Sunday night at Sea-Hi. I had never eaten in the Sea-Hi dining room, and my parents rarely ordered take-out, so I didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t just any Sunday night – it was the Sunday following Passover. The entrance was jammed, with people lined up out the door. Others had scored ringside seats around the iconic Buddha at the entrance, waiting for their names to be called.
As I loaded the dishes, I watched the crowd divide and a tiny figure appeared, a petite women, addressing customers by name, like family. This was my first image of Ms. Chan (Edna Chan, the restaurant’s famed proprietor), and the beginning of a wonderful friendship. I soon was working every weekend, a member of an exclusive neighbourhood club: the part-time student staff at Sea-Hi.
While the dining room did a brisk business, I was quickly transferred to the front line – take-out. There was a constant stream of callers and walk-ins placing orders. The take-out staff had assigned duties, with several manning the phones, the counter and the cash. Others packed orders for delivery. At the top of the food chain were the drivers, delivering orders throughout North York and beyond. They got to escape the battlefield, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t encounter their own challenges. A missing container of food, the wrong address, or the ultimate sin – no plum sauce!
The Colonel at KFC had his secret recipe, and Pepsi and Coke kept their formulas in a safe. In an Italian restaurant there had better be a basket of bread on the table before you were seated. At Sea-Hi, it was a plate of fried noodles and “a kleyn shisl,” a small bowl, filled with their signature plum sauce. You could keep the soya and hot mustard, but forgetting to include plum sauce with a delivery was unforgivable.
The menu included the usual fare: hot and sour soup, egg rolls, different versions of fried rice, sweet and sour chicken balls. But then there were also those dishes unique only to Sea-Hi. Occasionally, the action in the take-out section would pause as everyone became fixated as an order of deep fried chicken sticks appeared, strips of chicken wrapped in bacon and dipped in batter. Other specialties included shrimp in lobster sauce, dry garlic ribs, and deep fried chicken livers with water chestnuts wrapped with bacon, held together with a toothpick. Some days I would arrive at work early, join the cooks preparing egg rolls, spooning filling onto a wrapper, brushing an egg wash along the wrapper’s edges and then folding the wrapper and sealing the ends ready for the fryer.
Frequently I worked well past midnight, walking home or grabbing a ride with one of the drivers on a last run. I never felt tired at the end of a shift. Not all evenings ended quietly, mind you. The New Year’s Eve food fight was one of them.
It started innocently enough. Two customers came in after midnight and placed an order. They watched through the doorway as the kitchen staff transferred food into containers following their own New Year’s Eve party; doggy bags for later. The customers thought these containers were being filled for their order and got upset. Henry, affectionately know as “aap sui” (little duck), went out to calm them down and took a punch. A couple of waiters from the dining room heard the commotion and came to his defence, chasing the customers onto Bathurst Street, pressing them against cars stopped at the light, their martial arts skills on full display, transforming the street into a kung fu fight scene.
I worked at Sea-Hi on and off for 10 years, enjoying the frenetic pace, becoming adept at using a wok. I carried those skills through university, supported, in part, by Chan and later Stanley Chiu, who purchased the restaurant in 1977. Chan was very good to all of us, we all thought we were her favourites, somehow. She was a ball of energy, watching everything and keeping things moving.
Eventually, I left Sea-Hi and moved out of town. When I would return to visit family, I’d drop by, showing my kids where I once worked.
I was thinking about all of those amazing memories as I placed the plate of chicken and black bean on the table, scooped some rice from the steamer onto our plates, and took the egg rolls from the oven. Meanwhile, my wife grabbed Chan’s plum sauce from the fridge.