Hippie, skateboarding, punk rocker brings 'alternative' to Foreign Concept
'You really have to push yourself to be out there, to create things to be different'
A self-described hippie, skateboarding, punk rocker, alternative kid from Lethbridge, Duncan Ly has become one of Calgary's best known and well-respected chefs.
Having started his career washing dishes at the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, B.C., surfing in between shifts and living in his Volkswagen van, he returned to Calgary post-twenties and has spent the last decade or so as executive chef of the Hotel Arts Group.
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Ly brought home six consecutive wins at Gold Medal Plates, earned Calgary's first Relais & Chateau, a European-based global fellowship of luxury restaurants and hotels, and was most recently the culinary director at the Vintage Group.
This week he's realizing his dream of opening his own restaurant, Foreign Concept, with his wife Wanda Ly, a longtime chef at WinSport.
"I turned 40 last year and I said to myself, 'Hey Duncan, are you going to do this?' I figured if I'm going to do it, it's time to take the plunge," Ly laughed, as contractors work around him, finishing walls and bars and installing sinks and ovens in the kitchen.
A local artist from Interiors to Inspire paints a floor-to-ceiling mural directly on the drywall at the front entrance: trees and exotic birds on layers of turquoise, brushed with a broom to give the texture of old silk. Ly pauses to say hello to everyone who passes.
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The couple sunk everything into the project, hiring Calgary interior designer Alykhan Velji to transform the space that once was the Vicious Circle on 11th Avenue at 1st Street S.W. into a stunning dining room and bar that combines old-world images with modern design elements.
It was a dream project for both Velji and Ly, who excitedly show off colour swatches and cool custom lettering in the bathrooms as the restaurant comes together.
"We were going for an old world meets new world, modern imperial sort of feel," Ly said.
One wall features a display of old wood moon cake moulds. Others have larger than life images from the 1930s that have been digitally enhanced, their colours saturated to a vivid hue.
More local ingredients
The serving dishes, a collection of small bowls, plates and platters in textured earth tones, are each handmade by a ceramic artist in Vancouver.
"I was born in Asia but grew up in Canada, and you're going to see those elements in the menu," Ly said.
"Like our butternut squash salad. Instead of doing the traditional mango and papaya, we like to incorporate more local ingredients."
The pan-Asian menu reflects the decor, drawing ideas from the old world and incorporating modern touches and drawing on the chefs' own experiences.
Chef Jinhee Lee, who grew up in Korea, will take the helm as executive chef, and Michel Nop, who grew up in Paris, will become sous chef.
Lee has worked in the kitchen with Ly and Nop for eight and three years, respectfully.
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Last month, Lee took home the gold and Nop took the bronze at Gold Medal Plates in Calgary.
The competition brought nine of the city's best chefs together to go head to head. John Michael MacNeil from The Belvedere won silver.
"They're all superstars, but there's no one superstar in the group," Ly explained.
Truly, if you ever see these three in action together in the kitchen, they work in perfect symmetry, lifting each other up and bringing out the best in every creative dish.
"When we sat down to discuss the menu, we asked, 'What are we after? Are we trying to be authentic?'" Ly said.
"We hate the word 'fusion.' It gives such a bad connotation. But 'authentic' and 'traditional' are kind of sticky words too," he went on.
"We just don't want to play by the rules. We don't want a certain dish to have to have certain elements. We're more about whether or not it tastes good, whether flavours work well in a dish. If it checks all of those boxes, we're good to go with it."
The name, Foreign Concept, embodies the look, feel and flavours of the restaurant perfectly.
"There are a lot of meanings — the biggest that 'foreign' means something different," Ly said.
"You really have to push yourself to be out there, to create things to be different. There are going to be dishes that I created from my childhood, things that my mom made, and I want her to come in and say 'Wow, I love what you've done with this. I never would have done that.'"
"Our tag line, 'alternative Asian dining,' has its obvious meaning: a different choice, a different option," Ly explaied. The term describes their out-of-the-box menu well.
'Alternative' really resonated
"But for me it had a deeper meaning. I grew up in Lethbridge as a kind of hippie, skateboarding, punk rocker, alternative kid. So the 'alternative,' part really resonated with me," Ly said.
"To me, it was perfect."