Recipe for success: How restaurants paved the way for immigrant families in Saskatchewan

Over countless hours spent folding wonton wrappers and mixing hummus, immigrant families have forged their prairie roots in restaurants.

Personal stories from 3 families who forged their prairie roots in restaurants

Andy Yuen holds an old family photo from when his parents ran a Chinese restaurant in rural Saskatchewan. Now Yuen works with his parents Jane and Sam and his wife Rachel Kong at the Odd Couple in Saskatoon. (CBC)

Over countless hours spent folding wonton wrappers and mixing hummus, immigrant families have forged their prairie roots in restaurants.

From a small-town Chinese restaurant in Lanigan, Sask., to authentic Mexican in Saskatoon, each family has their own story of why they left their home country and what they left behind.

What connects the immigrant families that have found their way in Canada through the food industry is how running restaurants have held them together.

The Yuen family

Restaurant: Odd Couple

Originally from: Hong Kong, China

Andy Yuen and Rachel Kong (rear) with Andy's parents Jane and Sam Yuen. Decades after Jane and Sam moved to Canada to help out at their family's Chinese restaurant in rural Saskatchewan, the family all work together at the Odd Couple restaurant. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

In 1996, a 15-year-old Andy Yuen stepped off a plane from Hong Kong and took his first breath of bitterly-cold Saskatchewan air.

It was -35 C when Yuen and his parents were met at the Saskatoon airport by his grandmother, grandfather and uncle. The family was en route to Wynyard, Sask. — population: less than 2,000 — to run a Chinese restaurant.

I grew up in restaurants so I like that: I like to feed people.- Andy Yuen, Odd Couple

Yuen remembers his first night in Canada, when the family stopped at a Chinese grocery store on 20th Street in Saskatoon before driving onward to Wynyard. That store is a minor detail in a mammoth trip but Yuen has never forgotten it, because now he sees it every day. 

The building where the grocery store used to sit is across the road from Odd Couple, the restaurant he now runs with his parents and his wife. It's a chic, narrow eatery of booths and tables with Chinese accents and stylish fittings — a far cry from the small-town restaurant where they landed in the 1990s. 

Yuen's parents came to Saskatchewan to help his uncle with his Wynyard restaurant so Yuen's grandmother could finally retire.

They worked long hours together, cooking food to Canadian taste that was worlds away from the Chinese dishes they loved.

And Yuen's parents found themselves learning to navigate the restaurant business, something they'd never been a part of. 

"My mom didn't really love it but when you come over to a new country and you don't have much education and you don't speak the language, it's not like you have a lot of choices, right?" Yuen said. 
Sam Yuen in the kitchen at Odd Couple. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

For a while, Yuen hated his new life in Canada. In Hong Kong, he had a happy school life and a girlfriend in a bustling city of six million people. Now, he was helping to run a restaurant in a foreign rural town of strangers. In the first month, he racked up a phone bill of about $1,000 calling long-distance to China.

After two years in Wynyard, his parents bought a café in another small town: Lanigan, Sask.

Yuen then moved to Saskatoon to study civil engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. He said it's more common now for the children of Chinese immigrants to have university educations, pushing more young people into professional careers and away from the restaurant industry. 
From left: Sam, Andy and Jane Yuen and Rachel Kong. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

But after practicing engineering for nine years, the desire to help his family drew Yuen back to restaurant business.

To bolster his parent's retirement savings, Yuen helped his father transform an old Warman, Sask., florist into a restaurant. But the commute to Warman from Saskatoon at the end of a 12-hour day became too much for Yuen's parents. They sold the restaurant in 2013. 

When that door closed, another one opened to a room with a familiar view of a Chinese grocery store.

Yuen said the idea for the Odd Couple came about when he was drinking with friends at a pub.

"What if people are sick of burger and fries with a pint? What if people just want ginger beef with a gin and tonic?" he said.

The restaurant opened in 2014. Yuen and his wife run front-of-house, while his parents work in the kitchen.

Yuen said it's his chance to serve the kind of Chinese food that his father and uncle's generation weren't able to. 
Rachel Kong (centre) sees old photographs of her husband Andy Yuen's family for the first time. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

"I feel like, not born as an engineer. And I grew up in restaurants so I like that: I like to feed people," said Yuen.

Yuen said Chinese culture isn't as pervasive as it used to be in the day-to-day running of the restaurant, but it surfaces in subtle ways.

Yuen's wedding, held in the restaurant, was organized within a matter of weeks to coincide with what the lunar calendar deemed a good day for a wedding. 

It's also the reason the number eight, which is considered lucky in Chinese culture, is in the business' phone numbers and licence plates.

For the Yuen family, doing things together is all they've ever known. But family, alone, would not have been enough to keep Yuen in Canada.

He said it was the kindness of the people during those early years in small-town Saskatchewan that made Canada feel like home.

"Really, if I didn't go to a small town right from the get-go I wouldn't be here today. I think I would have just gone back to Hong Kong."

The Godinez family

Restaurant: La Bamba Cafe

Originally from: Mexico City, Mexico

The team at La Bamba Cafe, with Daniel and Juan Godinez (middle back row). (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)
They had never planned to be restaurateurs — it's certainly not what they hold degrees in — but running a Mexican eatery in Saskatoon has helped the Godinez family transition to life in Canada.

Juan Godinez fell in love with Canada when he came to do his master's degree in economics at the University of Saskatchewan around 2002.

In Mexico City, where he once lived, Godinez's qualifications could have scored him a high-level job. 

It's actually nice to have the two cultures and those two sets of values.- Daniel Godinez, La Bamba

But he would have lived in fear.

"It's just something that drove me to Canada: the values, honesty, hard work. You can be true to yourself, which is really hard sometimes in Mexico," said Godinez. 

"The set of values in terms of doing business, for example, are very hard. You can follow the rules but you won't get a business permit if you don't give money here or there."

Juan started thinking of business opportunities to help the family establish itself in Saskatchewan.

"My grandmother was a great cook and my mom follows that path," he said. Juan said they call it "sazón" in Mexico: the magic for cooking.

Daniel Godinez behind the counter on a busy night at the La Bamba restaurant. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC News)

So, with support from his family, he decided to open a Mexican restaurant. Juan travelled to other Canadian cities to see the type of Mexican food being served.

His aunt, a successful businesswoman, urged Juan not to stray from the common Mexican-Canadian food he found. But he couldn't bring himself to open a restaurant that sold the "Tex Mex" food he would never eat: burritos and fajitas.

It was decided the restaurant would serve only the central Mexican food the family knew and loved.

His Saskatoon restaurant, La Bamba Cafe, opened in 2007. It is now run primarily by Juan's brother, Daniel, who also finished a business and economics degree at the University of Saskatchewan. Their mom, Maria, leads the way in the kitchen.

Their other brother, Jesus; sister, Mary; and her husband are now all working at the restaurant in Saskatoon, too.

Juan said the restaurant has made the transition to Saskatoon easier for the family members whose professional qualifications aren't yet recognizable in Canada. He said it's a luxury many immigrants don't have, and something he's grateful for.
The La Bamba restaurant in Saskatoon serves only authentic Mexican food from the central region where they are from. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC News)

Juan hopes Canada can work to enable skilled immigrants to work in their area of expertise, and to help them succeed faster. 

He said the freedom to walk down the street with his child without fear of kidnapping and other dangers, though, is worth the move in the long-run.

"In Canada you don't have that big position or big money, but you have a nice life." 

As Canada reaches its 150th anniversary of Confederation on July 1, Juan said he hopes the country can defy fear from terrorism to maintain the diversity and acceptance he sees as some of the country's greatest strengths.

Daniel agreed it's those values that make Canada a great country. 

"We actually want to give a lot to this country because we can have a better life here than we do in our own country," said Daniel before adding, "That doesn't mean we will never be Mexicans again. It's actually nice to have the two cultures and those two sets of values."

The Jomha family

Restaurant: Lebanese Kitchen

Originally from: Lala, Lebanon

Nariman (left) and Najib Jomha at the Lebanese Kitchen on Broadway Avenue. Najib is holding a tray of kibbi, a dish made of crushed wheat and ground beef. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)
Najib Jomha wasn't expecting to stay in Canada when he arrived in the mid-1970s. He was visiting relatives in Alberta when civil war broke out in Lebanon.

He came for six weeks, and every month he thought the war would be over. It took more than a decade to conclude.

Over the next 40 years, Jomha became settled in Canada, got a business degree and brushed up on the English he'd learned at school in Lebanon.

Jomha started working on the family business with his relatives from Edmonton with his wife, Nariman. 

The family did return to Lebanon for a time in the late 1980s, and three of their children were born there.

As their full family of seven children grew older, they started helping out at the family businesses, too.

And when they returned to Canada, they moved to Saskatoon with a new venture.

Stuffed vine leaves are among the dishes served at the Jomha's restaurant. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

The family had never been in the restaurant business, but Nariman's home cooking was a proving a hit with some of the hungriest critics: her children's friends.

So, Nariman said, "We thought, 'Well, we'll take a try, and we made a hit.'"

Nariman's recipes are now backlit on menus on the walls of Lebanese Kitchen locations in Saskatoon and Prince Albert, Sask., with a third planned to open on Boychuk Drive in Saskatoon. The restaurant's first location opened in 2010.

Siblings AJ, Rabih and Taha now work together with their mom in the restaurant.

AJ said working in the family businesses had given the siblings strong ties.

"We were always brought up together so whatever businesses our dad's always owned, we're always there helping out," he said.

From clothing stores to shoe stores to restaurants, "there's always a new adventure that we go through as a family," he said.

Although his children grew up as Canadians, Najib said they inherited characteristics from their Lebanese heritage: they're adventurous, they're not quitters and they adapt.

Still, "when it comes to the kids they become Canadians," he said.
From left, AJ, Rabih, Nariman and Najib Jomha tuck in to some of traditional treats they serve at Lebanese Kitchen. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

As he considers the 150th anniversary in Canada, Najib hopes family values will become an even bigger priority.

He said an honest society that believes in their country will keep Canada on the right path into the future.

"Even when I am across the world and somebody talks about Canada, I defend Canada," he said.

"Canada provides security, provides good opportunities for the people wanted to do it, but if the person does not move to earn it, it's not going to come to him."


Alicia Bridges is a former CBC Saskatoon reporter who is now working in Australia.