A son and grandson of restaurant owners, Keeman Wong, owner of Bako in Capitol Hill, knew the value of hard work, and that owning a restaurant would not be as glamorous as people assume, but he admits to missing out on the many stresses his parents carried. While successful in their businesses, Wong saw in retrospect the up and down rollercoaster ride his parents endured over the years. Now on the rollercoaster himself, Wong looks back at the last five months since Bako's opening: delicate cuisine, classic drinks, and being in the mood for love.
Wong: When I was very small, I did my homework on one of the big communal tables. As a young kid, and I think every restaurant kid would relate to this, I had to work in the same way that other folks did. We were folding wontons, peeling broccoli, and prepping green beans. You just don't know any better and assume that everyone did that for their parents. It served as my day care, it served as a place where my parents could keep track of me and put me to work. It helped provide a lesson of discipline for the kids. So I did pretty well in school. It got me playing piano too. It's what every Tiger Mom and Tiger Dad wants for their kids is to make them work hard and have them apply that to their studies and their life.
Where did you get the inspiration for the theme and decor of your restaurant?
I wanted to capture a time and place that no longer exists. The inspiration for the restaurant came from a movie called "In the Mood for Love", by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. It's set in British colonial Hong Kong. When I watched the movie again, I was inspired by the colors that they used. The wallpaper for example has a colonial feel to it. I incorporated industrial elements into the design; the Edison incandescent light bulbs, the industrial stools. I didn't want this to be a stuffy, fancy restaurant that people had to dress up for. I wanted them to be comfortable, be as casual or formal as they want.
We picked the music based on what we heard in the movie. When a friend of mine started to explore what the people in HK at the time were listening to, it was like the Beatles and western music, but sometimes they would be singing them in Chinese or writing songs in that style. I just thought that contrast, western music sung by Asian people, was very interesting. That led me to developing the food; where it wouldn't be locked in to a particular time and place but it would have an influence of well sourced ingredients while at the same time finding things in Chinese food and presenting them in a new way. We extended this theme to the cocktails. We wanted it to be a throwback to a time where people drank cocktails in the afternoon, and they unwound and kicked back.
The cocktails on your menu are a big part of the Bako experience. Did you and bartender, Guy Lafitte develop these drinks as something that would pair well with your dishes or does it stand independently of that?
We envisioned that there would be original cocktails that we developed that would be complimentary to the food. That was another one of those dreams that I had like, "Why can't I go to a Chinese restaurant and have great wine and great cocktails?" That's something that has been a missing element in my past experiences. I just decided that I would put some effort into making those complement each other. Some of the names of the cocktails we developed refer to plot points in the movie: Downward Glance, Infidelity, and Whisper, which is a very important plot point at the end of the movie. So there are all these things in the menu that if you watch the movie, you'll see the connection. We also named two cocktails after the owners of the [late] Jade Pagoda [formerly at the Bako space]. We have a cocktail that uses plum vodka that's called Jimmy's Pearl, after Jimmy Woo and his wife Pearl. We also have the Pearl Martini, which uses plum vodka. We wanted to give a nod to our predecessors.
What were you trying to achieve with the food on the menu? Are you trying to present more authentic dishes or offer a more modern twist?
Chinese food is very dynamic and Cantonese food is very dynamic. There's a lot of innovation that goes on in HK and it's a big foodie town, with a lot of people looking for the next big thing. Chinese food doesn't have to be specific dishes like pork fried rice. There are other things you can do. That's what I'm trying to achieve here at BAKO.
I've had to put some touchstone dishes, dishes that people recognize, for people to connect to and then, as they become more comfortable with the style of cuisine, they can be more adventurous and try some of our other dishes. It's a very interesting issue to explore—"What is authentic?"—but I've kind of gone beyond that. I think the only way you're going to get really authentic cuisine is to go back to China or Hong Kong. As the middle class in China grows too, their taste for different cuisine is going to be greater and that'll influence their native cuisine too.
There have been all kinds of people coming in. So I would say that a lot of the diners are very sophisticated, savvy about Chinese food. There are a lot of folks that travel to Asia for work and know Asian cuisine very well. You get these folks that come to the restaurant and they can't get enough of it. They don't think it's edgy enough. They want to get organ meats and some really extreme kind of dishes that'd really appeal to their interest in eating. And then you get people who don't know what congee is. I was surprised that I would get that reaction, but that's the reality that I'm grateful for. I have to remind myself that certain foods like congee, though it's a comfort food for me and I've grown up eating it, for other folks it's a totally foreign texture. They think of it as being potentially very bland or resembling oatmeal. One of the things we did at Bako is that we made our congee with chicken stock. I think it makes it so that it has more flavor than other places that just use water and salt. That's just some of the adjustments I've been making.
What other adjustments have you made since you started?
With the feedback that we got, diners in Seattle are used to more bold flavors. If you have Vietnamese cuisine with Sriracha sauce and Thai cuisine with the Thai chilies, you may associate Asian cuisine with being fiery hot. Cantonese cuisine for the most part, isn't. Cantonese is a pretty delicate cuisine. There are dishes that I'm familiar with and am happy to not have heat with, but some of our guests want that heat in their food. So we've kind of ramped up the heat in some of our dishes. I'm still trying to get some clarity on who the Bako diner is. We're still getting a wide variety of people. That may be reflected in our menu, where there are some things that are very recognizable and some things that are not very recognizable. Since we've gotten through the flurry of the opening months, we've focused on the food and the guest experience. I think the food is better now, and hope that diners feel the same way.