Anita Feng by Matthew Perrin

Photo by Matthew Perrin

Anita Feng epitomizes an era in the Montreal restaurant scene

“Her journey has become intertwined with so many of the most prevalent narratives of the pandemic and has proven to be one of the most optimistic stories of the COVID era.”

Back in November of 2020, I wrote about a pop-up running out of Pastaga’s sister caviste/snack bar Cul Sec. You might have heard of it — it was called J’ai Feng.

Back then, the pitch was all about how this beloved Chinese–Franco-Canadian chef named Anita Feng, who had run a wildly popular dumpling shop called Trilogie, was back. Feng had been on a cooking hiatus and, after a trip to China fell through, decided to start an ephemeral takeout counter serving regional, homestyle Chinese food. Since then, her journey has become intertwined, in such a fascinating way, with so many of the most prevalent narratives of the pandemic and has proven to be one of the most optimistic stories of the COVID era.

When I first ate at J’ai Feng, I knew the food was going to be good — I’d had Anita’s food in the past and it is without exception satisfying and delicious. What I didn’t anticipate was how smart of a concept it would be, how well it would be able to thrive through wave after wave of pandemic restrictions, and what its impact would be on the identity of Chinese food in Montreal. 

Anita is the epitome of warmth. She has this wide radiant smile and type of genuine unreserved laugh that’s not only completely disarming but makes you feel like old friends catching up after a long while. In many ways, she’s the perfect ambassador for talking about Chinese cooking. There’s not a glimpse of posturing or pedantics when she talks; instead, she sounds knowledgeable and welcoming. She’s not standing on a soapbox shouting about Chinese food, she’s cooking it without compromise and apology. She lets the food make the point for her. 

I, like many, got interested in Anita’s story over the past two years. She’s this figure that’s at the intersection of a few major arcs of the pandemic, in terms of food and culture. The most obvious storyline is that of the pandemic pivot. Anita was on her way to China for a prolonged stay when the pandemic hit. Now, let’s lay the cards on the table — her pivot came with a lot less overhead than most established restaurants and had the benefit of being thought up during the first wave and not before. It made the barrier to entry a lot lower and the risk a lot lower, too. She wasn’t paying an exorbitant rent or figuring out how to keep her restaurant staff employed. She found an inexpensive spot and worked, for the most part, on her own.

“I’m pretty much by myself, with a little bit of help from my sister — so I don’t have that problem of being short-staffed like a lot of other people do. I feel so bad for them though. But so far it works and I don’t have that stress.”

But it’s not just that she shoulders most of the labour burden. Her expenses are lower, too. “The food cost is really low. You have these base ingredients: soya sauce, sesame oil, black vinegar — all this basic stuff. But you can create a lot of different flavours just using these ingredients.” It’s because of extremely low overhead that J’ai Feng was perfectly adapted to work in a pandemic-restricted restaurant scene. 

For a month, she cooked a weekly, fixed menu of Chinese comfort food — incorporating dishes seldom seen on restaurant menus: it made for an enticing offering that appealed directly to a shift in consumer desire. Throughout the pandemic, what I observed was that what people seemed to want most, in terms of food, was to be provided with some version of a surrogate restaurant experience while also wanting comfort food. “Of course, Chinese food is kind of, how do I say this? It’s easier to fit into a takeout frame,” Anita acknowledges, but it’s clear she’s just being humble.

J’ai Feng by Anita Feng

Making food that replicates the excitement of dining out while ticking the box of comfort food is a tricky balancing act to pull off for most restaurants, especially when you’re trying to keep your head above water, retain employees, oversee ever-evolving safety protocols and manage your own sanity. Anita successfully started a business during a restaurant lockdown that created genuine buzz and brought scores of new people into a conversation about Chinese food. And that was always her goal. You see, Anita didn’t set out to start a business, per se. “My goal since day one has been to talk about Chinese food.” And it’s worked — I regularly speak about her aubergines l’eau à la bouche

The pop-up ended in late December 2020 but J’ai Feng reopened in 2021 as an épicerie, selling specialty Chinese ingredients, prepared meals and a few take-out dishes. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that the conversation she started is still ongoing. Which leads into the second major arc of the pandemic: a significant increase in anti-Asian racism. 

Chinese culture throughout the past two years has been under attack and, in Montreal, our city’s Chinatown, the oldest in the country and historic centre of Chinese culture and community in Quebec, was at risk of disappearing. Feng was part of a movement of young East and South Asian activists working to dispel preconceptions and start new dialogues about what it means to be Asian in today’s society. Sticky Rice Magazine brought a diverse range of Asian voices into a mainstream space, and cooks like the Ku brothers (and Webster Galman) at Dobe and Andy, Pasthyme’s (and upcoming An Choi’s) Michelle Vo, Touk’s Chanthy Yen, Thammada and Pichai’s Chita Phommavongxay, and Tota Oung of Les Street Monkeys (among many others) firmly established Asian cuisine as an indispensable part of Montreal’s typically eurocentric restaurant scene. 

For her part, Anita became a spokesperson for Chinese food in Quebec media, “Because of the opportunities I had over the year: being on 5 chefs [dans ma cuisine, a Radio-Canada show], on Curieux Bégin [Télé-Québec] — people come here and they want to buy Chinese ingredients.” While a sort-of pan-Asian way of cooking had been ubiquitous in Montreal for decades, thanks to cooks like Anita the general consumer is starting to get an understanding of regionality and the Chinese pantry.

“They have a lot of questions. ‘Which soya sauce is good?’ ‘Which doubanjiang should I get?’ I see [the épicerie] more as a showcase of Chinese cuisine than coming to eat what I do.” Recently, Chinatown was officially designated a heritage district by Nathalie Roy, Quebec’s Minister of Culture. This news comes with an array of much needed protections for a district that has been reduced to a fraction of its original size over the century since its founding. Much of the credit for the change in status has been attributed to resident reactions to property acquisitions in the neighbourhood by noted renovictors Shiller Lavy. Though this is unquestionably a major factor, it was restaurant owners and advocates of Chinese culture in Quebec who had cast a light on the significance of the district and the need for protections in recent months and years. “I feel very fortunate to be able to cook Chinese food — people just jump into my venture,” says Anita. It’s a sentiment that represents an exciting shift in the perception of Chinese cooking in Montreal.

The last arc is one that I’m still wrapping my head around. In many ways, it’s the result of the other two arcs when combined. I’ve maintained, over the last two years, that the pandemic has levelled the playing field for the restaurant scene. By removing the dining room and service aspects from restaurants, the comparison is being made based almost exclusively on the food. That gives cooks a unique opportunity to be considered in the same conversations as their peers regardless of status. That’s a long-winded way of saying, the great Indian take-out spot gets to be compared against an industry behemoth like Joe Beef on the merits of its take-out and not all the expensive and intangible aspects of physical restaurants. I think it’s by virtue of this new reality that a concept like J’ai Feng can take such a prominent role in the COVID-era restaurant scene.

“It was always my plan to open something but I never thought that I would open an épicierie,” reflects Anita. Her dream was to open a restaurant that explores the technical and refined aspects of one of the world’s oldest cuisines. Instead, she opened a shop that gives her time to educate her clientele, “Maybe that’s why it’s so different from a lot of other people. I don’t mind not cooking,” she laughs. Of course, her dream is to eventually open the restaurant she always envisioned, but for now, “J’ai Feng gives me time. It doesn’t matter what model I use. For me, it’s just a tool to talk about Chinese food.” ■

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Cult MTL. 

For more on Anita Feng and J’ai Feng (43 Beaubien E.), please visit her website.

For more on the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food & Drink section.