Self-taught chef has built loyal following

Selina Ip at her wok at South East Cafe. She wanted a new challenge so she learned Thai cooking. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

Selina Ip arrived in Sarnia from her native Hong Kong in 1990 with no business or restaurant experience and only rudimentary English.

Five years later, at age 32, she had learned the language, learned something about North American cuisine and opened South East Café at 110 East St. South.

“I didn’t even know what a Western sandwich looked like,” she smiled. “I had to learn everything. I just believed I could do it, so I did it.

“Maybe I’m stubborn.”

Ip came to Sarnia, single, with two small children, because a girlfriend lived here. Only a few months later the friend moved away and Ip was left to make her own way in an unfamiliar culture.

Initially, she approached the Adult Learning Centre hoping she could take English classes. But she didn’t have landed immigrant status yet and couldn’t formally enroll.

Instead, the centre allowed her to volunteer in the cafeteria in exchange for English lessons.

“I was making food there and thought, okay, I could have my own place,” Ip said. She searched for a location and liked the big front windows in the building on the corner of East and Kathleen streets.

“I should have thought about how much traffic goes by here,” she said. “It was too quiet in the beginning.”

But she persevered. She found a local restaurant she liked that served breakfast and studied their menu.  “I started with that because breakfast is easy. I watched. I learned.”

When South East Café opened in 1995, Ip hired a cook who taught her the skills she needed in a commercial kitchen.

“Eventually, I learned it all,” she said.

New businesses typically take three to five years to get on solid footing. “I took seven or eight years before I could see the results,” she said. “But I never thought of quitting.”

As the healthy, fresh food at South East Café caught on, Ip expanded from 40 to 80 seats.

Four years ago, when her two children finished university, she decided to enrol in Lambton College’s culinary arts program.  She also took a trip to Bangkok to take lessons in Thai cooking.  When she returned home, South East Café expanded its menu and began offering Thai food in the evening.

“I chose Thai because it challenged me. It’s hot, salty and sweet combined and I love the freshness,” she said. “I think life is about learning. I knew the basics from Lambton College but Thai was totally different for me.”

She has since returned to Bangkok for a second cooking course.

These days, Ip works the front of the house for breakfast and lunch.

“As a business owner, you really have to know your customers. People know me by name and I love to be out on the floor to talk and joke with them,” she said.

In the evening, she works in the kitchen preparing Thai food. Thai has become so popular at South East Café that Ip recently began offering Thai choices for the lunch hour too.

South East Café is open Tuesday to Saturday 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.  It’s also open Sundays from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.

VEGGIE SPRING ROLLS (makes 5)

1 shredded coriander root

1 garlic clove

2 oz vermicelli noodle

2 oz wood ear or shiitake mushrooms (optional)

2 oz shredded Chinese (napa) cabbage

2 oz bean sprout

2 oz shredded carrot

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp sugar

8 spring roll wraps

1 egg, beaten

Pinch of salt

Pound coriander root and garlic in a mortar into a paste.

Heat 1 tsp vegetable oil in a wok on medium heat until smoking.

Add paste, stir fry until fragrant. Add cabbage, carrot, bean sprout, and mushrooms. Stir well adding salt, soy sauce and sugar.

Place in a big bowl. Add noodles and set aside to cool.

Cut 3 wraps in half. Place a half on top of a whole wrap and fill with 1 tbsp of filling. Fold the wrap over the filling and pull back to tighten.

Fold side ends over, roll and seal with the egg.

Deep fry roll in hot oil, turning often until golden brown.

Drain and serve with sweet chili sauce.

This is the final installment of the Diner’s Journal, featuring local chefs. In September, look for the new Arts Journal, a weekly series about Sarnia’s cultural scene and those who make it tick. If you have an idea for the Arts Journal, contact Cathy Dobson at 226-932-0985 or cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca.