Jackie Kai Ellis is the former owner of Vancouver’s beloved Beaucoup Bakery, which she in recent years decided to move on from in order to focus on her other projects. She’s since been featured on House & Home magazine, has her own self-titled website, and recently released the show House Special on Telus, a series that follows Chinese-Canadian food history across BC and Alberta.
We got the chance to sit and chat about her exciting food journey!
By Avneet Takhar
So Jackie, you got into the food scene and learned how to be a pastry chef whilst studying in Paris! Was that the catalyst for opening Beaucoup?
I don’t think I necessarily had a plan when I went to pastry school in France. But it was always in the back of my head (opening a bakery), and there were ideas percolating for many years. When I got back I had the choice to either continue with my design career or try something that I’d never done before. I knew that I’d regret not trying, so thought I may as well do it while I’m young!
I was 33 years old at the time, so I thought I could always bounce back from this if I went bankrupt- so I decided to jump in! (Laughs)
You mentioned during the show that French people said the Chausson aux Pommes tasted exactly like home. Is this something that you like to convey with whatever you cook – a sense of ‘home’ through food?
Yeah, for sure. Especially when I was baking, even before pastry school, baking had become a way for me to reconnect to myself. I was going through a really dark period of my life, and it became this saving grace, this one rope you hang onto when you’re walking across a turbulent river. It only made sense that I would want to perfect the things that made people feel comforted, happy, and bring back memories of something that they thought they’d forgotten.
People would say: “My grandma used to make this cookie, and I don’t remember what the name is…”
I’d say: “What was the taste and texture like?”
I’d go off and do all this research and then bake them their grandma’s cookies! That’s what I’d do for people all the time, because there’s nothing more healing than giving memories back to someone.
Even when I sold Beaucoup in 2017, two of my original team members began bringing in flavours of their own homes, and the menu now are baked items that are more nostalgic to them. I think it’s really cool that they’re carrying that tradition on!
That’s so awesome! Big question for you now, Jackie: how was filming, and whilst pregnant?! Did it inspire any particular Asian food cravings?
It was great! You don’t really know how you’re ‘supposed’ to feel when you’re pregnant (unless you’ve been pregnant before), and I’m so used to travelling that it wasn’t a big deal.
But also my team- the directors, producers, cinematographer- they were all dads or moms of kids under 5 years old and they were just preparing me to have a baby! To have wise advice from them was a gift.
On Asian food cravings, prior to pregnancy I wasn’t a huge ‘Chinese food craving’ type of person. I would crave it every once in a while, but I’d just got back from France not too long ago and I ate very differently there. You kind of get whatever you can there, which is great. I was used to eating Middle Eastern food, cheese and just having a very European diet in general.
But when I got pregnant, all I was craving was comfort food- and that for me is Chinese food (also burgers and pizza- but that’s another story!) I was eating Chinese food all the time, like ‘cafe Hong Kong-style’ Chinese food. There was one dish, the beef noodle which was actually made on the show and that was my biggest craving. There’s just something about that dish, I think because as kids we ate it every weekend when we went for dim sum.
I definitely had to stop the car a few times on the way home from places just to eat that one dish!
Travelling around BC and Alberta, is there anything you were surprised to learn about regarding Chinese-Canadian food and history?
In terms of Chinese-Canadian food there wasn’t anything I was that surprised about, because I feel like that’s a real part of our culture. That roadside, hole-in-the-wall and restaurant that sells Salisbury steak and fries, but also sells chicken chow mein. We all knew about it and it’s typically Chinese-Canadian!
But I think the most surprising thing was how passionate the restaurant owners were. Being from a city myself, it’s such an ignorant city perspective to think ‘these people must be trapped here’. But no, these people have had crazy careers. This is what they want to do now, and they’re living their best lives!
I was really humbled by that. I am so urbane, in a bad way. And big cities really are not all that! So that was one thing that the show changed my own prejudice on.
In terms of history, I knew people came from China and left their families behind but I didn’t sit and think on a more personal level about what that must have been like for them. Their families were starving at home from war or famine, and they came here as a last-ditch effort to send money back home.
It was a bachelor lifestyle back then, and these men were living half lives. I read some of the preserved letters from the museums and they were doing all of this for the many generations after them.
You realize how much they were sacrificing and how alienated and uncomfortable they felt—especially with the racism. It was so heartbreaking. They were just putting their heads down and making do because they needed to send money home.
We as a modern culture now really don’t have a concept of that kind of giving back.
I watched some of those scenes and it was definitely emotional. On the note of more modern food fare, during the show, we see you dig into ginger beef and sweet and sour pork – what’s your stance on them?
I love them both! I think people look at Chinese-Canadian food as if it’s the lesser cuisine, but it really is its own thing. It can’t be compared to Chinese food really because it isn’t, it has its very own category.
And I’d never really tried the ginger beef until I was working on the show, and it’s DELICIOUS. Sweet and sour pork is my childhood, it’s what we always ordered as kids. It’s sweet, salty, fried and with pineapple in it. How can it be bad?!
Speaking of great Chinese Canadian dishes- what are your go-to spots to try in/around Metro Vancouver?
Burnaby Palace and I know a lot of people love it. We’ve ordered from there before, and it was my friend’s birthday so we just got everything on the menu.
Alas, thank you for the wonderful chat! Anything else you have in the works that we should know about, Jackie?
Well, there’s my book, The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris. But really it’s all about the baby right now; so let’s plug having babies!
You can catch mouth-watering episodes of House Special on Youtube or Telus, and grab a copy of Ellis’ book from Indigo or Amazon.
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