Benedict Lim arrives at a coffee shop to chat, bursting with energy. The chef has a lot going on, with two stands (Ohana Poké and the new Tabetai Tacos) at the Richmond Night Market up and running. Lim knows he’s a bit crazy to be taking on so much, but the intensity of cooking is what drives him.
Lim grew up in Richmond in a household where a blend of Asian cooking influences was the norm. Originally, his grandparents moved from China to run a business and raise children in Manila. Eventually, when Lim was four-years-old, his family immigrated to Canada, bringing their resourcefulness and mixed culinary knowledge. “We grew up with a very practical lifestyle. It was a crossbreed of whatever my dad could fit into one pot. With a budget, we’d hardly go out, so he was constantly cooking.” His dad would whip up Chinese stir-fries and Filipino adobo, serving them with rice to stretch out the food.
Lim’s jobs as a teenager were his initial forays into the culinary world. The former Fantasy Gardens in Richmond was the site of his first job, in banquet catering. His next gig was at Kisamos Taverna in Steveston where Lim started to enjoy cooking, despite the work’s lack of glamour. “I peeled a lot of potatoes,” he says.
But with the rise of food shows and celebrity chefs, “all of a sudden it was kind of cool to cook.” Lim decided to go to then Dubrulle Culinary School (now the Art Institute of Vancouver). His parents, who had envisioned Lim becoming a doctor or a lawyer met the news with little enthusiasm. “They were not pleased,” says Lim.
Despite their misgivings, Lim excelled at his training, leaving the school with dreams of culinary grandeur. He rapidly realized that he was very green and still had a lot to learn. After applying for countless jobs, he landed a position at the Boathouse Restaurant in Richmond. “I was super nervous. I walked into the kitchen and the guy there asked me to cut a tomato and my hand was shaking,” he says. After the first month of hard work, Lim wanted to leave. “My Dad said, ‘You’re not quitting. Suck it up,’” he recounts.
And Lim did, gaining more confidence and skills, and gradually climbing the ranks in the restaurant. Over the next decade, Lim worked at a variety of establishments, including Romano’s Macaroni Grill, the Cannery, Aqua 1066, Feenie’s, and the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel (all closed now, except for the Hotel). To up his qualifications, he challenged the Red Seal exam, quickly realizing that he was already ready and didn’t need a textbook. “I flipped through for an hour and then shut the book. ‘You know what, let’s just wing it.’ And I ended up passing.”
A few key jobs laid the groundwork for Lim’s stands at the Richmond Night Market. First of all, he helped run a Richmond business, Quiche Me Catering, which gave him a first-hand look at being an entrepreneur. He also worked at the Richmond Keg as a server. “I was a super shy kid and being in a kitchen, you build confidence, but you’re still shut off from the rest of the world,” he says. He later was promoted to a manager there, gaining valuable skills for mentoring and guiding staff. And teaching cooking classes at Richmond’s Thompson Community Centre taught him how to energize other people.
The idea for Ohana Poké at the Richmond Night Market originated from Lim’s brother who told Lim, “You should work for yourself and do something for you. You should get in with the Night Market.” His brother suggested poké, which wasn’t yet a trend in the Lower Mainland. Liking the recommendation, Lim decided to dive right into poké R&D. “It was a lot of trial and error. I started bringing in fish and got really good at butchering fish. I invited a lot of friends to taste it and tell me what they thought.”
After Ohana Poké launched at last year’s Richmond Night Market, it immediately gained a following. “We were at a nine-by-nine stand and we ended up getting noticed. And all we were serving was fish on rice.” However, it just wasn’t any fish on rice. Lim decided to stray from the Hawaiian version and incorporate his own culinary influences, drawing upon Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and European flavours.
This year, visitors can order the original poké or the spicy miso mayo poké, with a choice between wild sockeye salmon, yellowfin ahi tuna, and bay scallops. The poké also contains a set combination of sushi rice, soy vinaigrette, masago, wakame salad, kimchi pickled cucumbers, and taro chips. Lim feels that complete customizable bowls, which are available at some poké places, can often lead to a haphazard mélange of ingredients.
Lim says the sourcing of BC sockeye salmon gives his poké a local twist. He really pays attention to playing with textures and flavour, as well as the aesthetics of the poké. His vinaigrette is a balanced mixture of soy, honey, lime, chiles, wasabi powder, and herbs, which provides a savoury quality, sweetness, citrusy zing, and heat to the dish. He also says that nailing the vinegary sushi rice was very important to elevate the fish (he learned how to make it from a buddy of his who owns a sushi joint). Slicing avocado into a fan-shape and garnishing the poke with taro chips add some aesthetic pop.
To make his life even more hectic, Lim has added a new stand, Tabatei Tacos, to the Night Market, which adopts a similar culinary approach to the Mexican classic. “I took tacos, broke them down, and added Asian flavours,” explains Lim.
The menu is absolutely delicious, with a choice between Gyutan beef tongue, slow roasted pork belly, and crispy fried soft shell crab. The crab takes its inspiration from Southern fried chicken by using buttermilk.
Besides the protein, the taco is made with corn tortillas, kimchi salsa, spicy miso mayo, and guacamole. Lim went around and tried tacos around town, figuring out what makes a great taco. He determined that the salsa is a deal-breaker. “I can’t just make regular salsa, as that just isn’t me. So, I made a kimchi salsa,” he says.
It promises to be an amazing (and crazily busy) night market season for Lim with his two stands. “When I signed up for two stands, it was a mixture of confidence and stupidity. That’s a lot of work,” he laughs. Visitors to the Richmond Night Market will be glad that he did as they order poké and then head to his taco stand, which is behind his poké one. Together, the tacos and poké attest to the talent, creativity, and versatility of Lim as a chef.
Recipe for Ohana Poké
- 10 oz sashimi grade fish diced into 1 inch cubes (tuna, salmon, yellowtail etc)
- 4 oz (Ohana Poke) soy vinaigrette
- 2 oz Wakame salad
- 2 oz masago fish roe
- 2 oz cucumbers, seeded and diced
- 1/2 oz kimchi, pureed
- 1 ripe avocado, peeled and sliced thinly
- 8 oz cooked, warm sushi rice
- 3 oz sushi vinegar
- Dress diced fish with soy vinaigrette.
- Dress diced cucumbers with puréed kimchi and 1 oz sushi vinegar.
- Combine 2 oz of sushi vinegar with warm sushi rice and mix well.
- Top with vinaigrette dressed fish and garnish with avocado, cucumbers, Wakame salad, and masago.