Vi Huynh came to Saskatoon as a two-year-old, among the Vietnamese boat people who came to Canada following the Vietnam war, sponsored by a Mennonite group.
He’d go on to become the head chef at a long-running and cherished teppanyaki restaurant in the city — one which has now announced it will serve its last meals next month.
After starting as a dishwasher 26 years ago, when he was in his teens, Huynh went on to become the head chef at Samurai, which has operated in the Bessborough hotel for 40 years.
Earlier this month, the Delta Bessborough announced on social media that Samurai’s last meals will be served on New Year’s Eve.
It’s the end of a restaurant that has been a popular fixture on the Saskatoon food scene — even serving meals to famous TV stars and musicians.
“Back in the day we had Ray Romano and his wife, Eleanor, they were coming here all the time. We had the Tragically Hip come in. So over the years they became family,” said Huynh.
Longtime teppanyaki chef Vi Huynh started his career at Samurai as a dishwasher and worked his way to the role of head chef. He says the guests he’s served over the years have become ‘like family.’ (Submitted by Vi Huynh)
Many things have changed since he began his part-time dishwashing job as a teenager.
The dramatic fire tricks often involved in teppanyaki — a Japanese style of cuisine that involves cooking food on a hot metal grill — have been a thing of the past for about a decade now. Fire trucks were called a few times when the cooking set off the sprinklers, Huynh said.
Other things haven’t changed, though — the Delta Bessborough, a castle-like structure overlooking the South Saskatchewan River, has kept its antique charm.
But times are changing, and the Bessborough isn’t immune to progress.
“We’re moving upmarket to a brand called Autograph,” said Jason Clark, the hotel’s general manager.
“It encompasses everything from guest rooms to meeting rooms to food and beverage outlets.”
The company hired a consulting firm that recently flew staff from New York to Saskatoon. They visited 22 restaurants in two days to get a feel for the city’s culinary landscape.
According to Jim Bence, the president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association, rebranding and change are realities of the hospitality industry province-wide.
“Those iconic restaurants decide to rebrand … some of them have closed, but others have made a decision to move away from what might be their mom and dad’s favourite place to go for an anniversary,” said Bence.
Samurai isn’t the only longtime Saskatoon restaurant to disappear. Businesses like Station Place and Boffins Public House on the University of Saskatchewan campus have either closed or become event spaces.
Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association president and CEO Jim Bence says when older restaurants close shop, they make way for entrepreneurs and niche restaurants. (CBC)
Diversification is key to bringing in revenue, says Bence.
“One of the biggest factors, I think, is the changing attitudes towards the responsible consumption of alcohol at .04. I think that in itself has had a tremendous impact on table service,” said Bence.
“Those decisions to go out and make sure that they’re drinking responsibly has had an impact.”
Discretionary spending is also down, he said, due in part to Saskatchewan’s economy.
Many people — especially young people, according to Bence — are choosing to stay home and order from delivery services like Skip the Dishes.
‘I’ve been so popular lately’: chef
As it heads toward its last month, though, Samurai is almost fully booked for December, says the Bessborough’s general manager.
Like Vi Huynh, Clark is proud of the restaurant’s legacy.
“It was really a novelty. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was the very first person to actually dine in this restaurant.”
Samurai will shut down at the end of December, as the Delta Bessborough hotel will be rebranding in 2020. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)
The people who have become loyal diners are supporting the restaurant until its very end, says Huynh.
“I’ve been so popular lately. I’ve been famous. I feel like I should run for mayor or something,” he said.
It’s unclear whether the same staff from Samurai will be rehired to work at the new restaurant.
Huynh has already made plans to step out on his own. He may cater privately or travel for a while.
“I have a 14-year-old son. I don’t see him often because I work lots of evenings and weekends,” he said.
“Maybe a Monday to Friday job, 9 to 5, would be exciting for me.”