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Gongfu Bao: A food cart and a dream

By Aileen Duncan on August 10, 2018

Gongfu Bao is a food cart which developed a following in Ottawa. Its operator, Tarek Hassan, has been hustling since 2013 to feed the people visiting his mobile kitchen, and now he’s preparing to open the doors of a brand-new kitchen at Bank and Gilmour. The shop is expected to open in August.

It’s clear to anyone speaking with Tarek Hassan that he has a passion for food. Taking an unlikely course to arrive in a kitchen, Hassan completed an engineering degree and was going into the direction of working in user interface design. Yet, after entering the workforce, he realized he would not thrive or find happiness in engineering. So, he applied at a couple restaurants. “A lot of people told me it was a bad idea,” says Hassan. “I don’t know if it was stupidity or some kind of hidden wisdom, but I just dove in.”

The engineering background turned out to be helpful in developing dishes. “I like to break down a dish and understand what elements are going into it and why. I’ve learned to strip away things that I was doing because I wanted to, or because I liked how they taste, and I like to have reason and meaning behind every choice that I made in building a dish.”

Sustainable food systems

For more than just the love of feeding people, Hassan sees restaurants and food businesses as an important lifeline for establishing and supporting sustainable food systems. He sources ingredients locally, when possible.

Gongfu Bao owner/operator Tarek Hassan. Photo: Aileen Duncan/Apt613.

The challenge I wanted to take on was trying to do street food with the kind of values and integrity that made cooking in restaurants, for me, a worthwhile endeavour.

“I was making decisions about what I was going to do with my life, and whether I wanted to cook food for people, which gives me a lot of joy. But I was questioning whether that was a worthwhile calling,” says Hassan. “I’ve since learned that there is inherent value in the work itself, while the desire to support sustainable food systems continues to inform how I run my business.” It may have been the food systems approach that provided him with that comfort, initially, but in the 15 years that he has been cooking full-time, Hassan has developed a sense of trust in his path. He sees the love of cooking and the desire to feed people and as inherently valid motivations for cooking for a living.

Instagram: @gongfubao

A Centretown story: How Gongfu came to be

Beginning as a prep cook and working his way into fancier kitchens, Hassan had it in the back of his mind that starting a food business was something he aspired to… eventually. When the City of Ottawa revamped its application process for food trucks, he decided to go through the application process, just to gain the experience. Hassan had prior experience cooking Chinese food, and based his menu around a dish he was looking to perfect—bao, which is a steam bun with fillings. Sure enough, the City offered him his top choice of location. Thus, Gongfu Bao was born.

He launched the first of his two crowdfunding campaigns to raise the funds to purchase a food cart. Gongfu Bao became popular quickly—though Hassan admits he had no idea what he was doing at first. Still, it fed his desire to cook for people.

One thing he underestimated was the mobile aspect of having a food cart. Hauling equipment and setting up is pretty much a full-time job. Imagine packing and moving your kitchen on a daily basis, as well as cleaning it, and creating handcrafted, high quality food, and having the energy to engage with people on the street!

Renovations in progress at the new location. Photo: Aileen Duncan/Apt613.

It was a neat opportunity to invite people to support the business and be part of the story. Sure, the food is pretty good. But I think a part of it was people being excited about someone putting their heart into something. Like, fuck it, I’m doing this!”

In addition, the lower price margins on street food, coupled with a desire to pay his staff a living wage, meant that Hassan had a barely sustainable business model and a poor work-life balance. Reducing the quality of food wasn’t an option. “The depth [I wanted] of working with and growing with the food was too much to squeeze into that street food model,” says Hassan.

He came to a decision that a brick-and-mortar store would enable him to focus on the food, rather than the hauling.

Even better, he was supported by Gongfu Bao’s following and a second successful crowdfunding campaign. After securing a lease at Bank and Gilmour (the former Aziz & Co. storefront), he decided to build a kitchen there from scratch.

“It was a neat opportunity to invite people to support and be part of the story,” says Hassan. “Sure, the food is pretty good. But I think a part of it was people being excited about someone putting their heart into something. Like, fuck it, I’m doing this!”

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For the foodies: What’s on the menu?

  • Bao and not-bao options, e.g. rice bowls
  • Maple BBQ pork
  • Vegetarian and vegan options “galore”
  • Seasonal sides, e.g. greens, slaws, chips
  • House sodas with locally sourced ingredients

Follow Gongfu Bao on Facebook and Instagram for updates.