Prairie Noodle Shop: Good food is always about the people

Prairie Noodle Shop got off to a surprisingly shaky start in December 2015. The owners, thick in the throes of the opening, lineups, over-run and shell-shocked staff, a spotlight shining on them from every food blogger and news outlet, threw the handbrake and threw it hard. After four successful pop-ups around the city and acquiring a loyal fan base, the noodle train, shockingly, went half off the rails in the first week of opening. The team needed a restructuring and they needed to regroup. They worked around the clock—even sleeping there—for months to get back on track, clawing their way to eventually become one of the most popular restaurants in the city. I’ve witnessed first-hand the evolution of Prairie Noodle. It is my go-to, and I go often.

In the past 10 days, I’ve been to Prairie Noodle three times: once for lunch to have my favourite chicken noukou, then for their new menu item reveal, and the third time for Mai Nguyen’s Vietnamese-inspired pop up.

Chicken noukou ramen

I asked Arden Tse, one of the owners, about the evolution of his business and why it has such a good vibe (and great food) every time I visit.

It comes down to the people, he said, who are hired not necessarily for their skill, but for their potential, their willingness to learn, and their desire to be the best they can be. That can only work if you have a good leader, and at Prairie Noodle, that leader is Eric Hanson who now splits his time between being General Manager and Executive Chef. Hanson took the leadership reins in January 2016 after the original Executive Chef didn’t pan out. Tse likens him to a conductor— overseeing and making sure all the players are performing their parts, and guiding them as they go. Hanson, he says, is the ultimate leader.

Kevin Ostapek and David Leeder fill in the gaps where and when needed; both offering part time but invaluable service on the line. Ostapek and Leeder bring skills gained from years in the industry and from their travels and stints abroad including Australia and New York (Ostapek) and Copenhagen and Spain (Leeder) to name just a few of the locations.  These two veterans are reliable, well-respected, knowledgeable, and freakishly talented.

Ostapek and Hanson: Photo credit: @misadventures_of_moe (Instagram)
Leeder and Hanson.

To give you an idea how team-oriented the group is, all the items revealed for the new summer menu were created by everyone other than Hanson. It is important, he says, to allow the staff to create and to fail. Growth and self-improvement are impossible if you don’t.

Some of these items will be tweaked yet before the menu is finalized, but for now: Ostapek’s pork loin banh mi is one I can’t wait to get my hands on again.

Pork loin bánh mì
Smoked chicken wings (Ostapek)

Jamie Tokuda was a dishwasher at Get Cooking who volunteered at every pop up during the research and development days of Prairie Noodle. Tse describes him as “the rock”; a super-dependable guy who recently ran the shop without a hitch while Hanson was away for two weeks. Tokuda is a bright, self-taught cook who soaks up information like a sponge.

Jamie Tokuda and Eric Hanson
Tokuda’s pork dumplings

Rob Friesen has a decade of experience in other kitchens but is just discovering his talent for making ice cream at the shop. There is a lot of fun behind that shy, quiet demeanour. He’s the morale booster, says Tse. He makes some pretty fine ice cream, says me.

Rob Friesen and his cherry ice cream bars – Photo Credit: @eatmywordsblog (Instagram)

Kanako Stockdale, a videographer from Japan, has been with the team for about a year. She too, started as a dishwasher. Now she opens the restaurant and runs the line. Her candied yam dish? Delicious.

Kanako Stockdale
Kanako’s candied yams

Newcomer, Mai Nguyen, has a Degree in Food Sciences from the U of A, and held a position with the provincial government before landing at Prairie Noodle.

Mai’s yuzu noodle salad.

Her top 4 placing in Masterchef Canada was the impetus she needed to make a career change. Tse says Mai has loads of raw talent, a refined palate, and a great eye for plating. I got to witness all of that last week at her pop-up. He’s right.

Nguyen and Hanson.
Mai Nguyen’s pop-up dishes: Top L: Beef carpaccio with fish sauce dressing, lime juice, garlic oil, garlic chips, herbs and veggies. Top R: Crab, shrimp, and scallop culetti with crab and lemongrass velouté. Bottom L: Pho soup dumpling with a basil and cilantro vinaigrette. Bottom R: Nem nuong with rice noodles, veggies, herbs, and “Nha Trang” sauce.

No matter how good the food, though,  it would go nowhere if it wasn’t for restaurant support staff. Darrah and Dana are the backbone of the front of house delivering bowl after bowl and bao after bao.  Devon, a dishwasher, is in the process of a noodle education—and if he follows in the footsteps of the others, I’m sure we’ll see his noodle creations on the menu in the future. Jen, a student, comes in on weekends for prep duty, and Slav, a dishwasher who worked with Eric during his Niche days, has been at the shop almost from day one.

Don’t ever discount the importance of the staff you never see or the ones who don’t get the press time. Slav taught Arden Tse the importance of a properly run dish pit, a place where he occasionally inserts himself when he’s not tending his other job as  Manager of the University of Alberta’s Venture Mentoring Service. You’ll see one of the other owners, Terry Wong, in the shop now and then, helping where needed while also taking care of the marketing aspects of the business.

Terry Wong (L), and Arden Tse (R).

Eating is about more than just the food. It’s about the people, too. Food is just one piece of the pie in a dining experience. Vibe, comfort, satisfaction, feeling a connection… those are all the others. Teamwork makes it happen; good leadership makes it possible.

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