Behind Basil Box: An Adventure Across East Asia Leads Rye Grad Back To Campus

For a week of his journey through East Asia, Peter Chiu woke up early to take the hour-long bumpy ride from his hotel to an organic farming school in Saigon, Vietnam. Leaving from the city, he saw more and more farmland until he reached his destination at 7 a.m., not leaving until 8 p.m. that evening. He spent his time collecting ingredients, learning how to prepare them, and eating authentic fresh Asian cuisine. In 30 degree heat, he picked sugar cane for fried sugar cane shrimp, cooked chicken over charcoal coals, and scraped his arms harvesting lemon grass to add to chilies and soups.

Chiu spent three weeks travelling Vietnam and Thailand, immersing himself in the culture and looking for culinary inspiration in preparation for his restaurant Basil Box, which is opening its second location in Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre this winter. After graduating from Ryerson’s hospitality and tourism program in 2008, Chiu started working in the food industry. He realized that the market for Asian food is relatively small and wanted to take advantage of that with a new focus on Thai and Vietnamese food.

“There’s so many Chinese and Japanese restaurants, we didn’t want to be another drop in the water,” said Chiu.  

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So in late 2013 and early 2014, he and his wife set off to get a better understanding of the region’s food. After dropping off their bags at the hotel in Bangkok and maneuvering past the tuk-tuks soliciting for passengers, Chiu came across a market square. The square had a thatched roof but no walls, and was full of wooden carts heaping with red and green chili peppers, fresh basil, and coriander. The scent of dried shrimp kept in barrels wafted through the square as raw steaks were being chopped in the fresh air. The market was busy, but carried an underlying buzz, a sense of efficiency that had everything running smoothly.

Chiu came back ready to bring the same fresh vibrant food to North America in the form of a customizable fast food restaurant. He called upon his friend, and fellow Ryerson alumnus, Jimmy Yang to be the operations manager, and their first location at Square One in Mississauga, Ont., opened in July 2015.

When Ryerson President Sheldon Levy decided the empty space in the SLC should be used for food retail, Chiu and Yang proposed their restaurant and sold the deciding committee on being a Ryerson graduate success story, a pair of entrepreneurs coming home.

“It’s great to be able to come back to Ryerson to apply everything we’ve learned,” said Chiu.  

Basil Box is even offering a 10 per cent discount to current Ryerson students as appreciation for what the school has made possible for them. According to Chiu, the location is promising because he believes downtown clientele are interested in trying ethnic food. He also believes that Ryerson students will enjoy the menu which allows consumers to choose exactly what they’re eating.

“Nowadays, we’re used to customizing. We’re used to being able to get exactly what we want, how we want it,” said Chiu, “If you were to come here literally every single day, you could eat here for over a thousand years and never have the same thing twice.”

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Almost all ingredients to choose from at Basil Box are locally grown. Their produce is from Ontario and the meat is from Alberta. However, one vegetable that comes imported from Vietnam is lemon grass, one of the ingredients Chiu learned to cultivate and cook with during his time traveling.

On his last day in Bangkok, Chui visited the Erawan Shrine. In the middle of a busy square during rush hour, he placed yellow flowers in front of a golden statue representing the Hindu God of creation. He made a wish for success, a promise to return after the opening of his fifth restaurant with his staff to show them his inspiration, and to continue learning about East Asian food.  

Featured image by Andrea Vacl