Cocktails and Dreams: Restaurateur Tannis Ling

I first met Tannis Ling one early summer night in June four years ago. It was my trial shift at her Chinatown restaurant Bao Bei. I remember that I liked her nail colour and cool-yet-effortless outfit. I hustled to fill waters and take in as much as I could, as I watched her move gracefully through the restaurant, running dishes out to tables or jumping behind the bar to help make a cocktail. It took less than the evening to know I wanted to be a part of this wildly fast-paced yet fun place she had created. 

Since then, I've watched Tannis open a second restaurant, Kissa Tanto, which has been flooded with accolades (En Route awarded it the Best New Restaurant in Canada). She divides her time between both places, and it's evident there's no signs of slowing down any time soon.

I sat down with Tannis to learn about her her fantasy of opening a restaurant, why she was lured into the bartending world (which might have something to do with the movie Cocktail), and how she manages to stay so level-headed through it all. 

Photography by Daniel Burke

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What made you decide to work in the restaurant industry?

“I always knew that I didn’t want to go the professional route. My mom’s a dentist; my dad’s an architect. My brother is an engineer. You know, it’s cliché, but you watch Cocktail too many times. Bartending was a world to me that I never got to see or be included in. It looked so glamorous to me. I tried doing other things. I thought I wanted to be a photographer or interior designer, I always knew it would be something creative. But I didn’t have the patience or ambition to stick it though. I hated school so much.”

Where was your first bartending job?

“I started working in the Cayman Islands. My first job was on a sunset cruise, on a pirate ship, making rum punches and doing the Macarena every night at sunset with a bunch of tourists.”

Did you always know you wanted to open your own restaurant one day?

“I can’t remember exactly, but friends I worked with on the Cayman Islands say they remember me talking about it, so since I was 20 years old. But at that time it was really just a fantasy.”

 At what point did it become a real plan?

“I just got sick of bartending, really. I was at Chambar for five years and I couldn’t see myself working there for the rest of my life. I figured it was either keep going in this direction where I knew everything about the business, or go back to school and start fresh all over again.”

Between opening Bao Bei and now Kissa Tanto, how have your roles evolved over the years?

“Since I opened KT, it’s been different because I’ve figured out how to delegate. I think a lot about what can improve the business and what needs attention, and how I can I figure out solutions to the problems that are coming up. Whereas before, I was so busy doing the day-to-day things, now I can step back and look at the grander scale of things.”

When did you decide to open a second restaurant?

“When I opened Bao Bei seven years ago, I had no idea how to run a restaurant. I would run around with my head cut off and had to figure things out on the go. Every year that it was open I learned something new. So in that fifth or six year I felt like I had reached the tip of what I could learn, and I started to get bored. Joel was feeling the same way, and I knew that if we didn’t do something together, it wasn’t good for both of us to stay stagnant.”

What would you say you are you most proud of?

“I’m proud that they’re both busy. We get really overwhelmed here and at Bao Bei, especially in the summertime when we’re like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so crazy!’ But when you take a step back and realize they’re two of the busiest restaurants in the city right now, it feels good.”

“I’m also proud of the way both places look. Well, kind of everything. I’m proud of the food, I’m proud of all the people that work for me because everybody who works for me is amazing. I’m really proud of that.”

What are your thoughts on Vancouver’s restaurant scene? What stands out to you? 

“I think uniqueness stands out, because Vancouver sometimes has a tendency to borrow ideas from other places. A lot of people will borrow ideas and concepts from other cities, and then it’s very obvious to people like us who are familiar with the restaurant industry. We see something and right away say, ‘Oh that’s a blatant copy of a restaurant we went to in L.A.’ I think that’s cheating.”

"If you’re going to open up a restaurant, it’s really important that it comes from your heart. JC Poirier is opening up St. Lawrence, and that’s the epitome of what I think a restaurant should be: it’s from his heart, his home. It’s also unique - nobody is doing Quebecois cuisine. It means something, and people will be able to tell. They’ll go in, they’ll see the food, the way the place looks, obviously it’s going to come from some kind of inspiration from his home in Quebec. Whereas there’s like, I don’t know, 10,000 poke places in Vancouver."

Why do you think your restaurants have had so much success?

“For me, the feeling of the restaurant is very important. When I think about where I want to eat, I don’t just think about the food or the way the place looks, I think about how it feels. Maybe it doesn’t even look that great, but there’s something right with the music or the lighting, or the service is really good or it just has this kind of half hazard look like they didn’t even try. Like the Guu on Thurlow, it’s a weird room and the tables are all oddly shaped and they haven’t done anything special with the interior, but it just feels good in there.”

How do you create that mood?

“I think with that Guu it just happened by accident, but it also has a lot to do with the culture of Izakaya: they yell and they’re playing loud music in there. A lot of the things I learned about restaurants I learned about from living in London, because they’re a bunch of fun-loving people. Every place we would go to, there was so much attention to detail. There was music, drinks, people were dressed well, the server was wearing a cool uniform. That really impressed on me that the atmosphere is so important, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere that didn’t have that."

"That’s why at Bao Bei, from the very beginning, we’ve always played music loud, it’s dark and there’s stuff everywhere. It makes you feel comfortable when there’s stuff everywhere and you can look at everything. With [Kissa Tanto], it’s a different vibe. We wanted to do this dark, moody kind of supper club. We play jazz in here all night, and now that it’s winter, we have the curtains closed and it’s dark and snowing outside and we hike the heat up to make it cozy. There are candles everywhere. People feel like they’re somewhere else.”

You mentioned earlier that you’re proud of your team at both restaurants. How do you find good staff?

“Something I learned from Karri and Nico (from Chambar) is that you treat your staff well. You don’t deny them food or drinks, or deny them of a fun time. You make them feel like they’re your equals. You do nice things for them, give them nice staff parties, and they are happy to work for you. I also don’t keep anyone around who I don’t think I could be friends with, because anybody who sticks out in that way or has a difficult personality is not going to get along well.”

What is your favourite thing about running two restaurants?

“Building the restaurant, coming up the with ideas, sitting around trying to decide on a wall colour, going out and buying all these knick knacks and deciding where they go. I love the concept development. Coming up with the name Kissa Tanto took me months and months. All my research ended up coming into fruition with the way the place looks and feels. I like to feel it in my brain and then have it come to life.”

What advice would you give to someone wanting to open their own restaurant?

“I think the reason both restaurants are so successful is because I spent 10 years in the business. I worked my way up from the bottom and did every position. I went to cooking school so I could understand how it works back there. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a chef, but that was invaluable because I understand how the food is cooked and how the kitchen works, how costing works and basically how back of house runs. If I had a blind spot in that sense it would be not as good for me. Having a pretty good understanding of every single aspect of the business is imperative.”

Have you ever found it challenging to be a woman in this industry?

“It’s never bothered me. I don’t think about it. I think it might have to do with the fact that my mom’s a dentist, my grandmother was a dentist so when I was growing up, it never occurred to me that women didn’t work. I thought all women worked, so immediately I was like, what am I going to do for my career. It was very important to me to figure it out.”

What would you like to do now? Do you have any future plans?  

"I think we’ll probably open another one. I love opening up a place. The other thing would be to consult, help somebody who has a great idea but doesn’t know how to execute it. That would be my dream job. Because I could help with all the creative stuff and with operations but then I wouldn’t have to sit there answering emails all day. Get the ball rolling and then set them loose."

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To learn more about Tannis' restaurant worlds, follow Bao Bei and Kissa Tanto on Instagram.

Meagan Albrechtson