Gina Wou was 28 when she decided to attend the New England Culinary Institute. “That’s like being 28 and deciding to be a supermodel,” jokes the Montréal-born chef.
Her gamble paid off in a rich and varied career. While at NECI, Wou saw a cookbook by Food Network host Ming Tsai at Burlington’s Crow Bookshop. That inspired her to head to Tsai’s famed Boston restaurant, Blue Ginger, where she honed her craft for two years after graduation. From there, Wou returned home to Montréal, where she cooked at big-name restaurants including international Restaurant Globe and sushi temple Tri Express. She also met her future husband, Tom Rozza, another Montréal native with an impressive culinary résumé including cooking at Joe Mercuri’s avant-garde groundbreaker Brontë (now closed).
Together, the couple left the city for a small town not far from Wou’s former Vermont stomping grounds. In 2009, Wou and Rozza opened Homei Bistro, an uncommon restaurant that highlights both their Chinese and Italian heritages and the bounty of local farms. With offerings ranging from sushi to pizza, the place provides a sophisticated hub for residents of tiny Dunham, Québec, population 3471. It’s also an easy drive for many Vermonters, just an hour from Burlington.
A shared passion for learning more about farm-to-table cooking brought Wou and Rozza together eight years ago in Montréal, and their relationship blossomed during an internship at a Vancouver Island wasabi farm. “I’m a city girl,” Wou says. “I had no idea where our food comes from. It was something I needed to learn that was so important to me.”
After returning to their culinary careers in Montréal, the couple’s plan was to a start a farm in Cowansville, just up the road from Dunham. But when the space in a historic building right on Dunham’s Main Street became available, Rozza and Wou couldn’t help but be enticed.
Their “lowball” offer gained the couple a restaurant smack in the middle of the Eastern Township’s wine route. The location brings tourists into the mix along with local regulars, as well as giving Homei access to a large list of wines grown just a few miles away.
Beer comes from the adjacent Brasserie Dunham, with which Homei has a symbiotic relationship. Its kitchen feeds the microbrewery’s customers: The award-winning poutine, with gravy made from Brasserie Dunham’s own suds, is served by itself, with numerous quirky toppings or as filling for a calzone, while the beer-filled local pork sausages were crafted at a neighboring elk farm. In exchange for the culinary contributions, up to four Dunham beers rotate on Homei’s taps, including unusual treats such as a green-tea-and-guava beer. “It goes really well with our food,” says Rozza, who also points out a black-stout float currently on his drink menu.
The beverages may be choice, but the real reason to make the drive north is Homei’s own cuisine. Ming Tsai’s influence on Wou is clear on her pan-Asian menu. While the Boston chef’s entrées frequently cost $40 or more, however, Wou’s top out at $22.
At the core of Homei’s success is approachable Asian comfort food prepared by former fine-dining chefs. It’s no surprise to learn that the restaurant’s name means simply “very delicious” in Chinese.
The preparations are not elaborate — a leap for Rozza, who used molecular techniques to transform ingredients when he worked at Brontë. Now his goal is to serve food with “as little manipulation as possible,” he says. “We like to season our food well, and we do a lot of marinades. We try to get flavors infused in all our food.”
It sounds simple, but the results suggest otherwise. Take, for instance, the Korean beef bowl. Tender chunks of steak originate at a nearby farm, where the couple chooses a cow for slaughter from the small herd. The meat is marinated in a sweet and sesame-redolent slurry that, once cooked, makes each bit of beef melt delectably.
Precisely cooked rice absorbs both the marinade and the tangy dressing that covers a salad of organic mesclun from Les Jardins de la Grelinette in St-Armand. The greens are mixed with carrots, cabbage and cilantro and liberally showered with white and black sesame seeds. The whole dish is perfection in a bowl, and a filling meal for just $12.
Korean food is only the beginning for this talented couple. To celebrate Homei’s reopening for the spring season, the chefs sent out a selection of amuse-bouches, including dumplings filled with goat and shrimp; chunks of Thai-style fried basil chicken; and Asian spoons that each held sake gelée and a single slice of strawberry.
That Japanese theme continues on the appetizer menu. Wou’s training under Montréal sushi master Tri Du shows in her salmon tartare inari. The three rolls are wrapped in tofu skin and filled with coarsely chopped tuna on a bed of rice. They’re served on squiggles of sticky, soy-based sauce and topped with sesame seeds, tempura flakes and scallions.
The bill of fare also boasts Vietnamese-style egg rolls and Thai curries. Wou’s experience with dim-sum feasts in Montréal’s Chinatown informs many of her own dishes. For a Chinese barbecue pork chop, she paints a thick, bone-in chunk of juicy pig flesh in a fresh, light take on honey-and-five-spice-flavored cha siu. The honey comes from a Dunham hive called Three Acres and also appears in Homei’s dressings and drinks, including a lemon-flavored, iced jasmine tea.
Homei isn’t exclusively an Asian restaurant; dishes also include a pork-and-beef burger and moules-frites. Then there’s the pizza. When we visited the restaurant on its first weekend following a winter break, we spotted a pie on nearly every table, along with the noodle bowls and tempuras.
Rozza and Wou bought their pizza oven from the café next door when it closed two years ago. “I always wanted a pizza oven, because what Italian child doesn’t want a pizza oven?” Rozza jokes. “We said, ‘Life isn’t that serious that [the restaurant] needs to be so one-sided Asian. We don’t need to pigeonhole ourselves into a certain food category.’”
The simple pizzas include a classic Margherita but also a pesto-and-olive version. On the night we visited, many arrived in front of children; the restaurant was crowded with diners ranging from infants to senior citizens.
Among the kids at the restaurant are the owners’ own offspring, 5-year-old Timo (named for the Italian word for thyme), and 1-year-old Taro (for the purple root popular in Asian cookery). Wou says she’s surprised that her restaurant has been such a hit with youngsters, given the lack of a kids’ menu. She adds that she and Rozza are accommodating in the kitchen and have a toy box to keep the little ones quiet for guests enjoying a date night.
Many of the diners are local at this time of year, but Wou says Homei also sees its fair share of Vermonters who discover the restaurant while traveling the wine route. “I tell my servers to tell them that I went to NECI, but they never remember the word, so we lose that connection,” she says with a sigh.
Regardless of how many diners arrive from out of town, the close-knit locals keep coming back for the food, the Chinese-lantern-and-Tibetan-prayer-flag-bedecked back garden and the friendly ambiance. During Seven Days’ visit, nearly every new guest who entered the restaurant was greeted by waves from friends already eating.
This camaraderie extends to the staff. One busser that weekend was the daughter of Homei’s beef providers. Her parents were dining at the restaurant that night, seated two tables away from its honey suppliers; their other daughter was up the road taking care of Taro. “That’s the great thing about living in the country,” says Wou. “There’s no lack of babysitters or dishwashers.”
And no lack of customers willing to come in and try Wou’s new cheesecake. Though Rozza’s grandmother was a pastry chef in Switzerland, neither he nor his wife specializes in desserts. But Wou’s creamy coconut treat is alone worth a trip. Served in a Mason jar, with a thick crust of mashed graham crackers covered in ethereally light coconut custard and a nest of crunchy coconut strands, the unconventional sweet could convert even a cheesecake hater.
Or impress an enthusiast — like Rozza. “I’m a big cheesecake fanatic, and I can’t believe I’ve been loving cheesecake all these years and now Gina made my favorite cheesecake,” he says. “It’s not fancy. It’s good and sweet.”
He could be describing Homei Bistro and its simple, scrumptious cuisine.
Homei Bistro, 3809 rue Principale, Dunham, Québec, 450-284-0522.