Jul 17, 2012
THORNTON Murray is dedicated to offering authentic Western food to Suzhou locals and expats. The uncompromising Canadian is on the warpath against anything misrepresenting Western baking.
He has started with bagels to combat "the city's disappointing Western food."
Murray's newly opened Big Bagel is a 24-hour, three-story restaurant/deli/bakery offering 37 varieties of bagels, as well as soups, sandwiches, salads and dishes from around the world.
What he can't buy, he makes, and what's not available, he imports. Big Bagel's flour comes from Canada, dairy from New Zealand and Australia, and even the spices are shipped from England.
Murray is a dab hand at cooking bagels and other fare, but the 61-year-old's career path had nothing to do with baking and cooking.
Murray started as a university history teacher in Toronto; then he was a businessman, a banker, a manager, a movie producer and back to a teacher again when he landed in China seven years ago. He has been in Suzhou for five years.
His only sort of semi-formal cooking training was many years ago when he was a history undergraduate student. He was fascinated by classic cuisines and by the history of food and restaurants and collected French and British cook books from the 18th and 19th centuries.
"And then I started using them and trying some of their recipes," Murray says. Self-taught and self-trained, he was eventually able to do banquets -- it took him two weeks to prepare a 25-course banquet.
For six months he studied pastry making from an Austrian pastry chef, and in return he taught him English.
Seven years ago Murray arrived in China, teaching English literature, drama and history at a Canadian high school in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province. Five years ago, he moved to Suzhou.
"When you think of taking a job, there must be one thing that is good -- the working environment, a gorgeous offer, really interesting work, tremendous opportunities for education/promotion, or the job has to be in a place that has wonderful cultures," he says. "I think Suzhou has fulfilled most of them."
He was the only male teacher in the English department. One day when all the teachers were in the office, all the women were talking about food.
"Well, I can cook. I can make something really fabulous," he told his disbelieving colleagues. "Really."
"Okay," Murray announced seriously. "Tomorrow I'm going to bring breakfast." The next morning, he delivered 16 bagels, Caesar salads and two big apple pies.
"And they vanished. Everything was gone in a minute," he recalls proudly. For a week everybody was talking about how great his food was.
His bagels got rave reviews, and everyone said that's what they had in America.
Then he started a little research in Suzhou and Shanghai.
"I came to believe two things. One is that Western food, not all but mostly, sold in the Western restaurants just doesn't taste right," he says. "The other thing is that when I went to a restaurant, the quality and the taste I got wasn't good, the price was too high, some even higher than in Toronto and New York.
"Something is wrong here because the labor, rent and ingredients are cheaper than in America. So why is that?" he asks.
Murray started to work on the idea of opening a Western restaurant where the taste would be absolutely authentic.
"This bagel just tastes the one you'll get in New York or Montreal," he states.
The Big Bagel in Suzhou Industrial Park opened in April. Murray makes 37 kinds of bagels, including sesame seed, onion, garlic, whole wheat, cheese, chili - just about everything.
He also serves soups, pies, macaroni and cheese, lasagna and many other dishes.
"We do everything, but it's all Western food," Murray says.
Bagels are made from Canadian flour while pies and cakes use American flour. Chocolates come from Belgium.
He makes his own yogurt.
Murray's Caesar salad is made fresh to order, using the original recipe handed down from the 1920s. Breakfast is made with clarified butter and can include pancakes with real maple syrup.
The corned beef is homemade, as well as the humus (yes, Murray makes his own tahini).
He even hired local sausage maker Sharif to craft his famous sausages for Big Bagel's breakfasts, sandwiches and specials.
As for his specialty bagels, he only keeps them on the shelf for five hours. After that, they dry for two days. Then he slices them very thin, adds a little garlic oil and spices to make popular bagel chips in four flavors. They're baked, not fried and Murray says they're very good with barbecue and beer.
The Canadian says he feels at home in Suzhou and plans to expand his bagel business. His bagel map features Shanghai, Changzhou and Wuxi in Jiangsu Province as well as Xi'an in Shaanxi Province.
He says he plans to open 12 to 15 restaurants in China in five years.
This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou for a while and have a tale that's worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.
Age: 61Profession: Restaurantowner
Self-description: Too heavy, too old, too tired, just too, too ...
? Strange sight in Suzhou: I love English signage. My favorite is a local restaurant called "The Stupid Ox."
Motto for life: It's all about experiencing. Let life wash over you.
Worst experience in Suzhou: A cab ride that should have been 20 yuan turned into 90 yuan. The cab driver simply refused to turn around and head in the proper direction.
How to improve Suzhou: The new subway has ended a lot of the misery of travel here. The city doesn't need improvement. I think it is the best city in China for a foreigner.
Advice for newcomers: Above all keep your sense of humour. Good experiences are their own joy and bad experiences make for great dinner table conversation. Cherish both.
About the Column
This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that’s worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.