Chenpapa, a beloved food stall at Halifax Seaport market preparing to close

·5 min read

“Do you like it here? I do,” says Pi Yeng Chen, co-owner of Chenpapa at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, as she serves another customer on a Friday morning.

Without a name sign, Chenpapa has been a fixture at the market for 12 years. Going to the market on a Saturday morning, grabbing some fresh dumplings and a bowl of noodles, and having conversation with the owners has become a family tradition for many customers.

Chen said most of her patrons are regular and have known Chenpapa for years. She has seen one customer grow from a five-year-old boy to a 17-year-old young man.

Some of her customers left the province but always made sure to pay her a visit when they came back for Christmas.

“I don’t know how to put it," Chen, who immigrated to Canada from Taiwan with her husband in the 1970s, said of her connection with her customers. "It's like what we see in Chinese culture. I feel so close to the people at the market. I don’t feel like I’m running a business,”

From one market to another, Chen has been serving food in Nova Scotia for over 35 years, but never once has she owned a full-service restaurant.

“We’ve never been the restaurant type," Chen said. "We came here for our kids. And at the market, the atmosphere is not bad for us."

A recent announcement by the market suggested a change from a weekend-only farmers market to a location that has a mixture of uses. The market's website said the venue would be used as a “living lab for the transportation industry” during weekdays and a traditional farmers market on weekends.

Some ambitious vendors embrace the change, saying it aligns with their vision to expand, but Yen is not ready for the increased rent and was never ready for an expansion to a restaurant.

“I will have to make a lot of money and turn it into an actual restaurant to be able to cover," she said. "And it’s not what I want.”

After some consideration, Chen and her husband, Yi Chiao Chen, decided to close their location at the market and retire. Their last day of business will be Saturday, Feb. 6.

Word quickly spread as their daughter, Pay Chen, announced the news on Twitter.

More than 150 people retweeted the post, and many customers shared photos and memories of regularly going to Chenpapa with their families.

The Chens never fully understood the reach of Twitter. So when a lot of customers came by on their second-last weekend with flowers and gifts, they were moved.

"Some of them even gave me jewelry," Chen said. "It's really ..."

Unable to finish her sentence, Chen waved her hands, trying to brush away the emotion.

The community connection

There are two things that Chen's customers have always been able to count on: the person who's cooking the food is going to do their best to make the food, and Chen is going to be nice to you.

"They're always so friendly, and so warm," Lisa Lachance, executive director of the W2A Network, a social enterprise in Halifax, said of the Chens.

"And then I also appreciate that for every dumpling order, they want to have it be perfect. And so everything they do, they want to make sure it's perfect for you. So always working for the best."

Lachance said the Chens have known her son Jason since he was five.

"I love seeing their reaction when they see my son," she said. "Their faces light up when they see Jason and they often comment on how big he's getting. So that's pretty fun. They've known him since he was a tiny boy and now he's almost a grown-up."

Another longtime customer, Dartmouth South MLA Claudia Chender, also commented on the news on Twitter.

"This food — and your parents! — have been a Sunday tradition in our family for a decade," Chender tweeted. "My kids were raised on these dumplings and buns and noodles. Your parents are so kind to every customer, and we will miss them."

No artificial ingredients

Many of Chenpapa's customers might be surprised to know no artificial ingredients are used to make their delicious noodles.

Chen said she and her husband, are very cautious about artificial ingredients or flavour enhancers. She refuses any canned food or MSG - even Hoisin sauce was barred from her house.

For Chen's cooking, the ingredients are extremely basic: salt, sugar, pepper and soy sauce.

"I'm not saying I don't trust them," she said of artificial ingredients. "I just think you don't have to use that to make good food. You can stay simple and still do that."

This principle got some pushback from some chefs who were reluctant to stick with the basics.

"When I first hire a chef and they see how I cook, they always ask me, 'Who is going to eat this?'" Chen said.

She said she always had to reassure the new employee that people would purchase the food.

Still, Chen finds convincing people to conform to the no-flavour-enhancer rule challenging. And that's one of the reasons she wanted to stay away from the restaurant idea.

"It's hard to control the quality when you have a lot of people working for you," she said.

Lu Xu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald