Samurai, Saskatoon’s legendary teppanyaki restaurant, to shut after 40 years

Vi Huynh came to Saskatoon at the age of two, among the Vietnamese boatmen who came to Canada after the Vietnam War, sponsored by a Mennonite group.

He would later become the head chef at a long-standing and esteemed teppanyaki restaurant in town – one that has now announced that it will serve its final meals next month.

After starting out washing dishes in his teens 26 years ago, Huynh became head chef at Samurai, which has worked at Hotel Bessborough for 40 years.

The Delta announced Bessborough earlier this month on social media that Samurai’s last meals are served on New Year’s Eve.

It’s the end of a restaurant that has become a staple on the Saskatoon food scene, serving meals to even famous TV stars and musicians.

“We used to have Ray Romano and his wife Eleanor, they came here all the time. We had the Tragically Hip. That’s how they became family over the years, ”said Huynh.

The longtime teppanyaki cook Vi Huynh began his career with Samurai as a dishwasher and worked his way up to the chef. He says the guests he has served over the years have become “like family”. (Submitted by Vi Huynh)

Much has changed since he started his part-time job as a dishwasher as a teenager.

The dramatic fire tricks often used in teppanyaki – a Japanese cuisine in which food is cooked on a hot metal grill – has been a thing of the past for about a decade. Fire trucks were called a couple of times when the boil triggered the sprinklers, Huynh said.

Other things haven’t changed, however – the Delta Bessborough, a castle-like building overlooking the South Saskatchewan River, has retained its ancient charm.

But times change, and the Bessborough is not immune to progress.

“We’re switching to a brand called Autograph,” said Jason Clark, the hotel’s general manager.

“It encompasses everything from guest rooms to meeting rooms to dining options.”

The company hired a consultancy that recently flew employees from New York to Saskatoon. They visited 22 restaurants over two days to get a feel for the culinary landscape of the city.

According to Jim Bence, President and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association, rebranding and change are a reality in the hospitality industry across the province.

“These iconic restaurants are deciding to rebrand … some of them have closed, but others have decided to move away from their mom and dad’s favorite haunts for an anniversary,” said Bence.

Samurai isn’t the only longtime Saskatoon restaurant that has gone missing. Businesses like Station Place and the Boffins Public House on the University of Saskatchewan campus either closed or became event spaces.

Jim Bence, president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association, says when older restaurants close, they make way for entrepreneurs and niche restaurants. (CBC)

Diversification is the key to income, says Bence.

“I think one of the biggest factors is the changing attitudes towards responsible alcohol consumption in .04. I think that in itself has had a huge impact on table service,” said Bence.

“Those decisions to go out and make sure they drink responsibly had an impact.”

Discretionary spending has also decreased, partly due to the Saskatchewan economy.

Lots of people – especially young people, according to Bence – choose to stay home and order from delivery services like Skip the Dishes.

“I’ve been so popular lately”: Chef

However, on the way to last month, Samurai is almost fully booked for December, says the Bessborough general manager.

Like Vi Huynh, Clark prides itself on the restaurant’s legacy.

“It was really a novelty. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was the very first person to actually have dinner in this restaurant.”

Samurai will close in late December as Hotel Delta Bessborough is renamed in 2020. (Guy Quenneville / CBC)

The people who have become loyal guests support the restaurant to the last, says Huynh.

“I’ve been so popular lately. I’ve been famous. I feel like I should run for mayor or something,” he said.

It is unclear whether the same Samurai employees will be reinstated for the new restaurant.

Huynh has already made plans to become self-employed. He can eat privately or travel for a while.

“I have a 14-year-old son. I don’t see him often because I work a lot of evenings and weekends,” he said.

“Maybe a job from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., would be exciting for me.”

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