Why Calvin Eng Named His Beloved Brooklyn Restaurant After His Mom

Bonnie’s is a celebration of Eng’s mom and her Cantonese cooking.

calvin eng bonnie's brooklyn mothers day
Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for Thrillist
Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for Thrillist

Being a mama’s boy is a badge of honor for Calvin Eng, the founder and chef of Bonnie’s in Brooklyn. Alongside the rest of his matriarchal family that includes his older sister and grandma, his mom taught him to speak the Cantonese dialect of Toisan, how to pick out produce in the busyness of Manhattan Chinatown grocery stores, and, eventually, how to embrace his Cantonese-American identity.

When he officially decided he wanted to pursue a Cantonese-American menu for his new restaurant concept, the name appeared before him like magic. “Once I knew I was going to pursue my own food, the name kind of clicked naturally,” Eng explains. Bonnie is his mom’s American name, and the restaurant functions as a tribute to her.

When Eng told his mom the name of his restaurant, she laughed. “She thought it was a joke,” Eng grins. Eng was completely serious. But before Eng became the chef of one of the most celebrated restaurants in Williamsburg, where reservations are deeply coveted and near impossible to come by, he was just a kid growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

“My dad passed away when I was younger, but even when he was around, we had dinner together as a family every night,” Eng explains. “Every meal was cooked at home.”

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Photos courtesy of Calvin Eng and Ben Hon; Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

On the weekends, Eng would accompany his mom to her parents’ place in Manhattan’s Chinatown, but instead of spending the day in their apartment, Eng preferred to join his mom on impromptu grocery trips in the city. Although there are pockets of Chinese immigrants in Sunset Park as well as Flushing, Chinatown felt like home—where most of the purveyors spoke the same dialect.

It was through these shopping trips that Eng developed his own skills for scoping out produce, as well as allegiances for certain condiments and spices. “My mom has her spot for seafood, produce, dried and salted fish, as well as Chinese charcuterie,” Eng explains. “And she’s so loyal to specific brands.”

For Eng, and in turn, Bonnie’s, Pearl River Bridge is the go-to all around soy sauce for “basic stuff.” For sweet soy and seafood soy, he gravitates towards Lee Kum Kee. Three Crabs is his fish sauce of choice. It was through his mom’s loyalty that Eng learned the importance of consistency through his recipes. Different brands of soy sauce will have different salinity levels, as well as viscosity, so finding the right ingredients and sticking with them is a skill set from outside of the kitchen that Bonnie passed down.

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Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for Thrillist

That’s not to say that Eng and his mom agree on everything. “I’m a big fan of MSG and MSG is in almost everything we have at Bonnie’s—drinks, desserts, savory food,” Eng explains. “And my mom doesn’t have MSG at the house.” Instead, she relies on chicken powder, chiding Eng for his use of the controversial ingredient. “I tell her it’s the same thing!” Eng laughs with a roll of his eyes.

But his overall mission is to provide a greater understanding of the nuances of Cantonese-American food. “People have no idea what Cantonese even looks like,” Eng says, “even though most of the food people have had happens to be Cantonese.”

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Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for Thrillist

When it came to his menu, Eng wanted to include everything he loved most: hup to ha, or the mayo-glazed shrimp served with walnuts bejeweled in honey that he had at Chinese banquets growing up; yeung yu sang choi bao, a deboned and stuffed rainbow trout Eng would prepare with his mom and grandma for special occasions; and gingery jook, a reliable rice porridge dish that is equal parts comforting and healing.

“In the dish notes, I wrote that basically everything on this menu are just things that I like having at home, things I liked having when I went out to eat as a family,” Eng explains. “The number one rule was that everything had to be a banger.”

Eng’s mom helped him through the process. Although she never gave him explicit recipes, she provided ingredient recommendations—enough of a road map for his culinary training to follow.

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Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for Thrillist

There is a dated stereotype that Asian parents only expect their children to become doctors or lawyers—but Bonnie defies this vehemently. “She was just down for me to do whatever, as long as I was gonna be successful doing it and down to do it,” Eng says. “Not even just happy, successful,” Eng clarifies, laughing.

Indeed, Bonnie’s is a hit, with favorable reviews from The New York Times and Eater and a James Beard Emerging Chef nomination for Eng. But the most important review still comes from Mom.

“I don’t think she has ever really said she was proud of me yet, and I’m not expecting her to,” Eng says. “But when she posts about it on her WeChat or Facebook, that’s when I know we’re good.”

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.