The Dahlia Chef

By Judee Fong

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Born and raised in southern China, the second oldest of five brothers and a sister, Wellesley’s Executive Chef Connie Young-Davis learned at an early age to help around the kitchen.

“My Dad had nine brothers and a sister,” says Connie. “All my uncles cooked in restaurants and one owned a hotel in Hong Kong. Whenever they came home, they would cook for us and I would hang out with them to watch and learn. In my family, all the men are professional cooks, and I’m the only woman.”

Moving to Canada, Connie’s first job was waitressing in a Chinese restaurant. When it wasn’t busy, she liked hanging out in the kitchen.

“I liked watching the cooks and asking them about their various dishes,” she recalls.

Years later, with a formal culinary education and a well-earned chef’s hat, Connie presides over the Wellesley’s kitchen. She effortlessly handles the workday, cooking twice daily meals for almost 300 people that often includes guests and residents.

With the help of her capable staff of cooks and servers, The Wellesley also prepares family dinners, buffets and afternoon teas. Connie understands that cooking for senior appetites can be a challenge. Spicy foods are eliminated because it can react with different residents’ medications. Most prepackaged foods contain additives that may cause future food allergies or exacerbate present allergies, so all the Wellesley’s meals are prepared from scratch.

“It’s impossible to please everyone, but I try to learn their individual preferences,” says Chef Connie. “Enticing appetites with tempting meals keeps the residents mentally alert, healthy and happy.”

At home, the cheerful chef admits her family doesn’t have any favourite dishes.

“My husband and two sons eat everything and like everything,” she says with a smile. “My cooking style is a blend of Chinese and Western cooking. I do cook some Chinese food for the Wellesley residents every now and then.”

Connie is an unflappable chef and hostess who genuinely enjoy people.

“It’s easy for me to cook for large groups as it's part of my job. When I cook at home for my family, my husband would look at the amount of food and say, ‘Are more people coming?’” For unexpected tea-time company at home or at work, Connie is prepared as she often bakes and then stores a portion in the freezer.

“It’s easy to make extra cakes, cookies, pies and pastries for appetizers. Pastries can be tiny quiches, mini sausage rolls and little savory or sweet tartlets.”
When not wearing her chef’s hat, Connie grows award-winning dahlias. Seventeen years ago, she met Harry van Dyk, a renowned gardener who provided his plants to Butchart Gardens. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Harry and Connie shared a decade of mentorship and friendship.

“Harry was the best gardener I ever met who grew all kinds of plants besides his dahlias,” says Connie. “He taught me everything he knew about dahlias and was generous sharing his gardening knowledge. That’s why I wanted to carry on his tradition of passing along what I had learned. I was lucky to have Harry as my mentor.”

Connie later joined the Victoria Dahlia Society to meet others and entered her first competition with a single dahlia in 2004. She won in her category. The dahlia was displayed at the banquet’s “Head” table later that night.

“That’s how I got ‘hooked’ and I’ve been competing ever since!”

In September 2012, Connie and her husband travelled to Portland, Oregon for an International Dahlia competition. In order to have the flowers arrive in their freshest condition to compete, Connie’s husband constructed an addition to their van that was roomier and could be kept cooler.

“We called it the ‘Dahlia-mobile’ and it got 220 dahlias to Portland, Oregon,” laughs Connie.

Recalling that trip, Connie remembers the nightmarish delay of 90 minutes at the U.S. border, in high-80s temperatures, while Customs debated whether dahlias fell into the “agricultural” heading, which meant checking that no Canadian bugs were transported across. Timing was crucial because the blooms had to be cut from the garden at least 24-48 hours before the competition. Transporting the blooms from Victoria to Portland took 20-21 hours on an already hot day. Despite the unforgettable road trip, Connie won several awards, including the coveted “Best in Show.”

Connie’s future plans include seeing more of the world, meeting and competing with other dahlia growers, as well as judging more shows.

“One day, I would like to write a cookbook as I have collected quite a few recipes,” she says. “I would like the opportunity to teach a cooking class to a small group. Lifestyles have changed a lot and these would be healthy and simple dishes.”

Another hobby Connie enjoys reflects her artistic talents. “I have been baking and decorating cakes for all occasions, using my dahlias or other flowers as the decorations. It combines my love for baking and gardening. My cakes make people happy.”



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