Staff and customers from Ruffino’s, as well as the entire Niagara culinary community, are mourning the sudden loss last week of 32-year-old chef Daniel Tong in a tragic car crash. Executive chef and owner Ryan Crawford is mobilizing this Thursday with a special event to raise funds to support Tong’s family.
Early Saturday morning, Jan. 21, while on his way to work, the father of two was involved in a collision on the Fort Erie bound QEW near the Ontario Street, Beamsville exit. According to the OPP, the first collision was followed by two more, when a tractor-trailer hit one of the vehicles and then another subsequently ran into the back of the tractor-trailer.
Tong was transported to an out-of-town hospital where he was pronounced deceased. One other male was transported to a local hospital in stable condition.
Crawford immediately closed the restaurant last Saturday, posting on Facebook that there had been an unforeseen emergency. Two days later he announced the loss of his close friend and colleague via the social media site.
Tong leaves behind his wife Melanie and two young children: Olivia, seven; and Atlas, four. His parents, Joanne and Wally Tong, are mourning his loss, as are his twin brother Simon and their older sisters Jennifer, Lisa, Teresa and Jessica.
“Dan was part of our restaurant family for five years,” Crawford wrote in a message to The Local. “He always greeted you with a funny nickname. He was a king of the one liner. He would leave you mystified by its timing and of course, you’d be in stitches laughing.”
Crawford credits Tong as an integral member of the Backhouse staff, and instrumental in the transition to Ruffino’s Pasta Bar and Grill and the opening of BarBea Wine Shop and Snack Bar.
During the pandemic, Tong and Donald Shi would often prepare Chinese-inspired meals for the staff at Ruffino’s. Crawford offered them the kitchen one night for a pop-up that ended up becoming extremely popular. It returned again this year as a regular night under the new name Wang Tong Foods, a.k.a. WTF Chinese.
“Dan cooked with the heart of a lion,” added Crawford. “He was the coolest human under pressure. He inspired and led so many young culinary minds during his career. His work ethic and passion for food were unmatched. His shoes are big ones to fill, and he is dearly missed.”
Melanie’s long-time friend Lauren Robins began a GoFundMe page last week to support Tong’s young family with a goal of raising $18,000. By press time more than $53,000 had been donated via her efforts.
“I am extremely surprised,” says Robins about nearly tripling her goal for donations. “We had a couple of people from the culinary community reaching out, that’s why we started the campaign. We didn’t want to ask for much. This has been amazing, and it’s going to go such a long way to helping Melanie.”
“Dan was a family man first and foremost,” Robins adds. “He would do anything he could to be there for them, and his extended family, too. He was sweet, thoughtful and happy to help anyone out in times of need.”
Robins says Daniel and Melanie, who now works part-time as an early childhood educator, met when they were both in the culinary program at Niagara College. Before getting hired at Backhouse, Daniel worked at Spencer’s on the Water in Burlington and then Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s The Epicurean.
“He had a huge influence on the chef community in the region,” Robins says, echoing Crawford. “He was super proud to be able to bring his authentic Chinese food into the community, and so happy that Ryan was so on board with that.”
Following the celebration of Tong’s life this past Friday, many from the larger Niagara culinary community came together at Ruffino’s and BarBea to honour Dan’s memory and to support his family.
Crawford reeled off a list of representatives from Garrison House, Ravine Vineyards, Oast Brushfire Smoke BBQ and Patina Pizza, OddBird, Tide and Vine, Stratus, Meldville, Forty Creek, Bark ‘n’ Bitter, and current and former Ruffino’s and BarBea staff who donated their time to the gathering.
“We are astounded and forever grateful,” Crawford said. “It was an honour to introduce Dan’s family to our community. Dan was so humble, and this event made it especially evident that he was revered and respected as a brilliant culinary mind by his peers.”
This Thursday, Feb. 2, Ruffino’s and BarBea are hosting a fundraiser in support of the Tongs. Already sold out, both restaurants will be offering a special set Chinese menu from Wang Tong Foods from 6 to 9 p.m. with proceeds going to the family. Crawford adds that their takeout and delivery menu will be offered from 4 to 6 p.m. only that day, with pre-orders required. Again, proceeds from takeout and delivery will be for Tong’s family.
As well, Robins promises that the GoFundMe page will stay up through the end of this week and perhaps longer. Donations to the family can be made at gofundme.com.