Dat Nguyen Au (at left) and his lawyer, Ian McPhail (at right), inside Council Chambers at East York Civic Centre. Photos of the Chambers weren’t permitted from inside. Photo by David Topping/Torontoist.
William Pham wasn’t at the Green Room’s day-long hearing that would see the notorious Annex restaurant fight for, and lose, its licence after failing its health inspection four times in two years and amassing a staggering number of health infractions in the process. But he was undoubtedly the center of attention.
“Nothing has changed,” Rosanne Giulietti, the City’s lawyer, told the quasi-judicial licensing tribunal. Though the Green Room had a new owner, a twenty-four-year-old former George Brown College student named Dat Nguyen Au, “it’s still under the same real ownership,” Giulietti said: Cuong-Dinh—or William—Pham’s. Try as he might, Au couldn’t shake off suggestions that Pham, not him, was still running the show.
There was, to start, the house at 915 Bathurst Street. Public records showed Au listed as a “boarder” there, and another record presented as evidence showed Pham as the property owner, bylaw enforcement officer Michael Rushton told the tribunal. (Au said he’d lived there with his mom and brother no more recently than seven years ago and never knew William Pham, but “there was obviously some kind of relationship between Mr. Au and the Pham [family],” said Rushton.)
There was the previously scheduled licensing tribunal hearing for the Green Room on September 23, which would have seen the restaurant’s licence challenged for what Giulietti described as “gross, significant health violations.” Instead, the previous licence—the one in Noc Elissa Pham, William Pham’s daughter’s, name—was cancelled just one day before it, with Au being issued the property’s new business licence in his name just after 1 p.m. on September 22. Gus Michaels, Manager of Investigations and Enforcement at the Municipal Licensing and Standards’ Licensing Enforcement Unit, testified that “it appeared convenient…that the hearing that was to go forward was avoided and a new licence had been taken out.” Later, Giulietti adds: “one day before the hearing, Mr. Au obtains a new licence…[and] the hearing disappears. It is very convenient.”
There was what Giulietti called a “sweetheart deal” between Au and Pham. Even though Au testified that he had signed a lease before the Green Room was closed by order of Toronto Public Health on September 22, Au also said before the tribunal that “I haven’t started paying rent, since technically we’re closed.” William Pham, Au explained, is still the one covering the $7200-plus-HST rent. (Au would later correct himself to say that that wasn’t the case, and that Pham only pays for about $2000.) Giulietti: “that’s rather generous of him, wouldn’t you agree?” Au: “I guess they’re trying to help me out a little, cause they know I’m in a bad position right now.”
There was Au at the hearing, tripping over not just those numbers but the dates he said he’d met with William and Elissa Pham to sign agreements that would have him become the Green Room’s new owner. (Au: “There was so much going on.” Giulietti: “You don’t know when you met with these people, do you?”) When asked whether he met William first, Elissa first, or the two of them together first, Au couldn’t give an answer that didn’t contradict another, earlier one.
Au explained that the Green Room’s manager, Thi Hong Thuong (or Tina, or Phoung) Nguyen, a “close friend,” was the one who first told him that “the owners were having a lot of troubles with health inspectors, and they wanted to get rid of it.” The Green Room, he figured, would “be a good business opportunity.” (Asked Ian McPhail, Au’s lawyer: “Was there an attractive opportunity for a young man who was certainly hard-working and had achieved a considerable amount of success in his field? Yes there was.”) Nguyen, Au said, was the person who first arranged a meeting with the Phams, and it didn’t take long before Au was agreeing to pay them $9,500 to purchase the Green Room.
If the City was attempting to link the Phams and Au, Au and McPhail were attempting to demonstrate that the current and former owners of the Green Room weren’t one and the same in theory or in practice. Au read from a list of the things done as part of the restaurant’s renovations, which he said are “95% done” and total more than $19,000. Those included installing new floors, putting thermometers in every fridge, sealing cracks in walls, and setting traps for vermin and insects. McPhail maintained that Au “has taken substantial steps to bring the restaurant up to code, and should other issues…be required, he’s willing to do that as well.”
No one in the room bothered disputing the Green Room’s past health infractions. Jeff Henderson, a City health inspector who over the last two years has inspected the Green Room multiple times, described squalid conditions he saw in past inspections: there was “an ongoing mouse infestation [and] cockroach infestation” that included “live mice…running in the kitchen,” “fresh mice droppings in food preparation areas,” and “cockroaches…near the draft beer taps,” as well as “puddles of grease and oil in the kitchen.” The September 22 inspection that shut the Green Room down—perhaps for good—found dead mice underneath the kitchen sink and in a washing machine, “a lot of fresh mice droppings…on the floor surrounding a chest freezer,” dead cockroaches in the kitchen, and many other problems with food storage, sanitation, and handling. Even the Green Room’s previous licence, in Elissa Pham’s name, “was completely covered in cockroach feces,” Henderson said.
Days in front of the licensing tribunal move slow—most everyone on the tribunal is taking detailed, hand-written notes on what everyone else says, so witnesses are often asked to speak more slowly, and repeat themselves. The only other reporter on hand, who was there to cover an earlier hearing but decided to stick around, is with Taxinews. The lawyers keep referring to each other only as “my friend,” even though there’s little friendly about anything. The hearing passes four, then five, then six hours long. So when the climax finally comes, it’s especially dramatic.
“I’m putting it to you,” Giulietti says to Au, “that you are what is commonly called a ‘front.'”
Au: “I strongly disagree with that. How could I be a front if I invested all my money, and my time?…I had to quit my job”—as the head chef at The Silk Pub & Asian Bistro in Etobicoke; Au’s resume is entered into evidence—”to focus on the restaurant.”
Giulietti doesn’t buy it. Of Au, she says, “He’s not the real owner. William, who is not here to back up any of Mr. Au’s testimony, is in my submission the real owner of the Green Room.” And to shut the restaurant down once and for all, she argues, “we don’t have to wait until someone dies.”
The tribunal deliberates, and the Green Room loses its licence shortly thereafter.
Au and McPhail leave quickly, before we can talk to them, though an earlier encounter suggests that Au wouldn’t have much to say anyway. Before the tribunal began seven hours earlier, we’d asked a young-looking Asian man with white socks barely hidden underneath black dress pants what his name was. He wouldn’t give it to us. He looked timid, and scared. “Nothing’s clear right now,” he said. “I can’t discuss anything.” A minute later, we walk over to Ian McPhail, who confirms that it was his client, Dat Nguyen Au, who we’d just spoken to.
Previously on Torontoist: Lights Out for the Green Room? and A Look Inside the Closed-Down Green Room.