If you’re one of those people who doesn’t bother with Asian food in Western cities and countries, you’d be missing out in Sydney, which boasts one of the most vibrant, must-cultural dining scenes in the world, bolstered by top-notch ingredients and even better culinary minds. One of the city’s best chefs is Dan Hong, the man behind the menus at the wildly popular mod-Canto Mr. Wong and the Asian fusion Ms. G’s – and who last month was the debut collaborator at Duddell’s new Chefs-in-Residence programme, which brings chefs from the Chinese diaspora to Hong Kong to for pop-up banquets. On Hong’s menu last month were delights like char-siu roasted toothfish with pickled radish; supreme broth with prawn and foie gras wontons; and green-tea tres leches cake with yuzu cream and yuzu milk sorbet. “Flavours that are familiar, but executed in combinations that are different,” Hong says.
We chatted with Hong about reclaiming the culture of “bastardised Chinese food”, culinary traditions and what to do when the copycats come.
You’ve said you grew up on “bastardised Chinese food”. Do you think this genre of cuisine comes with its own traditions?
I grew up eating deep-fried ice cream. I never ate sweet and sour pork growing up, but the fact of the matter is that that type of food, for Australians or Americans, creates nostalgia. That’s what we try to do with a few of the dishes at Mr. Wong. We have our own versions of deep-fried ice-cream and sweet and sour pork, just so people can really relate their childhood eating bastardised Chinese food. It does have its own traditions.
To you, does tradition refer to a technique or is it about nostalgia?
It’s a bit of both. But the thing about using certain techniques, it’s a dying thing. I don’t know if you notice, all the traditional Cantonese chefs in Hong Kong and all over the world are over 50 years old. I don’t know what Chinese food is going to be like in 20 years. Can you go to these certain classic Chinese restaurants and eat a double-boiled soup of shark’s fin stuffed in a chicken stuffed in a pig’s bladder? I don’t know. Are these chefs – not having a go at them – but do they have protégés and are they passing on the tradition? I’m not sure, I’ve never worked in a Cantonese kitchen, but from what I hear, it’s not happening.
What you see in a lot of Cantonese kitchens is that when one chef leaves, he takes his whole team with him as a unit.
But don’t these people want to take the next step in their career to be a head chef? It’s very different with Western kitchens, where you might choose to hire an up-and-coming chef and give that person a first shot at being a head chef and see where they go.
A lot of home-cooking traditions are being lost, too. Did your mom, who also ran a restaurant, give you secret recipes?
No, there are no secrets. She’s very open about stuff and if you ask her she’ll just tell you. But her recipes weren’t passed down, she’s pretty much self taught. So she’s the first person to have them.
Did she teach you to cook?
She didn’t teach me to cook, but she’s one of my biggest inspirations, because she was a restaurateur. She used to be a chef, she had Vietnamese restaurants for years. So she gave me my palate, which is one of the most important things for a chef, trying to appreciate balance and know when something is perfectly seasoned.
Do you cook for her?
I cook for my mother every now and then. She comes to the restaurants. It’s funny, I was telling someone this, every time she comes in, still, to this day, it’s like she’s surprised that she has a good meal. She’ll say, “Oh, it was actually very good.” I’m like, I’ve only been cooking for 16 years professionally.
What were some of the first restaurant dishes you devised?
When I first became a head chef at a little place called Lotus, we started off with five entrees, five mains and five desserts. The style I did back then was different from what I do now, it was before we opened Ms. G’s, before I had an epiphany on what I wanted to cook, so I was kind of lost with where I wanted to be. It’s only when we opened Ms. G’s that I decided just to cook what I love to eat. And that’s when it really made sense, the style was to just cook with whatever cuisine that influences you, as long as it’s delicious, with no rules.
What are the rules at your restaurants?
In Mr. Wong, the flavours still have to be Chinese, but there are no rules.
With all this experimentation that chefs are doing, pairing this with that and breaking all the rules, are we running out of new places to go and boundaries to break?
I don’t think so. It’s those classic flavour combinations that people love going back to. I think that’s why Mr. Wong is so popular, it makes sense, there’s no flavours that are weird. There’s always trends, like restaurants that are avant garde, then people will start going back to classic French bistros, and so on. So there’s a market for everything.
How do you deal with copycatting? With social media it’s easy to steal dish ideas. Is that concerning or flattering?
I don’t think it’s flattering. If they copy the exact same dish that you know you created, then it’s not flattering at all, it’s annoying. But it happens. No one’s really copied me to that extent. I know of a restaurant that totally copied [Ho Lee Fook’s Jowett Yu’s] classic short-rib dish. So I tagged Jow in it, and he was like, what the fuck? It’s exactly the same with the short rib and jalapeno puree in it, shallot kimchi. That is no one else’s dish but Jow’s. But no one’s totally “bit” a dish off me yet, I might say sometihng, I might not, depends where the restaurant is. If it’s in the middle of nowhere in some country, I couldn’t care less. But if it’s in a big city – it depends.