The Mr Hong cookbook author is one of Sydney’s brightest food stars, weaving menus known for their simplicity, style and use of herbs.
SYDNEYSIDER chef Dan Hong’s star has been on a steep ascendant trajectory, but there’s refreshingly little of the diva about him. A large part of his evening at the Audi Gourmet Beach BBQ Dinner on a wind-swept Margaret River beach in Western Australia (where we met) is spent in the quintessential Aussie male space – behind the barbie, grilling fat, fresh scallops, deliciously flecked with garlic and Asian herbs.
Ever so often though, he ducks out for a cuddle with his daughter, Namira.
Easily one of the most enjoyable satellite events at the 2014 Margaret River Gourmet Escape in November, the beach barbecue features fantastic seafood, a gorgeous tent set-up, a soundtrack of wind and waves, and a gentle sunset backdrop.
It’s a memorable first visit for Hong. “I’ve never been to Western Australia, let alone Margaret River,” he says. “I can truly say this is the most beautiful location I have ever had the pleasure of cooking at! Plus, I found the whole MRGE intriguing, especially when the line-up included some of the best chefs in the world [among others: Heston Blumenthal, Massimo Bottura and Peter Gilmore].”
He doesn’t count himself among their ranks yet, but the young culinary talent (he’s just 31) is already executive chef of four restaurants in Sydney owned by Aussie hospitality group Merivale: much-awarded Cantonese stalwart Mr Wong, modern Asian Ms G’s, El Loco, a Mexican cantina and Papi Chulo, a smokehouse-grill and the newest notch on his chef’s knife.
His signature style, which features lots of Asian herbs and a fresh, unforced culinary mind-set, has had gourmands steadily buzzing for a while now.
As diverse as Cantonese, Vietnamese and Mexican cuisines may seem, Hong finds common ground among global gastronomic traditions to draw on.
“I think Asian food is the most complex and delicious food in the world, but when you think about it, Mexican food is very similar to Vietnamese food with the use of fresh herbs, salsas and even when it comes to using your hands to eat,” he says.
“My main cooking philosophy is that I want every single dish to be super delicious and not at all subtle. I want an explosion in the mouth with every dish!” says Hong.
“At all my places, we try to conceptualise dishes that people have a childhood connection with, and give them a twist. This brings back a certain sense of nostalgia. Like the prawn toast, which is served with yuzu mayo and herbs, at Ms G’s, and the fried ice cream at Mr Wong, which comes with butterscotch sauce.
“Also, I like to be inspired by everything that I eat, whether it is overseas in Asia or at a food truck in LA, or a simple food court in Chinatown,” he adds.
His fascination for Chinatown is so great that he moved there recently; it certainly makes his weekly visits to his regular food court easier.
Finding his vocation in the kitchen was both a natural process, and not. Hong grew up around food, plugged into the restaurant scene by virtue of Thanh Binh, his mother’s Vietnamese restaurant chain in Sydney.
“But I was never one of those chefs that knew they wanted to be a chef at a young age,” he says. “My mother was the one who suggested I might become a chef when I finished my HSC exams.”
As an apprentice, Hong served in the kitchens of some of Sydney’s finest restaurants, including Marque, Pello and Longrain, before joining the Tetsuya team as a chef de partie in 2005.
Later, he became the sous chef at Bentley Restaurant and Bar, and in 2008, picked up the Josephine Pignolet Best Young Chef Award at the prestigious Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards.
He then travelled to New York to work with the renowned Wylie Dufresne of WD-50, before beginning his life at Merivale as head chef at Lotus, where his love for herbs and fresh, zingy Asian flavours was truly realised.
His mother remains his most inspiring culinary hero. “Even before she had the restaurants, she was always cooking at home, whether it was a big pot of pho stock or a French-style braised lamb hotpot (she lived in Paris for a year). She has a way of bringing people together with her food,” Hong reminisces fondly.
“She continues to be one of my biggest inspirations and I still go to her house every Monday night for a feed. It’s actually my highlight of the week!”
Cosmopolitan, fast-paced Sydney is an ideal city in which to innovate on the food scene, with Hong citing its diversity as its greatest asset.
“We have some of the best Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Middle Eastern food here due to the early immigrants, and it’s made Sydney such an awesome eating destination,” he says.
“However, the worst thing about Sydney’s dining scene is how the Sydney public can be fickle, always flocking to the latest and newest restaurant.”
Still, keeping his restaurants in the forefront of the dining scene provides a fertile creative mind with endless motivation.
As one of Sydney’s most prolific and creative chefs, Hong always has several irons – and pots – in the fire. The secret to running this way is delegation, and the secret of successful delegation is trust – always trust your crew, and hire a crew you can trust in the first place!
“I have really loyal and talented head chefs at each of the places that I run,” says Hong. “They also come up with a lot of ideas, and we constantly put our heads together to create new dishes.”
The tireless chef made his bookshelf debut in late 2014, with Mr Hong (Murdoch Books), which he describes as “super fun, interesting, with (relatively) easy recipes.”
“I want people to actually use the recipes in the book and not just leave it on their coffee table,” he adds.
“It’s been an awesome journey so far, and it’s all gone by so quickly,” says Hong of his rise on Sydney’s culinary scene.
“It all comes down to working hard and developing a passion for cooking. I had never felt so passionate about anything in my life before I found cooking, so I made it a goal to try and be the best at what I do.”
Hong kindly shares some of his recipes from Mr Hong; the book is available in Malaysia at Kinokuniya in KLCC at RM119.85 and bookdepository.com/amazon.co.uk
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