One of Dan Hong’s earliest memories is of his mother, crouched in the kitchen, chopping board on the floor, breaking down chickens to make stock. “She used a huge cleaver and I could hear it thumping on the board as she chopped chicken bones for soup.” Dan’s mother, Angie Hong, created two Sydney Vietnamese culinary institutions, the Thanh Binh restaurants at Cabramatta and Newtown. It is no surprise, then, that the inheritor of her finely tuned palate and polished traditional skills has grown up to become the prince of Sydney dining.
At 31, Dan Hong is executive chef at a handful of the Merivale group’s head-turning restaurants—crazy-hip Potts Point Asian fusion joint, Ms G’s; American barbecue-by-the-sea, Papi Chulo; the Mexican twins, El Loco Excelsior in Surry Hills and Slip Inn in the CBD; and Mr Wong, a 240-seat Canton-inspired eatery that brings the swing of ’30s Shanghai to The Establishment’s 120-year-old, exposed-brick basement. What’s his secret? Dan Hong is savvy, intuitive, precise and he adores his work. He loves to travel, to explore, to imagine, to experiment with food, and it pays off. Every one of these restaurants has been recognised for its creativity, and every one of them is consistently packed.
Hong hasn’t taken a professional wrong turn since that pivotal day 13 years ago when he looked at his HSC results and decided the academic life was not for him. His canny mother suggested a cooking course and wangled him an apprenticeship with Martin Boetz at Longrain. “It wasn’t the obvious choice for me,” he recalls. “I wasn’t one of those kids who was always in the kitchen. But I liked food, I was interested, it was a big part of our lives growing up, and I loved watching cooking shows. My hero is still Jamie Oliver. He’s changed the way people eat, the way they think about food. I just hope one day he comes to one of my restaurants.” (As further proof of Hong’s charmed life, Oliver strolled into Mr Wong just two days after this interview.) Longrain ignited his love affair with Asian food. From there, he moved to Pello and, he says, “my passion grew with every new place I worked from that point on. At Pello, all I could think about was French and English food. Then I went to Marque and all I could think about was fine dining and all those Michelin-star places in Paris. I went to Tetsuya’s and became obsessed with Japanese food. It grew and grew.” At each stop, he paid quiet attention, collecting skills and knowledge to add to the intuitive feel for food that he suspects he picked up as a kid. “I think that growing up in the house of a Vietnamese chef did give me a palate that has allowed me to create a sense of balance and harmony in my food,” he says. “We took it for granted that we would always eat well. My mother would make pho and beautiful noodle soups. She would grill meats and roll them up with herbs and noodles in rice paper. It was normal for us. In Vietnamese culture, everything revolves around food.”
Hong had risen through the ranks to sous chef at the Bentley Restaurant & Bar when he received the Josephine Pignolet prize for Best Young Chef at the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards in 2008. He took off for the Big Apple and did a stint in the kitchen at Michelin-starred WD-50 with Wylie Dufresne (the recipient of the 2013 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in New York). Within 24 hours of returning home, Hong’s phone rang. It was the Merivale group’s food and beverage manager, Frank Roberts. “I’d known Frank since I was a second-year apprentice,” Hong recalls. “He said, ‘Lotus is available. We need a head chef. I want you to come up with a menu, send it to me in the next couple of days. Then I want you to do a tasting for (Merivale CEO) Justin Hemmes, (outgoing Lotus head chef) Lauren Murdoch, Brett Sergeant (then general manager, now COO) and me.’ “It was exciting and terrifying. I had to cook something like 12 dishes in 40 minutes, but I did it and I got the gig. So that’s when my relationship with Merivale began.” Hong created an East-West fusion menu, with inspiration drawn from every one of the restaurants he had trained in, as well as his recent culinary adventures in Manhattan. A madly popular hot fudge sundae was inspired by one that came in a tall glass at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. A simple sashimi of yellow fin tuna with sweet wasabi, soy and ginger became a Lotus signature. Justin Hemmes watched Lotus evolve and saw potential plus. He liked this young chef. He liked his drive, his creativity, his attention to detail, and he had just enough ambition to pull off some of Hemmes’ wilder schemes—which is how he’s ended up, at 31, steering a string of cutting-edge restaurants and taking out Restaurant & Catering Australia’s 2014 Young Achiever of the Year. Dan Hong is grateful for every shared skill, tip and opportunity that brought him here, which is why he’s also a very enthusiastic ambassador for Discover Hospitality’s Skills Pathways Project. “The apprenticeship is one of the hardest parts of your career,” he says. “Close to 50 per cent of apprentices drop out at some point. This program is all about supporting young apprentices so they get the most out of their training and make it all the way through. “Each apprentice has a passport, which is like a logbook, and chefs can look in a new apprentice’s passport to see which areas they’ve already had experience in and which they still need to develop. If you have an apprentice who’s doing well, you can apply to the Apprenticeship Board for an early completion.” The most valuable lesson Hong learnt during his own apprenticeship was to follow instructions to the letter and ask questions later. “You’re the apprentice,” he explains. “You do things the way you’re told to do them. After you complete your apprenticeship and you become a qualified chef, that’s when you can question everything.” Too many apprentices, he says, are impatient. They want to graduate tomorrow. They think they know it all because they make a better soufflé than some guy on a reality television cooking show. “They watch these shows and they think that working in a restaurant is glamorous and that they’ll become famous overnight. But it’s a lot of hard work. I spent the three-and-a-half years of my apprenticeship working my ass off, doing 70 hours a week. When you work in a fine-dining place, it’s like an army. The head chef is the general and you’re a long way down the hierarchy. You do what you’re told to do. No ifs or buts, no discussing it, nothing. It was tough but it made me a strong chef. To be honest, I worry that there are not as many passionate apprentices coming through these days.” The biggest challenge facing restaurateurs right now, he believes, is balancing the budget. “Prices in restaurants are much the same as they were five years ago,” he explains, “but wages for waiters and chefs have gone up. That is, I think, the biggest challenge to running a successful restaurant.” Is there a solution? “I don’t know,” he says. “Our chefs deserve to be paid as much as they are—of course they do—but it makes things hard for restaurant owners. At Mr Wong, if we had one bad week, we would lose a lot of money because there are 40 chefs on the roster and they’re all full-time. The only solution is to be really busy and luckily we’re busy every single day.” Hong has travelled a lot in recent years, mostly for research and inspiration. If we could learn anything, in Australian restaurants, from the rest of the world, he thinks it would be about service. “I’m not saying the service is bad here,” he insists, “but at the very top end of fine dining in America, service is taken to an entirely different level.” And what could we teach the world? “A lot,” he says. “Our food scene is one of the best in the world because of our multiculturalism and because we don’t have a rigid identity. Modern Australian reflects the diversity of the immigrants who have moved here. It’s like fusion—Asian flavours with European techniques —and I think we do that better than anywhere else on the planet.” Dan Hong has already given some spectacularly innovative food to this vibrant Aussie scene and, at 31, he has a whole lot more to give. He has a cookbook/memoir, Mr Hong (Murdoch Books), set to hit the shelves in October and a head full of new ideas for the restaurants in his stable. Right now, he says, he has no plans to open anything new but only time will tell where Justin Hemmes or his own muse might lead him next.