Victor Liong, the head chef and restaurateur behind Melbourne’s Lee Ho Fook, had barely finished his degree (in business management, no less) when he visited his adopted city for the first time. With his brother, Liong visited the venerable Flower Drum, a city stalwart of Cantonese cuisine now well into its fourth decade – its longevity considered something of an aberration in a city of notoriously fickle diners and fleeting restaurant experiences. There, they sampled one of the restaurant’s many signatures: a hand picked mud crab, cooked in turmeric sauce enlivened with onion and garlic and baked in the shell of a blue swimmer crab.
“I remember eating that dish and thinking, ‘Fuck, this is so awesome'”, Liong tells GRAZIA on the phone from Melbourne, recalling his first encounter with a dish whose relative simplicity belied its life-changing effects. “Up until that point,” he says, “I never really felt in value in Chinese culture.”
In 1991, Liong’s family migrated to Australia from Malaysia in by way of Brunei, where Liong was born and lived for his first six years. The transition was unremarkable save for a period of (quite literal) acclimatisation. His strongest memories from the time are those related to his family’s arrival in the Sydney suburb of Burwood in the middle of a winter cold snap – an experience that varied wildly from his early years spent in the temperate winters of South East Asia. Plummeting mercury notwithstanding, there was very little that was traumatic about time spent growing up in the relatively quiet inner western suburbs. In retrospect, however, he concedes that by wholeheartedly embracing what felt like a consensus that assimilation was not an option but a way of life, he was disregarding “a whole aspect of you that you can’t change: being Chinese.
“When you get to your early twenties [you] try to figure out your identity and where you’re going,” Liong says. “You spend all of your youth rejecting – well, I did anyway – Chinese culture and not trying to be too Chinese and not seeing any value in it. I went through a bit of a self-discovery process and part of that [has been] opening Lee Ho Fook and cooking Chinese. If anything [it’s] something that I’m quite passionate now – going on a journey to rediscover that culture.”
Liong has been operating Lee Ho Fook, an acclaimed new-wave Chinese restaurant in Melbourne’s thriving CBD dining precinct, for almost five years now. Where Flower Drum is all grand opulence, its service staff near reverential in their devotion to the customer and the restaurant itself, Lee Ho Fook takes a decidedly different tack. Its name provides the first indication; it’s taken from Warren Zevon’s late seventies song, Werewolves of London (if you don’t know the song, you’ll almost certainly know the melody – Kid Rock sampled the chord progression on his virulent mid-aughts ear-worm, All Summer Long) about a werewolf seen walking the streets of Soho with a Chinese menu in his hand in search of a place called Lee Ho Fook. The restaurant and its brand of referential and interpretive Chinese cuisine is as much the culmination of Liong’s evident humour, passion and reconnection with his heritage as it is an expression of his varied career to date – of the meals and their makers that have shaped the chef on his way.
Liong credits his high school’s food tech program with evolving his interest in food beyond merely eating and to a prospective career path. Before that, though, there was Madame Bechara, the Liong family’s first landlady who not only would cook felafel and tabouli for the family as a gesture of kindness, but who helped the chef’s mother lay down roots on arrival in Australia. “Six-year-old me had never experienced that kind of food before,” he recalls. “I loved it. I’ve been obsessed with felafel ever since.” While Lebanese cuisine does not factor into the menu and Lee Ho Fook, it will serve as the first course of a tasting menu Liong has devised for a one-lunch-only pop-up at Sydney’s Unicorn Hotel. As part of the fourth edition of ‘My Australia’ – a series of meals that invites some of Australia’s most innovative and exciting chefs to share their experience with and understanding of ‘Australian cuisine’ – Liong has chartered a course (six, to be precise) through his personal and professional history with a menu that doubly functions as a time machine while also being reflective of his time in Australia and the food memories that the period evokes.
A prawn spring roll with a basil emulsion will hearken back to an amuse bouche served at the fine dining French restaurant Galileo where, in 2005, Liong first staged. It was there that his desire to work at the same restaurant was first resolved. Flash forward – the tasting menu has not been arranged to flow in a classical, or chronological, sense – and Liong’s timestamp from his work today at Lee Ho Fook will come courtesy of a dish of raw kingfish, ginger pickled kohlrabi and a spring onion dressing. The main course will be a very simple dish of braised beef brisket and tripe in a Chinese master stock served with rice noodles and an aromatic chilli oil. “We used to go to Chinatown to eat that towards the end of my time at primary school in 1996,” says Liong. “We used to pile into the van and drive into the Sussex Street food centre and eat this nostalgic beef noodle dish. [It was] nothing special, but they were really fun times.” Naturally, the Flower Drum crab will also feature prominently and dessert will be one Liong learned to make during his time cheffing at Marque, late of Surry Hills, that the chef recalls tasting for the first time on his job trial under the watch of its iconoclastic chef-owner, Mark Best. Liong adds that it’s a nice tribute to a formative time in his career, and a chef who helped shape him today.
“It was nice to see a huge variety of things that inspire you,” Liong says of the reflection that the project has allowed for. “It [has] almost reaffirmed that the direction we’re heading in is the right one.” As for the nebulous concept of an Australian cuisine, Liong remains hopeful that the concept is one that will always remain unfixed, abled to be shaped by those that have always been here, as those who arrived by modes and from places and cultures that were not fathomable then.
“A lot of people and cultures contribute to making Australia what it is, and that will always play a massive part in terms of its identity and its food styles,” says Liong. “The more that we explore and talk about creating something, the closer we come. People forget how big Australia is and how much is going on. What’s really popular down here in Melbourne might not fly with Darwin, and probably shouldn’t geographically – it’s like saying the most popular dish in Portugal should be the same in St. Petersburg, and that’s almost the same distance. It’s up to people to keep creating and embracing.”
Victor Liong will appear at The Unicorn Hotel on Sunday February 4. More information is available here.
Tile and cover image: Instagram