July 2024

The Hong Song

Dan HongDan HongText: Alex Whyte Images: James Nelson

Dan Hong first became known to the people of Sydney when he was awarded the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award. That was 2007. He then took some time away from cooking at Surry Hills’ Bentley Restaurant & Bar and, as part of his prize, chose to stage at a New York kitchen that at the time was on the razor’s edge of modern cookery, WD-50, under the wonky eye of chef Wylie Dufrense. Upon his return he made a name for himself at Potts Point’s Lotus, sending out what might be called bistro food, if only because you actually left sate having eaten an entrée, main and dessert. The similarities ended there: this was glowing, crisp, clear stuff, that didn’t rely on heft or bulk. There was playful thought and a conscious nostalgia on the plate – it was clever food, but far from dweeby. You could start with some pork, what appeared to be a massive piece of crackling, beneath it a slab of braised belly, sat in a hazel, porky pool studded with garden peas and sprigs of tarragon. Next, a sopping hunk of brisket, sticky with soy, beneath it some carrot puree, with confit garlic and chervil adding heat. To finish, a hot fudge sundae that could have been straight outta any stateside diner. Not really bistro food.

It was what might be called Fusion 2.0, in that Hong, like Momofuku’s David Chang, was able to borrow from Asian cuisine, take some western ingredients and western techniques and produce something that wasn’t completely naff. Something quite removed from the dreary things that made the ‘F’ word the scariest in food. A not-so-chance encounter with the man himself led to a whirlwind research jaunt around New York City, and to the opening of Ms G’s, a four-storey, mod-Viet monster just around the corner from Lotus on Victoria Street. There, he and co-chef Jowett Yu have expanded on the food of their childhood. So there are things like a flawless steak tartare replete with perfect yoke, Vietnamese herbs, and prawn crackers for dunking, and a killer take on prawn toast, served with yuzu aioli and a fistful of herbs. They sit alongside one of the best noodles dishes in town – pillowy egg numbers dripping with yarns of braised duck, a soft poached egg, and house XO sauce.

Within just a few months there were already whispers of another place on the horizon, and in May 2011 he opened El Loco, a taco, torta and dog shack within Surry Hills pub The Excelsior that owes as much to the global, sun-drenched street food of Los Angeles as it does Mexico. Some seem frustrated that a chef who is arguably the most talented of his generation seems content putting together crowd-pleasing renditions of cross-cultural classics, but one need only to listen to Hong talk about the food he loves to eat to get an idea of what it is he seeks to achieve. I sat down with him to get an idea of what that might be.

Alex Whyte: Obviously you grew up in a family where food was a big deal – your mum runs one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in town, Thanh Binh – were you always going to be a cook?

Dan Hong: Ahh, not really, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I finished school. I always cooked at home because my mum was always at the restaurants and stuff, but it wasn’t like I just cooked Asian food. It was Western food and I thought I was pretty good at it. Eventually mum just went, “why don’t you try becoming a chef?”. So I thought, yeah, I’ll just have a go at it.

AW: That was Longrain, right?

DH: Yeah, I gotta give mum props for getting me the job, she just called Marty (Head Chef of Longrain, Martin Boetz) up and went “uhhhh, my son has started cooking”. He gave me the job just as a favour to my mum.

AW: From there you did the whole Sydney fine-dining thing, working at the likes of Marque, Tetsuya’s and Bentley. You won the Joseph Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award and chose to cook at WD-50 (in New York’s Lower East Side) as part of the prize. What was it that attracted you to that place?

DH: Well, at the time, it was when, like, molecular gastronomy was the shit, it was before cuisine naturale and all that. At the time that was what I was into, because I was working at Bentley, I was into Heston and Ferran and using all those chemicals and that – and New York, you know, everyone loves New York because it’s such a cool city, and I just thought Wylie was the best man to learn this stuff from.

AW: The reason I ask is because some people might find it strange that out of every restaurant in the world you chose there, a place that is well known as really pushing things in terms of the use of kitchen gadgets and what not – given that your food in Sydney is so reliant on big, clean flavours; given that it is defined by a lack of fiddly stuff.

DH: Yeah, but when I first started at Lotus I was like, “this is my first head chef’s gig, I want to show what I can do”, but because I took over from Lauren Murdoch, who was the opposite, like simple, good produce, boom, onto the plate, a lot of the regulars didn’t like my food. I used to have this ego, like “well it’s my food, I don’t care what you think”, but we lost a lot of regulars and I thought, you know, I am cooking for Potts Point here and after six months’ or a years’ time at Lotus I figured out what the clientele liked to eat and tried to find that happy medium between what I like to cook, to keep us excited in the kitchen and also what people like to eat. I guess you could say I simplified my food.

AW: I remember when you started cooking at Lotus it was great, because it was a time before the great wine bars and the keenly priced Dukes and Bar Hs of Sydney existed, and here was a place serving awesome, unfussy food with mains around thirty dollars. It seemed like you guys were full every night. What brought about the change in menu structure?

DH: We were just bored. I was bored of the whole sit down, entrée-main-dessert. I was sick of the fact that, for a main, you would have to have a huge 200 gram hunk of protein with a few veg, a puree, and a jus, and this and that. I just wanted to change it so people could try a lot more, share. That’s the way I like to eat now, I want to eat like I am in a Chinese restaurant wherever I go. So I want to eat as many dishes as I can before getting full. That’s where we wanted to go.

AW: Did this change spawn ‘The Cheeseburger’?

DH: Well, we changed the menu after me and Jow (his co-chef at Ms G’s, Jowett Yu) got back from our research trip for Ms G’s. We had so many great cheeseburgers over there, like heaps. We came back and were like, “fuck man, no one is doing an American style cheeseburger”, so we decided to do it ourselves.

AW: What percentage of customers would have a burger now?

DH: (Laughs) ummmm, I reckon about 80-90% of tables would have a burger, either to share or for themselves.

AW: I’ve always found it strange, in a good way, that it sits alongside this really deft, subtle Asian thing. Does it bother you at all that most of the people who go to Lotus nowadays are eating a cheeseburger?

DH: No not at all, not really, I think it is great. We sort of got a cult following, just through word of mouth and people finding out about the burger. I think it is really cool, we have never sold as much of a single dish as the cheeseburger.

AW: David Chang and Momofuku were obviously the key reference point when opening Ms G’s. What was it about Chang and his places that you found so inspiring?

DH: We just liked how he brought fusion back, but in a good way. He paired American food culture with his Korean culture and it worked well because of those big flavours you have in Korean and other Asian foods and that is what we really liked about it. Me and Jow both love Asian food, and we could connect with him because we also had this fine-dining/European training and both like the application of those cooking techniques to Asian flavours.

AW: Obviously in the same way Roy Choi and Kogi must have been a big inspiration for the sort of LA-style street food you’re doing at El Loco. Tell us a bit about those research trips you took over in the states.

DH: In LA it was fantastic, I just researched a whole lot of taco trucks on taco blogs and made a list and we drove around Hollywood, and just outside Hollywood to try around six or seven different taco trucks. Then the second night we did the whole Roy Choi thing. We started off at a Kogi truck in Eagle Rock, which we realised it was like an hour away from fucking Hollywood, then we went all the way to Culver City where Chego was and then ended up at A-Frame, where Roy cooked for us. It was pretty epic, but we were so stuffed on dude food that the next morning I went to Wholefoods and made my own salad with like kale and brocoli and shit, because I just felt so unhealthy (laughs).

AW: Obviously working alongside the Hemmes’ has opened up a world of opportunity for you, you’re still very young and already in charge of three restaurants. What is it like working alongside people like that, with such a wealth of resources?

DH: It is fantastic. If I worked for anyone else I don’t think I would have had anywhere near the amount of opportunities that I do working for Merivale. I am a lucky guy, for Justin to put that much trust in me and let me open these restaurants is just great.

AW: Well, where do you think you would be if you hadn’t got that job at Lotus?

DH: I don’t know man, it’s hard to tell. I reckon maybe I wouldn’t even be a head chef. Maybe I would still be on that fine dining angle, but my mind has totally changed between when I first started at Lotus and now. I used to care about getting a hat for Lotus or this or that. Now I just want a busy restaurant where people can eat tasty food in a casual setting and have fun, that’s what I look for in a restaurant.

AW: It does seem that way, that for now at least you’re very much happy with serving as many people as possible great food, but are we likely to see a scaled-down operation any time soon? Perhaps a Momofuku Ko or even a Sukiyabashi Jiro type place?

DH: I don’t know if you know that Mr G’s has been postponed to next year, but we have talked about having one part of Mr G’s as a 12-seater countertop thing where we can do essentially what Momofuku Ko does, but yeah, it’s just an idea, I’m not sure.

AW: For those who have not heard about Mr G’s, could you fill them in?

DH: Well it is going to where Tank (a CBD nightclub renowned for its crap music) is, so it is going to be massive, a 300 seater, it is going to be huge. We are going to do dim sum during the day and I guess it is just going to be modern Chinese, or my take on modern Chinese.

AW: That’s obviously next, but if you could open any sort of restaurant what would you like it to be?

DH: Umm, I guess it is still my dream to do a Momofuku Ko type thing. But I’d also still like to open an American-style diner, because there still isn’t really many places that have done it properly yet. Maybe a barbeque place with Asian flavours, sort of like a Fatty Cue type thing, that would be good over here. Or a ramen place, I’d love to do my own ramen, I am obsessed with ramen.

AW: Finally Dan, if somehow you were to get a week off, where abouts in Sydney would you go to eat?

DH: I’d definitely go to Cabramatta and just eat all around there, get my mum to take me around. Ah, what else. I would probably go to a few fine dining places like Sepia, Gastro Park, Marque, haven’t been there for a while. Definitely Ryo’s in Crows Next, that’s my fave, but I can’t drive… I’ve heard Hurstville is pretty good for Chinese, around that Beverley Hills area, it is supposed to be pretty cool. Maybe go deep sea fishing, catch my own fish and do stuff like that, I never get time to do shit like that!

Ms G’s
El Loco

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