Victor Liong is really making a name for himself as one of the inspiring young guns in the Australian food industry. The owner of Lee Ho Fook in Melbourne’s CBD, Liong’s exciting vision for Chinese-style cookery is being embraced by diners and chefs alike.
With a talent for creating dishes that push the boundaries, and mentored by some of Australia’s food elite across his career, it’s difficult to not be caught up by Liong’s enthusiasm for cooking.
We recently had a chat to Liong about his influences, his food and where he fits in with Australia’s flourishing food culture and its near-limitless opportunities.
So why and how did you become a chef?
I actually wanted to be a stockbroker when I was a kid. And I thought that was a great idea, because I assumed you make a lot of money. But then I thought, scrap that, what do I really want to do? And I realised it was more just the freedom to do things.
I’ve always kind of liked food, so I thought, yeah cool, I guess when you’re a chef you get to do whatever you want when you have your own kitchen, and that sounded really appealing. I also really loved the idea of working with my hands. And also being able to create something that not a lot of people can do. So that’s how I became a chef.
But I went to university first, obviously, because I have Asian parents and I had to get some kind of degree. I started off as an accounting/finance major, and then I realised I was really shit at that, so I did a business management degree. Once I finished that, I decided I’d become a chef.
Useful background though?
Not really. Who uses their degree? No one says, “oh, I’m so glad I went to university, it taught me so much!” I don’t think even lawyers say that.
Maybe when you’re a doctor. But you know, I think university’s great in terms of teaching you how to look at all the issues in the world, using different kinds of methods, different kinds of ways of thinking, different kinds of philosophies, which I think is great. But in terms of how useful it was? Not really.
It’s all about the real-world experience at the end of the day.
Exactly. And you know, the repetition. They don’t teach you that anywhere. They don’t teach you that at school; that life is all about pressure, time pressure.
So tell us a bit about your background prior to opening Lee Ho Fook.
I’m from Sydney originally. I did my apprenticeship at a restaurant called Galileo. Galileo was a kind of fine dining French restaurant with a lot of Japanese influences and I worked with a chef there, Haru for about two and half years. He used to work at Robuchon in Tokyo, so it was really kind of Robuchon-esque in its execution. It was really cool – I learnt a lot. Back then it was really… you know, foie gras, caviars… that cool, old school, French-style fine dining cooking.
After that I floated around for a bit. I worked for a few places in the city trying to find a place that I kind of liked, and I settled at Marque in Surry Hills, with Mark Best. I worked there for a couple of years, and that was a huge influence on what I wanted to do in terms of creativity, in terms of how cool cooking was at that high level. We won Best Restaurant in Australia, Besty was Chef of the Year; it was a great time to work there.
Marque was modern European; super fine dining. Something like how you might say Attica or Vue de Monde is now. One of the cool things about the restaurant was that it was really small; it only sat 50 people and the kitchen was really small. There were only about five chefs in there at the one time. So it was a very chef-driven restaurant, which is pretty cool.
And you met Ben Shewry (from Attica) around this time?
I knew Ben, from when I started at Marque. Besty had invited Ben down; it was on my first day at Marque I actually met him.
So has Shewry been a mentor for you?
Oh you know, every time we bump into each other we talk about stuff. He gives me pretty good advice. He was quite supportive of me when I first moved out to Melbourne. He actually ate at Lee Ho Fook last week. Following [meeting him at] Marque, it’s kind of come full circle. He once came to the restaurant when it was in Smith St to eat there and brought Massimo Bottura with him… so that was pretty stressful, but awesome!
How much influence did Mark Best have on your cooking style?
Besty’s a mentor from my early days. After Marque, I went to work for Dan Hong, who opened Mr Wong. That was a huge restaurant, you know. There’s nothing like it in Melbourne. It’s 260 feet of restaurant, open seven days, lunch and dinner; they feed about 1000 people a day.
After a year of working there, I got approached to open Lee Ho Fook, and that’s it. Here I am.
How would you describe your cooking style in general?
Lee Ho Fook is what I like to call new-style Chinese. I don’t really go for authenticity, but the food is quite traditional. I go for traditional but not authentic in terms of flavour profile, approaches to ingredients and cooking technique. But I do draw a lot from my European training, and apply a lot of modern touches to the food sometimes. It doesn’t really look like Chinese food, but when you eat it you go, okay, it tastes like this dish, or it’s a reference to this dish. That is interesting to me.
I don’t really want to be, you know, a dumpling house, or a noodle house. Because I’m not trained in traditional Chinese cookery. So it’s all very exciting and new and quite an interesting inspiration for me. At Lee Ho Fook, we try and reinterpret classic, authentic Chinese dishes through a modern lens.
There are quite a few talented people in Melbourne doing this new style Asian influence food. The term “Asian fusion” is often thrown around. Does this phrase annoy you?
Well, yes and no. Like, I used to find it creaky. But you know, in Australia, we’re basically part of Asia. And you think about the way we eat… you know, the last ten meals you had, there’s gotta be one or two Asian meals in there. It’s just the way we eat, you know. It’s not that kind of rigid, or solid European food where everyone expects to go into a restaurant and have a knife and fork in front of them.
I’m lucky to have a restaurant where, I’m not fluent at all in Chinese, I can’t even read it, I can barely speak it, and I have a restaurant where everyone speaks in English, the menu is written in English, but the tables are set exactly like a Chinese restaurant. And I don’t get any negative or apprehensive feedback from the customer, because they totally understand that this is a country where in one restaurant, you eat with chopsticks, and in another restaurant, you can use toothpicks at a tapas restaurant. You can have a knife and fork at a bistro.
The country’s very fluid in terms of the way people eat and I think that’s probably the best part of being in Australia–there’s such a huge influence from migrants and from the diversity of people here that no one really feels that apprehensive when it’s a new meal or restaurant concept.
Absolutely, and very much so in Melbourne. You can take for granted that we’re very happy to eat in any way as long as the food’s tasty.
Of course. I was thinking about that the other day. If I opened a restaurant in Paris, I’d probably have to set up all the tables with a knife and fork. It’s only because the French are kind of renowned for being their way or the highway. How good is it that I can set the table with a pair of chopsticks and everyone just gets it, you know?
I feel like it’s almost a movement in Asian food. Not just in Australia but everywhere, that there’s sort of this permission to be very creative and use all these different influences with the goal just being to make tasty food.
It’s easier to move around these days… [to have access to] information, produce, people… and because everyone’s introduced to or quite used to many different styles, it kind of makes sense. There’s so many different influences that impact the way we cook, and not all of them just food.
I think that’s kind of what makes it interesting, because it becomes more of a part of your personality. That’s what my offering is about at Lee Ho Fook, and I think that’s what makes cooking quite exciting. Lee Ho Fook is the sum of all my experiences. I’ve been in Australia since I was six years old, and all of those kinds of experiences that I’ve picked up, that I’ve responded well to, from my childhood here, and my education here, and my [kitchen] training, and my exposure to different produce and styles of cooking. I suppose Lee Ho Fook is more reflective of a Melbourne restaurant than I Chinese restaurant [because of that]. It’s just a Melbourne restaurant that happens to serve Chinese-esque food.
So Lawyers, Guns and Money: you closed it last year to find a new location. What’s on the horizon for that? Or what other plans do you have up your sleeve?
Well at the moment I’m really enjoying Lee Ho Fook. Lawyers, Guns and Money didn’t really work out operationally, in the space that we were in, which is unfortunate because I really loved the idea of it. There were a few constraints. So I decided to pull the plug on it before it became a business nuisance. It wasn’t an easy decision, but sometimes, if you’re gonna fail, you might as well fail fast. That’s what all the start-up kids say, right? Without that turning into a big stress on me, it’s allowed me to refocus my energies on Lee Ho Fook, which I’m having a great time doing.
We now have a bar downstairs and that’s working well. The kitchen is working well, the best it’s ever been in my opinion, because we’ve got some fantastic staff in here at the moment.
What’s the bar’s concept?
Well, downstairs used to be a private dining room, and that really wasn’t the kind of vibe I wanted there. So I thought, what about putting a separate space within the [Lee Ho Fook] space? And I went okay, I’m just gonna put a bar in here and kind of change [the fit out] a little bit.
I’m a little bit obsessed with light artists at the moment, so I thought, hey, what if I put cool pink neons in there, and go from there. And it’s kind of taken its own form in terms of what we can do. I like how you’re walking into one space, then you can go into another space, it adds another layer to it.
It’s early days, but I think in terms of what we can do with it, it’s pretty exciting. It’s like renovating a room in your house that you really like, and now you love it.
What kind of drinks are you serving there?
I’ve got Hamish, my bar manager downstairs. We used to work together at Mr Wong and he’s just come back from Los Angeles, and he’s kind of taken the reigns, really. He’s made a lot of cocktails, which are really cool, a lot of variations of drinks that we love. So there’s a drink called a Red Hook, which is like a Manhattan, kind of a spin on that, which is called the Lee Ho Fook Red Hook.
Yum. What’s the spin?
Like the Manhattan, it’s a rye-based cocktail with Italian bitters and maraschino liqueur. And what we’ve done there is infused the Italian vermouth with Vietnamese coffee, which kind of tastes like vanilla and cocoa nibs, and a little bit of chilli, so it just gives the drink a richer mouth feel. You don’t really feel the chilli; it’s just sort of a background heat.
And everyone loves a spritz, especially in Melbourne. So we’ve got a great Blonde Spritz on at the moment, and that’s got grapefruit, peaches, lemon, sparkling wine, and a French vermouth, which is a white, sweeter vermouth. It’s fun.
The bar is something for us to do which is about expanding the offering and giving more to the customer, which is really cool.