Top chef Dan Hong’s big break came with winning the Josephine Pignolet Award for best young chef in 2008. He went on to join Merivale and is now the executive chef across four of its establishments – Mr. Wong, Ms G’s, Papi Chulo and El Loco. The 32-year-old talked to me about how his mother got him his first big gig, the dish he is most proud of, and the lengths he will go to for his ultimate pair of sneakers.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Not really. I didn’t really do well in high school. So when I finished, my mum said, “What are you going to do?” I was like, “Oh, I don’t know.” She said, “Why don’t you become a chef?” I went, “Oh, OK.” So she actually got my first job. This was 14 years ago, back at Longrain, and my passion sort of just developed from there.
Why did your mother suggest you become a chef?
I don’t know. I always grew up around restaurants. My mother owned three Vietnamese restaurants, back in the early ’90s. I cooked at home a lot because my mum wasn’t at home. She was always at the restaurant. So she just thought, “You’re good at cooking at home for the family, so why don’t you just give it a go?”
You are now one of the biggest names in the business. How did it evolve for you?
It all just fell into place. I’m really fortunate to have someone like Justin Hemmes, who has all these visions. I just execute the food. With something like Mr. Wong, he was just like, “I’m closing down Tank. I’m opening a Chinese restaurant and I want you.” I’m like, “Well, I don’t know anything about Chinese food.” He knew that I could do something like this without me even realising myself.
How did your association with Justin and Merivale come about?
Back in 2007, when I won the Josephine Pignolet Award for Best Young Chef, as part of the project, you get to travel overseas. So I worked in New York for two months and I got back and literally, the second day, I got back, I got a call from Frank Roberts, who is the general manager of food and beverage at Merivale, going, “Look, I’ve got this spot open.” He was with Lotus at that time. He went, “Look, I want you to come, do a tasting for Justin and then we’ll see how we go.” And then, luckily, I got the job at Lotus back in 2008. That was my first head chef job at 23. From there, it was Ms. G’s and El Loco and Mr. Wong.
You say you didn’t know anything about Chinese food, how did you transition and become one of the top chefs in Chinese cuisine?
I always loved eating Chinese food. So that’s what our chefs did at the end of our shifts late night: we’d always go to Chinatown like Golden Century and eat Chinese food. When we were opening Mr. Wong, we went to Hong Kong. We went from the smallest wonton noodle shop to the three Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurants in the hotels. We went and ate at all the places, just to make ourselves just engulf ourselves in Chinese food. We read lots of books. I watched YouTube videos of people cooking Chinese food and I just combined everything. It was all trial and error. We had six months to work on the menu and that’s what we did.
Mr. Wong is a Two Hat restaurant, you must be so proud.
I am. I didn’t intend to get two hats. I just wanted a hat – [one] would be fine. It was so overwhelming. Now we’ve got to maintain the two hats now. So every September, when that time of the year comes when the Good Food Guide Awards come out, I’m stressing out!
How do you maintain the standard?
It’s all about being consistent and maintaining that high standard, no matter whether we do 1000 covers a day or 400 covers today. That’s our main priority.
What’s next in the pipeline?
It’s so busy here at Mr. Wong and Ms. G’s. I’m just constantly here, just trying to work on new dishes. Also I’m getting ready for the Melbourne Cup carnival – I am doing the downstairs food at the Lexus Design Pavilion in the Birdcage at Flemington. I’ve been working on the menu; people should expect really fun, delicious food. I’ve never been to the Melbourne Cup so it should be a lot of fun. Also I’m possibly doing something on TV later on. I can’t really say.
What is your favourite cuisine?
It’s a three-way tie between Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese. I can’t choose.
If you could work in any cuisine, what would it be?
I’d like to get into more Japanese cuisines. I think that’s still a little niche in the market there. I think you could take it to the next level with Japanese cuisine too.
What dish of yours are you most proud of?
At Ms. G’s, I’ve got this dish called Stoner’s Delight. It’s up to its third rendition now. People just love it. It’s the most unbalanced junk-food-style dish dessert ever. It’s got donut ice-cream, peanut butter, deep-fried nutella, mars bar brownie, peanut and pretzel brittle, potato chips, candied bacon. Every single table orders it. It’s the most Instagrammed dessert on Ms. G’s Geotag. It’s just crazy.
What’s your favourite restaurant in the world?
I would have to say it’s probably Flower Drum in Melbourne. I just love it.
Do you cook at home?
Not really. Because I work so much … I might just get a really nice steak from Victor Churchill and just cook it over charcoal and serve with salad on the side. My wife does the cooking at home. She is a great cook.
Will your children follow in your footsteps?
No, they better not. The industry is tough, especially being a chef.
What’s the toughest part of the industry?
It’s just the hours are really tough, the fact that you’re working while everyone is going out. Most of the time I leave when my children are asleep, and they’re asleep when I get home at night.
How do you create that work-life balance?
Well, first of all, your partner has to understand, in the first place, that you’re in the industry. Other than that, I try and spend the mornings with my kids when I can. I take my daughter to day-care three days a week. So I spend a bit of time with her there. I’ve still got two days off. I’ve got Sunday and Monday off. So that’s my family day.
You have a love of sneakers. How many pairs of sneakers do you own?
I’ve got about 140. They’re all in boxes in this custom wardrobe in my house.
Where did your love of sneakers come about?
I don’t know. I just really love rocking the latest kicks or the rarest shoes. That’s sort of just my vice, besides cooking.
Do you have a favourite pair?
I do. I’m a Nike Flyknit freak. I love anything Flyknit. I’ve got a pair of these rare Nike Flyknits. There are 50 pairs in the world.
How did you get them?
Well, they’re only released in Milan at the Nike lab there. I got them through just checking Instagram, looking at sneaker groups in Facebooks and forums, just to see who had a pair, not necessarily for sale. I just saw people wearing them and I just went, “Are they for sale? I’ll buy them.” I’m not going to say how much I spent because it was a lot for a pair of sneakers. That’s what you have to do for something that’s only 50 pairs in the world.
What’s something that people wouldn’t know about you?
I’m really into really crappy reality TV shows. At the moment WAGs is probably my favourite.
WE WENT TO Mr. Wong, Sydney CBD.
WE ATE Lexus Design Pavilion menu of Jade seafood and ku chive dumplings, chive and roast-duck dumplings, wild mushroom dumplings, and scallop and lobster dumplings.
WE DRANK Chinese tea and sparkling mineral water.
I WORE Dion Lee