“How do you turn this thing on?” Dan Hong asks as he swings the handle of a wok burner to and fro in TasTAFE’s impressive catering kitchens.
We’re here to talk about the Great Chefs Series, the initiative which, well, does what it says on the tin – it brings great chefs to Launceston’s Drysdale campus to mentor students slaving over a hot stove on the catering courses.
Dan, along with Dim Sum specialist colleague Michael Luo, is the last Great Chef to visit this year, flying in from Sydney where he is Head Chef for Merivale, creating menus at the 240 seater Mr Wong in Sydney’s CBD and Ms G’s at Potts Point.
The secret to Chinese food, he says, is that it’s simple, but delicious. “It’s not like French food where you need all these different techniques to make it look good. With Chinese food, as long as you have the flavour, it doesn’t always matter what it looks like. At the end of the day, people prefer to eat delicious food over food that looks nice.”
Not sure I agree completely, having suffered meals served by my husband with his cabinet-maker-turned-pig-farmer style of plating up – we’re talking dollops thrown off spoons. But I happen to know that Dan ate the previous night at the elegant Me Wah, whose Tassie Crayfish Noodles with Sea Urchin Sauce, while not being the prettiest dish in the world, definitely hits the flavour spots.
He’s given the dining options of our little city a good work out, hitting Geronimo and Black Cow Bistro too, a little bemused to find sharing plates is just taking off here in Tassie. This is Geronimo’s speciality, and it took myself and a gaggle of girlfriends twenty minutes to decide how we would order, never mind what we might eat. “In Sydney, having your own course is weird!” says Dan. “But last night at Me Wah, people were like, I’m having the sweet and sour pork, and you’re having the seafood, and we’re not sharing each other’s. Have a bit of both, so you can try both things!”
Some of that exquisite fare is on offer at the evening’s degustation meal, when 140 paying guests will sit down to several courses of delicious Tasmanian produce crafted into mouth-watering Asian-style cuisine. Sashimi of Tasmanian Stripey Trumpeter, Sweet and Sour Wallaby Tail, and the mysterious Strange Flavour Pork Belly. All accompanied by premium cool climate wines from Moores Hill Winery in the Tamar Valley. On Sunday Michael Luo, highly credentialed head dim sum chef at Mr Wong, will oversee a seven course dim sum lunch accompanied by a drop or two of Josef Chromy.
Am I around on Sunday, Christopher McGimpsey, educational meister and iniative whizz extraordinaire asks? Sadly no, I’m going to Hobart with my family where we will dine on fish and chips and, I fear, ketchup.
Back to the burners. As Dan presses, shakes and flips the rice deftly, it’s clear that Tasmanian produce is what draws him and the other visiting chefs in. As it turned out, Stripey Trumpeter was not to be found in the day’s catch, nor its dastardly cousin the Bastard Trumpeter. So an alternative was found in Trevally. “As long as I got local fish, it didn’t matter what I got,” Dan says, with the natural versatility of a great chef or even a good cook, who looks around to see what’s available, and then works magic with that.
If there’s any downside to the food and produce landscape in Tasmania, it’s that the price of the produce goes up for locals because we’re competing with the export market. Sourcing Tasmanian Southern Rock Lobster for the degustation, Dan found it cost $160 per kilo here in Tassie, as opposed to $130 per kilo in Sydney. “What’s going on?” he protests. “I had to get my live seafood supplier in Sydney to call their supplier in Tasmania to book it for this dinner!”
Such is the traction these events are gaining, the evening was to be attended by a special guest from the Chinese consulate. Meals are cooked and served by students under the watchful eye of the visiting chef to make sure they cut the mustard, and anybody can book to attend.
Other visiting chefs have included Tetsuya Wakuda, Jacques Reymond, Mark Best and Donovan Cooke and Christopher is teasing us all with the promise of yet more astounding guests next year.
We’ll have to hope there are students there to take advantage. The number of apprentices in Australian professional kitchens is falling radically, such that there’s a shortage nationwide. “At Mr Wong we have a brigade of fifty chefs and there are no apprentices,” agrees Dan. “I’ve only got one apprentice at Miss G’s, and he just left. It’s the same all around Australia, it’s a dying breed.” Long hours and a low wage when starting out are what’s killing things, he says. “I was earning 290 a week when I was a first year apprentice, and the only thing that kept me going was the passion.”
Passion be damned, he’s a calm presence in the kitchen. I’m noticing this about chefs drawn to Tasmania – John T Bailey, Tetsuya Wakuda – they eschew all the hardball showmanship and just get on with the cooking. If there’s any showmanship it’s more about funky hair, on-trend glasses and a mean line in sneakers. (Dan collects them and owns 140 pairs. I’m disappointed to hear he’s not wearing his limited edition ones of which only fifty pairs were made, but if he spills anything near as much on the floor as my husband says I do, it’s probably wise.)
Thanks, all at Drysdale, for an enjoyable half hour, and thanks Dan and all you other chefs for visiting. Keep the greatness coming.