Two generations, two cultures and more than half a century of Cantonese culinary expertise come together to form Me Wah, the shining star of the buoyant Tasmanian fine-dining scene. By Tracey Porter
Gordon Tso had barely entered his teens when he was thrust into the chaotic kitchen of a bustling yum cha restaurant. His eldest son Stephen was even younger, aged just 10 when he too was put to work cleaning dishes seven nights a week in the burgeoning family restaurant.
It would be easy for the Hong Kong natives to turn their back on the Chinese culture that bound them to these adult-like undertakings at such a tender age. Yet, instead they have chosen to celebrate it—using their knowledge of traditional cooking methods to change the way discerning diners taste, perceive and enjoy authentic Asian food and service.
With a reputation as one of the most formidable familial pairings in Australia’s fine-dining scene, the Tsos run the Me Wah group, a trio of award-winning restaurants in Launceston and Hobart intent on winning over the hearts, minds and stomachs of Tasmanians and mainlanders alike with their unique blend of high-end Cantonese cuisine.
Together they are responsible for the livelihoods of more than 70 staff and average in excess of 700 covers per week across a combined 1620sqm of restaurant space. Both their Launceston and Hobart venues offer up to five dine-in and take-home menu options while a third site—located in Hobart but operating under the name Kwan Ho—offers four choices including premium banquet and supper options.
With Stephen running front-of-house operations and Gordon taking charge out back, the pair’s efforts have seen their heavily chinoiserie-influenced business attract a string of awards. Their Hobart flagship has twice been named Australia’s Best Asian Restaurant at the Savour Australia™ Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence, in addition to winning Tasmania’s Restaurant of the Year and Tasmania’s Best Asian Restaurant numerous times.
In a career that has spanned 56 years, Gordon Tso has effectively had only one job. Having served his apprenticeship under some of the best Asian chefs China has to offer, the elder Tso found himself migrating to Sydney at the behest of well-known restaurant-cum-nightclub The Mandarin Club which recruited him as its executive chef in 1978.
Stints as kitchen lead in a series of other high-profile restaurants—including Dixon Restaurant, the Four Seasons, Happy Valley and Richmond Court—followed before Gordon made the bold decision in 1998 to again strike out on his own in a new city.
Tired of the discounting culture adopted by many Chinese restaurants in Sydney at the time, Gordon began hunting for an established restaurant.
His search led him to Launceston where he discovered a 450sqm 80-seat rundown restaurant which Stephen, then aged 22, recalls was barely turning out 30 covers a week.
Needless to say, his decision did not sit well with the elder of Gordon’s two sons. Stephen says at the time in Sydney Chinese restaurants were competing on price rather than culinary skills. “It was heartbreaking. My dad said enough was enough (both in terms of his pride and his pocket) and moved us down here. I wasn’t happy, I didn’t even know where Launceston was but I was born into this family and I had no choice but to go.”
That said, Stephen says even before he turned 11, he knew he was unlikely to entertain another career. “Luckily, I’ve always enjoyed being front of house. I love talking, I love eating and I love air conditioning. I don’t like facing the wok.”
The hungry years
Stephen says despite his best efforts, the first year in Launceston was tough on the family who, having enjoyed much success in Sydney, were perplexed as to why Gordon’s much revered cooking style was not translating well into the local market.
Combining old-school cooking techniques with locally sourced fresh produce, the restaurant’s à la carte menu boasted items such as double-braised candy heart dried abalone and stir-fried fresh Huon Valley enoki, shitake and shimeji mushrooms tossed in black truffle sauce—dishes that had been well received in Sydney but which did not resonate with this new audience. “As everyone in this industry knows, it doesn’t matter how great you say you are—if your customers don’t get it, it doesn’t work,” Stephen says.
The tight-knit family persevered and held firm to their belief that eventually their focus on combining a welcoming ambience, with world-class authentic food and exceptional customer service, would eventually hit the mark.
“My father’s philosophy has always been ‘yes, there’s a lot of molecular gastronomy, yes there’s a lot of arts, but these things come and go’. The thing that lasts the longest is always the most traditional method.”
The big breakthrough
Their fortunes turned in their second year of operation when Me Wah entered Restaurant & Catering’s awards and took out the gong for Tasmania’s best Asian Restaurant. The public recognition helped bring a new breed of patrons through the door. The Tsos kept up an unbelievable pace, working 12-hour days, seven days a week for the first three years before eventually electing to shut the doors on Mondays.
Their success helped fuel a desire to open a second site and in 2007, Me Wah mark II opened in Sandy Bay.
Equipped with Gordon’s instructions to create “something grand” in Hobart with a budget of just $400,000, Stephen set about quadrupling the spend, orchestrating a $2 million refit for the 770sqm space that included noise-silencing carpet, Riedel glassware and a temperature-controlled wine cellar.
Despite Gordon’s reluctance to take on the larger budget, the move paid off with the venue praised by critics for being the place where “Hobart goes when it wants a fine night out”.
Positioning itself as the perfect vehicle for which to showcase the best Tasmanian produce, Stephen and Gordon utilise their strong relationships with local suppliers to fuse the freshest ingredients with Gordon’s unique Cantonese cooking flair across all three sites.
It is a philosophy that continues to hold them in good stead. Abalone is brought in from Barilla Bay, free-range chicken sourced from Marion Bay, Wagyu beef coming from Robbins Island, pork from Scottsdale, truffles from a local producer in Huon Valley and the still and sparking bottled waters available on the beverage menu coming from a baseline station in the state’s north west.
“People in Tasmania like to keep their money in the state and people who are visiting like to try the local ingredients so it’s a win-win scenario. And they’re only an arm reach away; we ring up today, it’ll be on our doorstep tomorrow. Freshest of air, cleanest of water, everything is just so natural,” Stephen says.
This notion of going against the grain when it comes to tradition also extends to Me Wah’s 47-page wine list which has been lauded as being among the best in the country. Compiled by group sommelier Louis Liu, it offers everything from a Barrington Park pinot gris for $13 per glass, to a 1990 Penfold’s Grange—one of 17 vintage Granges on the menu—for around $1500.
Last year, just 1.5km down the road, the group opened a third restaurant. Named Kwan Ho (which means noble man), the new venue offers a selection of Cantonese, Sichuan, Shanghai and other Chinese cuisines.
Despite the raft of accolades the restaurants have accrued, Stephen believes there is always room for improvement. To this end, many staff are recruited from Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong, where they are offered great salary packages, three meals a day and the added incentive of a potential sponsorship opportunity should all parties agree.
“It’s very hard to employ people in Tasmania as people aren’t very service orientated. We went to find the best, get them over and learn, train and implement their styles into our restaurant across everything from service to grooming,” Stephen says.
The business remains largely a family affair with Gordon overseeing the food at both sites but based out of Hobart with Stephen, and younger son Stanley and mother Jenny looking after the Launceston operations.
Each year Stephen heads overseas where he dines at the best restaurants in Macau, Hong Kong and Singapore to help him stay on top of trends in kitchen equipment, food and service, and where he also keeps his eye out for additional hires. In addition, the management team—which includes the Tso family, Louis Liu, head chef Chun Ngai Li, and business and events manager Sam Tse—regularly enjoy trips interstate where they are encouraged to dine at popular restaurants to keep their fingers on the pulse.
With the Tassie restaurant scene having changed in the past decade or so—with some claiming it has gone from being 20 years behind the rest of Australia to being home to four of the world’s top 100 restaurants—Stephen says it’s imperative Me Wah continues to keep blooding new staff to ensure it stays at the top of its game.
The abolishment of the 457 visa and the tightening up of other immigration policies has made this a little more challenging than it has been in the past, Stephen says. “Australia’s immigration department are not making it easy for people like us. We’re in Tasmania, we don’t have a Chinese cooking school so where are we going to find the next generation to come in?
“We are working as a team to put [the Apple Isle] on the map but to continue to do this, we need more talent, more skills and to get more great chefs to join us.”