Executive chef Victor Liong sits atop the restaurant business in both Melbourne and Sydney. Getting there, he says, has been about finding creative ways to express Chinese cuisine. Interview by Shane Conroy
You were born in Brunei and spent your early childhood in Malaysia. Do you have any memories from that time?
It was pretty chill. We were waiting for a migration visa [to Australia] and I was surrounded by relatives. My grandad ran a kind of brasserie that served meals all day. It was a fun atmosphere for a kid. There was always a lot going on. It probably was where my passion for food started. It was the first time I experienced the energy of a kitchen.
Was moving to Australia as a six-year-old a difficult transition?
Not really. I think I was most shocked by the cold. We moved here in the middle of a winter cold snap, and that was very different to what I was used to in Malaysia. We settled in Burwood [in western Sydney] and I had a pretty standard Australian childhood.
Did food continue to play a role in your family?
My mum has always been a good cook. Our family meals have always been fantastic, and we always had cookbooks kicking around the house. But I think the penny dropped for me a little later. I had a job at an Italian deli in high school that I loved. I worked for two older Italian women—one from the north and one from the south. They were constantly bickering about which region had the better food. I found that quite fun and I enjoyed learning about all the different foods.
So how did you end up studying business management at university?
I had dabbled with the idea of a career in food, but at that time it didn’t seem viable and my parents really wanted me to go to university. I liked the social aspect, but I hated the academic side. At the same time, I was working as a kitchen hand at Star City Casino and having a lot of fun. It was mostly basic knife work, and I’d come in early to learn new techniques. A lot of the older guys taught me a lot.
“My plan was really just to do cool food in a cool setting and see what happened.”
Victor Liong on his plan when starting Lee Ho Fook in Melbourne.
You finished your degree then went to work for Haru Inukai at Galileo. That must have been quite a leap…
It was really, really hard. This was in the mid 2000s. It was a very serious kitchen with a big team. I remember walking in there and everyone was wearing white aprons and I was this young kitchen hand from a casino. But it was fun. I learned a lot.
You went on to work for Mark Best at the acclaimed Marque. How was that different to Galileo?
It was a different kind of hard. It was a much smaller team and by the time I started it was very much a new style of kitchen management. The dining scene was changing and you couldn’t afford to have 16 chefs on anymore. It was tighter cooking without the reliance on super expensive ingredients. Mark really started that model. At the time it was kind of avant-garde because there were only six people in the kitchen. The work was very intensive and you couldn’t make mistakes.
Then came your first gig as a sous chef under Dan Hong at Mr Wong. Was that a different experience again?
Yeah, that was crazy. I worked for Dan at Ms. G’s first for about 10 months to get used to the pace. We were a group of young chefs with Asian heritage who had cooked a lot of European food and were now rediscovering our own cultures. We were all around the same age group and at about the same level. We ended up with an all-star team, then focused that into opening Mr Wong.
How did the opportunity arise for you to open Lee Ho Fook?
Mark Best called me while I was at Mr Wong. He knew some guys in Melbourne who had a space and wanted me to come and look at it. I really liked the space and I liked the guys I was meeting with. I was only 27 and I had no idea. Looking back, I should have been more cautious. But I had always wanted to do a new-style Chinese cuisine— things I love about Chinese food but presented through a western lens. My plan was really just to do cool food in a cool setting and see what happened.
This year you were invited back to The Star in Sydney to open Chuuka with Chase Kojima. Is that a feeling of coming full circle?
It’s different for me, but it has been fun. I’m still very hands on at Lee Ho Fook. When I’m there I’m in the kitchen cooking. Chuuka for me is more of a creative role with Chase executing. That has been a big learning curve for me. But I’m all about expanding creativity—finding creative expressions for Chinese cuisine in an Australian setting.