The spirit of Melbourne's Chinese community shines in Elizabeth Chong, an amazingly youthful and energetic woman. She thrives on the joys of Chinese food, teaches it, and demonstrates its preparation on television. She takes tours through her beloved Chinatown, and promotes its activities in many ways.
I have shared in one of those activities, as a judge of the American Express Food Festival, and have been filled with admiration at Elizabeth's ability to bring together a hugely diverse group of restaurants, to persuade them to allow their food to be judged by a largely Western group of "experts", and to explain to their staff how to deal with the complexities of the competition. At the same time, I have seen her generate publicity for the participants, massage bruised egos on awards night, and still remain friends with all the participants.
Elizabeth Chong's Cooking School, her cookbooks and her public relations activities have all worked to give a focus to Australia's most important food culture. We have been surprisingly slow to recognise the quality of our Chinatown establishments. For example, it took the Age Good Food Guide an inexplicable 11 years to award Gilbert Lau and his superb Flower Drum Restaurant its long overdue three hats.
Gilbert Lau's well-earned recognition gives Elizabeth particular pleasure. He was one of her father's proteges at the Golden Phoenix in the 1960s. The "number one kitchen boy" then went off to America to learn hotel and catering management before returning to Melbourne where he went into partnership at the Empress of China before opening his legendary Flower Drum restaurant in 1975.
The Chong family, however, has exercised real influence over Australia's eating habits since 1945 when Elizabeth's father, William Wing Young, began the restaurant Wing Lee's, and produced the first dim sim.
"My father was the first to create the style and shape and the commercial production of the dim sim," says Elizabeth.
"He chose the thick skin for ease of transport; he used to deliver them in his Chevy to the football where he set up in competition with the Four-and-Twenty pie. Before long, his factory was producing thousands of them for sale throughout Australia."
Elizabeth recalls living in Franklin Street opposite Victoria Market and beside the dim sim factory. Her father was also a wholesale fruiterer, one of the largest in the market, and was known, according to Elizabeth, both as the Chicken Roll King and the Peanut King.
"Food and cooks were always a part of my life," says Elizabeth. "I stopped briefly to have four children, but found I needed to express myself out of the home scene. I started giving talks to the parents of children in my son's class, and they asked me to give them cooking lessons. So the cooking school began in 1961."
The school continues today, and some of Elizabeth's original pupils still come back for special courses. Now she sees a wide acceptance of many Asian cooking methods, and an understanding of many different Chinese techniques.
"People now want to know everything. They want to know how to cook everything, and they want to try everything. When I started as a teacher, there was a limit to what they wanted to know. But all that has changed," she says.
"For many years now, I've been watching and filtering perceptions and tastes back and forth from both sides. I feel that I've been an ambassador, and that I've educated both the public and the media. Both are now much more adventurous. In all the talk today of East meets West, it's all about breaking tradition, of breaking down barriers and mixing of the two cultures. My position is rather West meets East, in that I bring westerners into the eastern kitchen. I feel loyal to my roots, I feel it is very important to present and to retain the traditional style."