For Cheong Liew, the menu he has developed at the Grange in Adelaide's Hilton is "like carrying a flower pot in your hands, you look forward to the day that you can put it down." It certainly doesn't seem a fragile bloom when you sit in the busy restaurant with lots of eager young staff carefully following orders. But it has taken Cheong more than 25 years of cooking in Adelaide and before that, many years observing and helping his family cook in Malaysia to develop a bloom that others might be able to look after. He knows only too well what nurturing is required to keep the strain of his cooking healthy and vigorous. The complexity of his menu is in its evolution. Each season sees subtle and dramatic changes. New dishes emerge, old favourites get re-invigorated.
Cheong has just renewed his contract with the hotel taking him into the year 2001, which will be his seventh year in charge of the Grange kitchen. Before that he was seven years teaching at the Regency Institute. He entered teaching after closing Neddy's, the restaurant which he started with his wife Mary, and Barry Ross. Cheong had come from Malaysia as a student in 1969 and supported himself working in Melbourne in pubs and railway cafes where he learnt about making steak sandwiches and rissoles. He then , progressed to a Greek restaurant kitchen in Adelaide where the chef had international hotel training and introduced Cheong to the basics of classic cuisine. Then came work at Kitcheners "a very colonial style Indian place, a French steakhouse and a very exuberant wine bar." Cheong asked to move from the Indian kitchen to the steakhouse and was told that this was impossible because, after all, he was not a professional chef. Eventually he was given a chance and started to look at the way in which vegetables were being prepared. If that was French cuisine, he decided, they "might as well give it up right now." But he persisted, and began to introduce vegetables more related to the Asian style of eating. The steakhouse, Moos, soon became known as an innovative and exciting restaurant on the basis of its vegetables. Then he was asked to design a menu for a wine bar and Cheong said "I just cooked what I knew from home ... my real experience came from Grandma's kitchen where I learnt how to shop, organise and cook for a large family." His family are in Kuala Lumpur the crossroad between Malay, Indian, Chinese and English cultures and cuisines.
So opening Neddy's in 1975, was for him a "natural Australian restaurant being multicultural - a combination of Greek, Indian, Chinese, Malay and other dishes". This was unheard of in Adelaide. The year before in Melbourne we had opened Mietta's, with a weekly changing menu of dishes from Indian, Italian, French, old English and Middle Eastern cuisines; but Cheong's was different again, he actually amalgamated the cuisines in the one dish. The food he was producing at Neddy's took food in Australia into previously uncharted waters.
It was original, as original as any cooking can be, imaginative and - thanks to Cheong's ingenuity, skill and the hard work of people such as Tim Pak Poy, it worked. It was part of a golden gastronomic era for Adelaide enabled by the liberalisation of licensing laws and the sense of anything being possible which came from Don Dunstan as Premier. In the late 70's there was Cheong, there was Philip Searle and Janet Jeffs (the first apprentice at Neddy's, now chef owner of Juniperberrys in Canberra), Michael Symons (the Uraidla Aristologist), Ann Oliver (Mistress Augustine's). Then there was Urs Inauen at the Hyatt fine dining room (since changed to Blake's Wine Room) and Cath Kerry at Bridgewater Mill (she is now at the Art Gallery of SA). Those golden days ended when Phillip and Barry left Adelaide for Sydney and the fringe benefits tax brought many of the businesses into hard times. Tim Pak Poy had to seek work in Sydney too, and eventually Cheong sold Neddy's (it is now called Nediz) and went into teaching.
Cheong's time at the Regency was important for the college and for his own career. "Teaching taught me about organisation, which I actually lacked, and about communication. I was able to do a lot of research, and learnt from other lecturers. So for seven years there was learning in both directions". He also sees the period at Neddy's before that as a stage in preparation for the Grange. "My food there was like a rough diamond, but here it is finally cut." Like sparkling diamonds, Cheong's famous 'Four dancers of the sea' seems a creation that should last forever. Now the signature dish of the Grange and of the Globe in Perth at the Parmelia Hilton, this started as a dish incorporating four different styles of cuisine and four different seafoods. There was prawn Malay style; snook Japanese style; raw squid, which for Cheong represented the present Australian-Asian style, and octopus which was Greek. Each season sees this dish emerge slightly differently, but always exploring the same themes.
You get the feeling with Cheong that there is a plan which spans eternity, certainly the centuries of cooking knowledge. Inscrutable is not the word, it is the sensitivity and the amassing of a great deal of knowledge which can't be easily defined, spoken or written. In its time, it will emerge. In the meantime, he seems to have an infinite capacity to keep absorbing, learning and observing. He remains fascinated with the pursuit of flavours. But once the dish has been conceived, created and emerges on the menu, you wonder how interested he remains in it. "If I just keep on doing this job, and have no break, I get absolutely bored, so I create a lot of promotions". Cheong is often developing wine and food matches, or dinners focussed on special ingredients such as sea urchin, "I've developed five different ways of serving sea urchin. I love sea urchin - we do crazy things...And last year when I came back from Malaysia I did a long table, all Malaysian style food. From satay to everything; it was magnificent."
This year he is taking his second chef, Joanne Ward and his executive chef, Bethany Finn, to Malaysia to 'learn a bit about the Malaysian system' and to do a promotion for the hotel. You feel there's a certain amount of mischief in this plan, taking women to the kitchens of his conservative countrymen. But it is, he insists, research for new dishes. Already the menu at the Grange reflects some dishes which Cheong tasted again on his first return visit to Kuala Lumpur earlier in 1999. Previous menus have encompassed dishes with techniques and ingredients from Greek, Indian, Italian, French and Chinese cuisines. Somehow Cheong makes it work. And once he has made it work he is able to pass it on to his kitchen team.
Here he relies a great deal on Jo who has been with him since the Grange opened and is responsible for all the ongoing training of staff. The team remains fairly constant , currently they've all had at least 18 months at the Grange. Amongst the floor staff is his son Andre who "started off making the bread because I thought it was good training for him at 14 years old. He was always asking for pocket money so I said 'if you want pocket money, you make bread'. And from that he learns the passion and gets the feel of the bread."
With Cheong there are long-term plans and short-term plans but they always centre around food and often around celebrations - the occasions which bring people to the table. When we spoke his main concern was the party which he was organising for his Dad's 80th birthday. He had some special pork from a grower in NSW - "we bought the whole pig, all 42 kilos, ten dollars a kilo, we used every scrap. The fat was actually crunchy (see recipe for White pork). Some of the chefs from Hong Kong were amazed. You can't get pork like that now, they are used to that in their own village, but you just don't see it in a big city. Everyone is concerned about fat, but my Dad is 80, he'll live to 90, no worries."
Don Dunstan, Grandmother Liew, Barry Ross, Philip Searle, Mary Ziukelis
Three of the recipes which follow were chosen for simplicity from My Food, by Cheong Liew, the others Cheong gave me in 1995. They are achievable in the home kitchen. Much as I love Cheong's more complex dishes, I am not interested in attempting to cook them. May I urge you to go to taste them at The Grange whilst Cheong Liew is cooking there. There is no comparison to make between his food and that of other chefs. He stands alone.
A 1995 interview from Mietta & Friends with chef Cheong Liew. A review of The Grange.