Graeme Blundell enjoys a flamboyant feast with Melbourne’s Malaysian food maestro
IAM in the fresh-looking premises of the Tony Tan Cooking School in Toorak, an airy and fashionably converted garage adjoining the Malaysian-born chef’s coolly white bungalow-style residence. Tan has been running successful classes in Melbourne for years but this purpose-built pavilion, completed last year, is the customised venue for a series of new, highly popular yearround courses.
I’m here for a one-on-one lunch demonstration with Tan, who is quite formally attired in chef’s whites and black apron and already pouring white wine.
Thorny and aromatic kaffir limes, cumquat and olive trees line the entrance to this Mediterranean-style space, and highly polished jarrah floors reflect the disappearing sunlight from outside. I wanted lots of spikes to keep away unnecessary energies and evil spirits,’’ he says of the handsome pathway to the school. Always open to a little oriental sorcery when it comes to cooking, Tan insisted on a formal feng shui approach to the configuration of his space.
I had to fiddle with the doors to fully bring the outside in,’’ he says of the slightly serpentine design. And — heaven forbid — no red and gold Chinese lantern cliches.’’
The only colour Tan requested was the deep mahogany red of the flooring. It is an auspicious colour, representing wealth and happiness.’’ A red teapot, industrial-looking blender and a serving tray filled with elegantly stemmed wine glasses are the only other examples of his use of primary colour. Outside the sky is fine: big and open, heaps of cloud in every shade of grey down to the west where it is turning bluish-black. The rain is losing no time, but will be another half hour, says Tan, who knows his city, its moods and vagaries.
Born on the east coast of Malaysia into a family of culinary experts specialising in Chinese cuisine — little chilli’’ is his family name — Tan was formally trained as a chef in Australia and France. Now he concentrates on this school, which in 2006 was named by Britain’s as one of the best in the world.
The great schools, such as Tan’s, deconstruct local culinary methods, dismantling them to discover what is significant. They offer a sometimes startling insight into a city or a way of living, which Tan does of increasingly cosmopolitan Melbourne.
Tony’s one of those identities without whom the Melbourne culinary scene would be considerably poorer,’’ says the great Daylesford chef Alla Wolf-Tasker. He’s an absolute bundle of energy who’s seemingly into everything, running classes himself on cuisine from Nonya to Cantonese to Spanish, having stellar guest chef line-ups and taking tours to exotic places.’’
Tan is a scholarly man and every dish I cook with him is what he calls a spicy child of history’’. He believes the experience of preparing and eating imparts a sense of the relationships between past and present, tradition and change. He is fascinated by Spanish cooking at present, besotted by piquillo peppers, Manchego chorizo, smoked paprika, sherry and jamon. And before preparing his famous Tan family crab omelet entree for me, he offers a plate of jamon iberico surrounded with big green Gordal olives, infused with anchovies. After one taste, it’s impossible to think that all green olives are created equal. The jamon, which inevitably occasions many jokes about flying pigs, is as gorgeous as it should be for about $400 a kilogram.
Savour the depth of flavour,’’ Tan says of this luscious ham from Iberian pigs, the last breed in Europe feeding on acorns.
He discusses trendy molecular gastronomy as he prepares his eggs and the way some Spanish chefs soar with foams and spheres’’ but how most still adhere to earthy aromas and unadulterated flavours. So many famous chefs are so full of themselves they just can’t make an omelet,’’ he says. That’s so sad.’’
He is also enthusiastic about new Shanghai cuisine. A class in July will be a tribute to his friend, the influential Jereme Leung, Chinese chef superstar. Leung’s style is elegant and chic, with bold flavours derived from rock sugar, dark sauces and goji berries,’’ Tan says with his courtly enthusiasm.
Even at his most boisterous, Tan never loses an arcane turn of phrase. He talks of osmosis in the kitchen’’, the notion that ideas can slide in and out of cultures without threatening the integrity of the original cuisine. He doesn’t believe traditions are fixed at inception but are shaped over time as cultures collide and absorb each other. I have loved playing with flavour since I was a child,’’ he says. My food is really about my Malaysian background: the smells take me back, imprinted on my mind.’’
His godparents were southern Indian and he grew up in a cultural triangle of Malay, Chinese and Indian.
He says that if he doesn’t eat a curry once a week he gets terrible withdrawal symptoms, then treats me to a wickedly theatrical display of family accents. I’m a very non-Chinese person, really,’’ he says. I might be a man of the world, but try telling that to the rest of the world, my dear.’’
He prepares a loin of grain-fed lamb using chilli powder, curry leaves, garlic, mango chutney, desiccated coconut, spinach, thinly sliced coriander and diced tomatoes. Pouring more Brown Brothers Patricia Merlot into our glasses, he says this is the kind of layering of food that makes Australia so unique. The wine is supple, with fruit intensity and fine tannins, a perfect complement.
We finish our conversation with Valrhona chocolate tart, poached quinces, caramel ice cream and several glasses of Brown Brothers muscat dessert wine. Everything is explained expertly and simply. Tan’s is a contagious love of cooking combined with a genuine regard for the limitations of doing it in your own kitchen.
Like all good cooking instructors, Tan is conscious of the restrictions of home cooking, how dirty and cluttered the kitchen becomes or whether cooking steak au poivre is going to fill your apartment with smoke.
His sessions are likely to become kitchen consultations. He scolds about mise-en-place — having everything ready and to hand — a mantra with him, as it is with all professional chefs. He happily instructs his students about sharpening their knives and reorganising their cupboards and how to use a mandolin safely.
Cooking classes have become the new book clubs or choirs, the rise of hobby cooking propelled by the seeming omnipresence of television chefs, as well as the endless assortment of culinary magazines and cookbooks on the shelves. In fact, the abundance of TV chefs probably confuses as much as it assists anyone trying to learn the subtleties of cooking or efficient and careful preparation at home. Increasingly we turn to accessible masters such as Tan, for reassurance as well as hands-on tuition.
Tan takes 12 students at a time, some classes are hands-on, others are of the watch-andconcentrate demonstration format, in which the chef’s presentation skills and eloquence are as important as the class content.
While his classes are set with given topics such as Summer Entertaining, Christmas Cookery or Fresh Catch (his popular hands-on five-hour session on all methods of cooking with seafood), Tan also customises subjects for group and individual needs.
My point of difference is an in-depth look at food and cooking culture that others don’t provide,’’ he says.
His gourmet food tours, tailor-made journeys into regional cuisine, are also becoming famous and are booked out almost from the instant he announces them. I accompanied Tan to Vietnam on one of his tours a few years ago. For 10 days we looked as much as we chewed. Tan worked his group of acolytes like a combination cheerleader, talkshow host, cooking guide and flapper, supporting, explaining, teasing (I never conquered eel) and sometimes clowning.
He is the only chef I’ve seen do SwanLake ballet moves down the aisle of a bus travelling at 50km/h, joyously distributing glasses of roadside rice wine, brewed in plastic jerry cans and tasting like diesel. You must try everything,’’ the irrepressible chef shouted.
Even Castrol wine.’’
Classes from $105, including wine. Tony Tan’s Market Walks start at $85 for a guided tour of Melbourne’s Little Vietnam in Richmond, including light lunch. Tony Tan’s Gourmet China Tour, September 9-21, starts at $7390. More: www.tonytan.com.au.
Oriental sorcery: From left, the dining table set for lunch at Tony Tan’s cooking school; Tan checks vegetables for freshness; the exuberant chef works his magic in the kitchen