Graeme Blun­dell en­joys a flam­boy­ant feast with Melbourne’s Malaysian food mae­stro

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Asian Indulgence -

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.tony­

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

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