Words by Sam Young
Growing up in my Chinese family, food was always the centrepiece of every occasion. I went to boarding school in Canada when I was 13, and there wasn’t much Chinese food around so I had to cook. [When I] cooked for people, they really enjoyed it, and [I discovered] that food gives people joy.
I was at Merivale for a long time, but during COVID-19, we all got stood down, so I launched a takeaway meal business. I started doing lasagna with Chargrill Charlie’s, dumplings and many different things. I launched my private dining experience in May last year and it just took off. I thought if I did one dinner a week, I would be alright, but [my partner Grace Chen and I] have been doing 19 dinners a month recently.
Pop-ups are something I have always wanted to do. You create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for guests. I think it’s a good time for me and for helping other chefs and venues, too. It’s a way of giving back to them and they get a cut of the profit. I try not to do two of the same pop-ups, so every time is [unique]. It’s good from a business point of view as well because you get all the revenue before you even open.
I let the guest chefs have most of the control of the menu because they can come out of their comfort zone and really cook whatever they want. I think that’s the reason behind Juicy Banana.
I just fill in the gaps and make sure everything runs smoothly; the floor runs smoothly, the bar runs smoothly. I’m just kind of pulling everything together, while also putting my spin on some of the dishes. For example, the main course for the event with Toby Stansfield was a lemon chicken. It’s pretty crazy coming from someone who worked at Monopole and Rockpool, but it’s something I really wanted.
Graeme Hunt [ex-Chin Chin Sydney] has a lot of dishes that work really well, so it’s like he’s creating his signature menu. It’s all about fun, delicious food. Sometimes when you work in a restaurant, you’re framed to the cuisine or you’re framed to the style of cooking of that restaurant, whereas there are no boundaries here. Just make sure the food is f**king delicious.
I want to take advantage of this time because my opinion is that the dynamic of the industry will change when you can start to travel again — it will definitely affect how people spend.
Right now, people have extra cash that they used to spend on holidays, and now it’s all in our economy. Some of my clients go to Europe every year and drop [up to] $60,000. But now they’re dropping the same money in restaurants or on special occasions. My private dining experience is through the roof because no one can go anywhere, so I’m going to their homes and making an experience for them.
COVID-19 changed a lot of things. If it never hit, I wouldn’t have my own business. But Merivale and I are still on good terms. I’m really grateful for what they have done for me. The dream is for Grace and I to have a restaurant together, and that has never changed. I want to give it a crack and see what we can do.