Hanging with Mr Hong
As a teenager, Dan Hong was a bit of a rebel, emulating the ‘gansta’ life from his heroes in hip hop – doing graffiti, partying and earning the ire of the law. These days, he still has that sassy savoir faire air about him, but as the ‘it’ boy of the Sydney dining scene, a genuine Gen Y foodie trail blazer, he’s too important to ignore, but too cool to care.
His resume and achievements are as full as a contented diner at one of his restaurants. Stints at Longrain, Tetsuya’s, Bentley and Marque helped him score the Josephine Pignolet Best Young Chef Award at the 2008 SMH Good Food Guide Awards. Hospitality king Justin Hemmes recognised the potential. Seven years later, Dan is executive chef across three of Merivale Group’s hippest restaurants: Mr Wong, Ms G’s and El Loco. He admits though, that he would never have had any of this had it not been for his mother.
Mum knows best
Dan grew up in the north-western Sydney suburb of Epping while his mum, Angie, worked tirelessly at the family’s Vietnamese restaurants to give Dan and his sisters a private school education. But after he bombed out of high school, Dan admits he didn’t really know what to do. Fortunately, his mum did. She put him to work in her restaurant, got him into a cooking school and then used her contacts to get him an apprenticeship at Longrain. He’s never looked back.
“I never really thought about being in the industry when I was in high school because I took it for granted that my mum had this restaurant,” Dan says.
“I enjoyed cooking at home and I enjoyed watching cooking shows like Jamie Oliver, so I thought I would give it a crack.”
Dan found his true calling in the kitchens of mentors such as Martin Boetz, Brent Savage and Mark Best, learning Asian, fusion and French. But it was when he cooked the food of US trendsetting chef David Chang (Momofuku) at a special function that Dan’s creative juices truly flowed. In Chang, Dan discovered a guy who broke the rules and managed to tap into the main vein of food fashion – fresh, fast and great tasting – fine dining junk food. Hemmes wanted an Aussie version and entrusted Dan and chef Jowett Yu to do the job, and so Ms Gs was born. A Mexican eating excursion for Dan led to the opening of the pop-up style El Loco.
Mr Wong is Hemmes’ most expansive (and expensive) restaurant imagining yet, a Sydneysider’s vision of a hip Cantonese eatery located in the suits and briefcase end of Sydney’s CBD. It’s been wildly successful, scoring a host of awards including Best New Restaurant by SMH in 2014, and recently voted as the ninth best restaurant in the country by chefs and restaurateurs in the Australian Financial Review. The accolades confirm the inspired partnership of two great artists. “He (Justin) has this big vision and I just execute the food,” says Dan. “It’s great.”
Whether it’s called refined dude food, or a super fly feast from a Kayne West of the kitchen, Dan hesitates at labelling his style.
“I don’t want to put myself in this pigeon-hole where diners say, ‘I feel I can only go there on a special occasion’. I want people to come to my places and feel like they can eat there every day. They can also come there for that special occasion, but I just want to be the whole package where people feel comfortable eating my food, drinking good wine and having a great time.”
Watch our interview with Dan Hong: