Of all the millions of eateries that have burst onto Smith Street to light up our lives this year, none has been more hotly anticipated than Lee Ho Fook. The name comes from a Soho takeaway popularised by Warren Zevon’s song 'Werewolves of London' – but this joint ain’t going to be about beef chow mein.
Heading up the restaurant is Chinese-Australian chef Victor Liong, and the guy has moves. A Sydney import, he’s worked under Mark Best at the legendary Marque restaurant making ethereal science-y snacks, and he was last seen deep frying the chilli crabs at the Merivale Group’s fancy Canto joint Mr Wong. Now he’s taken over the Boire site, where he'll be wok rocking Collingwood come October to a soundtrack of house and Rihanna. We caught up and asked what the Lee Ho Fook we could expect of Smith’s next big thing.
Victor, tell us what Lee Ho Fook is going to be about. What should we eat? What will be playing? How will it smell?
It’s going to smell like funky new-style Chinese. A lot of the guys doing new-style stuff haven’t had a background doing anything but traditional Chinese so the transition to being modern is a little contrived – it’s almost awkward. I’m classically European trained and while I haven’t been cooking Chinese for as long, these are the flavours I grew up with, so I’ll be doing a modern spin on dishes presented in a less kitsch way. I want it to do for Chinese what Movida did for Spanish food – put it in that fun environment.
No – that’s not what we’re trying to be about. I want to do great desserts because people often associate Chinese food with really standard mango pudding. And then I’m doing a steamed milk bun with candied pork, pork floss, salted cucumber and lots of fresh butter. I had it as a snack when I was in Malaysia and it was raining and I was freezing and I swore I’d put it on a menu if I ever had a restaurant. I’ll definitely do classics like pippies in XO sauce and lots of salads too. Dan Hong from Mr Wong is the salad master.
Is there any reference to Mr Wong here?
No – that’s a really polished restaurant. Their menu and wine list is epic. This is the opposite. We’ll have a really short menu that’s going to change regularly, and the music will be the stuff I grew up with – stuff that you secretly love and don’t admit to anyone. I played it at a pop-up we did at Pei Modern and you’re eating and going ‘I can’t believe Rihanna’s on, but how good is it?’ TECHNE is doing the fitout but we told them we want a five-cent job. We’re going for big impact, low cost. I’m making the light fittings myself out of fishbowls and ropes.
Like ghetto Vue De Monde?
If Vue De Monde were in Chinatown.
What do you think of Melbourne’s Chinese dining scene?
It’s great. Flower Drum is an institution. My business partner Peter Bartholomew has eaten there since the ‘70s – he knows a 65-year-old waiter who’s been there since he was 25, and he’ll order us dishes that haven’t been on the menu since 1985. I like what Neil Perry’s doing at Spice Temple. Supper Inn is tasty and what you want at a certain time of night. Each has its place, but there isn’t really a middle market. There used to be.
What about drinks?
Paul Ramsey (ex-Little Blood, Goldilocks) is going to be my barman doing the cocktail list, and Patrick Walsh is doing the wines. His portfolio’s amazing – lots of stuff made in the old world with new techniques. Which reflects what we’re doing.
Is wine matching the menu hard?
I’m a really big fan of red wine and Chinese food. It’s nostalgic. Chinese people think red wine has medicinal properties and drink it all the time. Every time there was a family celebration, my dad would pull out this massive shiraz with bigger balls than all of us at the table put together and it fully wouldn’t go with the food – we’d be like ‘really? It’s ginger shallot,’ but it’s the memory association. Just drink what you like.
This is your first gig as a head chef – what have you learnt from the chefs you've worked under that you’ll want to pass on to your staff?
I learnt a lot from Mark Best. He always told me that cooking is the easy part. It has to be more than the craft. The way you approach your cooking– and this goes for life as well – should have an artistic element to it. Dan (Hong) is just a massive life loving guy– if you follow him on Instagram you see it. He’s mad for his sneakers; he’s mad for eating out. It’s a good way to be. I hope I can get that balance of being extremely technical as a chef and still have fun.
Lee Ho Fook is scheduled to open in the first week of October (gas men willing).
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