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Posts Tagged ‘thai’

  1. Chin Up with Chin Chin

    September 8, 2013 by The E.A.T. Team

    top photo chin chin

    ON THE MENU 
    “Chin Chin Pork Roll Ups” red braised suckling pig with pancakes, slaw and Asian herbs.
    “Stud City” Jungle Curry with wild boar, pickled garlic and ginger.
    ON THE GLOBE
    Melbourne, Australia
    ON THE TEAM
    Ben Cooper, Executive Chef at Chin Chin
    Downstairs in the dark GoGo Bar, we met with Ben Cooper, Executive Chef at Melbourne’s premier Thai restaurant, Chin Chin. We heard about his vast experience in the food world, as well as gleaned some serious tips for living the good life. What struck us most about Chin Chin (other than the incredible food) was the omnipresent sense of fun and gratitude–every employee seemed to be enjoying themselves. We stayed for hours watching the young sous chefs chopping deftly with our mouths agape in awe. By the time we left, all the tables were full and the line outside was snaking far around the corner. Read on for Ben’s wisdom.

    I honestly believe that Melbourne is the food capital of Australia. The guests are so educated about the food scene, they are adventurous and open to new things.

     

    collage - chin chin

    How did you get involved in Chin Chin?
    It was by coincidence really. I had been Exec Chef at another place for 4 and a half years and it was time to move on. I had potentially taken a job elsewhere and Chris had spoken to me before about maybe working together, one thing led to another. I came on board as Head Chef and when the Exec Chef left 3 months after we opened, I took his role.

    So there were two Chefs that started Chin Chin?
    Yes, it was myself and Andrew. I came on board just as it opened. Andrew had written the original menu and whatnot and 3 months after opening he moved to Byron Bay.

    Where are you originally from?
    I started my career in Sydney. I worked with some amazing Chefs there; Neil Perry, Kyle Kwong, Janni Kyritsis. I went from Sydney to London and spent 5 years there. I was Sous Chef at Lobu, worked with David Thompson at Nahm, Smiths of Smithfield with John Torode. I came back here and moved to Melbourne. I was Head Chef at a couple of restaurants, Exec Chef at St Ali for 5 years, and now here.

    How has working in Melbourne kitchens been compared to the rest of your career?
    Each city is different, every city has got it’s own feel. When I started my career in Sydney it felt like there was always Chefs from other kitchens dining in your restaurant. You know, all of the big name Chefs, and because I worked from Neil Perry he constantly dined with other big name Chefs, so it felt like you were always cooking for a special crew. Down here it doesn’t feel you’re cooking for other Chefs that often. I don’t know whether that’s because they’re too busy in their own kitchens or what.

    Was that stressful or did you enjoy the pressure?
    I loved it, it was a thrill! To know that you were cooking for the people that you aspire to be was a real thrill. In here, we do get a lot of industry in. Here at Chin Chin probably more than the other restaurants I’ve worked in. I guess it’s the new kid on the block so everyone’s coming and checking it out. I think that was the main difference. There seemed to be more of a community up in Sydney, but I don’t know what it’s like there now, it might be completely different.

    Are there a lot of differences between the food culture of Melbourne and Sydney?
    Yeah, maybe. I think Sydney is a city going through a lot of changes in it’s industry. There are a lot of restaurants that have closed down, there’s a lot of change happening up there. It has a lot more high-end restaurants but there’s a lot of upper-mid-range restaurants in Melbourne.

    Melbourne seems to cater for a wider range of budgets, which is important when you’re feeding a city. Everyone is using their creativity to create new and exciting things but it’s not too out of everyone’s price range…
    I honestly believe that Melbourne is the food capital of Australia. The guests are so educated about the food scene, they are adventurous and open to new things.

    Do you think a restaurant like Chin Chin would have worked in Sydney?
    Yeah, I think this would work in Sydney. The energy and the effort put in to Chin Chin at the start would make it work anywhere. The reason why a place works is the people who work in it. They strive to make it a place that people want to come, and that’s definitely what happens here; the front of house, the bar, the management team, the kitchen, even the guys that are taking the rubbish out or washing the dishes, everyone puts in 110%. That’s an important part of what makes a business work. People can feel that energy.

    We read about the Thai Sydney versus Thai Melbourne rivalry, do you know anything of this?
    In any country, the top two cities are always going to compete. It’s like Manchester and London, or LA and New York. They will always compete for who has got the best of what. Sydney has always had a better Thai scene, or a bigger Thai scene, like it was natural. Melbourne had a really strong Vietnamese scene, Victoria Street is predominantly Vietnamese food. Whereas you go to China Town in Sydney and there’s a massive Thai area and I guess that’s the difference. I would agree that there’s more top quality Thai restaurants in Sydney than here in Melbourne, but that’s changing.

    Are you leading the frontier?
    I started my career in Sydney, so for me it’s hard as there are so many amazing Chefs there.

    So it’s more that you’re spreading the knowledge of what you’ve learnt along the way?
    Yeah, and as we do more, the ingredients become more readily available. I’m getting things this year that last year I had to chase. Things like green pepper corns, holy basil, the whole range of Thai ingredients. Things that most places in Sydney have got but here you would struggle to find.

    So the market is changing as people are bringing things up here?
    Yeah. Firstly because the volume we are using makes it worth having a supplier come and bring it to us.

    You are creating the demand, which will hopefully encourage people to buy and use them as well…
    I would never want to be as arrogant to say that it’s us causing that, but I think we have a positive impact on it. The suppliers are bringing it to Melbourne, and in doing so other restaurants are wanting to use it. I don’t like to think of it as we’re the leaders, but as we are making it easier for everyone else to get hold of certain things.

    How has Melbourne’s Thai community reacted to Chin Chin?
    The demographic is huge here. From older couples coming in late on Sunday afternoons, to tables of young Asian girls who have come from Uni to have a late lunch, families to businessmen having meetings at lunchtime. Overall, the response to this place has been positive. It’s been very well received.

    How was your one year party?
    It was amazing! I worked with David [Thompson] in London, he’s a genius! There’s no other way of describing him. He’s a genius, with a slightly dark sense of humour and everything else that goes with being a genius. To be able to cook with him again was awesome. To be able to show chefs what I have learnt from them is a really nice feeling, so it was a very special night.

    Success is entirely relevant to what you appreciate in life. If wanting to climb Mount Everest is something that you want to do then success is doing it, and that’s got nothing to do with work or wealth, but standing on top of Mount Everest and looking at the view makes you incredibly wealthy.

    What specific magic moments did David bring to the table? No pun intended…
    It’s an energy. A respect, you can just feel it. He questions everything to make sure that everything is the best it can be. His knowledge is just innate, ask him a question about food and he will answer it.

    Is it just a case of paying attention to everything and being alert to what’s going on?
    Yeah, which is something that I try to teach my staff, especially the senior management crew that work under me, so my sous chef and my junior sous. Nothing should leave without our approval. It’s an attribute that some people are born with, you know, an interest in what surrounds them. The ability to digest that information and use it effectively is something you learn from experience. It’s one of the things that travel teaches you as you are out of your comfort zone. The moment you get off the plane wherever you’ve arrived, regardless of what country you’re in, it’s not yours. I fly to Sydney and even though I lived there once, it’s not my city and the comfort zone is gone. That heightened sense of awareness teaches you a lot about yourself too.

    Do you travel a lot?
    I just had 3 weeks in Thailand with my wife and kids. Bangkok for them was just mind-blowing. The energy is so frenetic and it’s bordering on disorganised chaos. It just works, you feel like it might fall apart at any moment but it doesn’t. The kids were plugged in to it, it was amazing.

    Was it not nerve-wracking as a parent to bring your child to somewhere so crazy?
    My wife and I are very casual. I think if you go in to it with that mentality, you’re not constantly on edge. We did Bangkok down to Phuket, across to Koh Yao, back to Phuket and up to Bangkok. It was really good.

    How often do you try to go over to Thailand?
    We hadn’t been in 11 years. It was our kids first trip.

    Is your wife involved in the food industry too?
    When we were in London, she worked in the industry because otherwise we wouldn’t have seen each other. She’s now a naturopath. We have a 2 year old son, so for the last few years she has been a house-wife, which is a full-time job. We’ve been married 13 years this year and we’ve been together for 15.

    We see a lot of places with very small menus, and in Thailand there were restaurants that did very few things but did each item perfectly. Is there a reason why your menu is so large?
    At first it was a bit confronting to me. It’s a massive menu, partially because we’re so busy and because of the size of the place. It just works. With a menu that size, once it’s up and running, it’s just a case of maintaining it. It’s sort of irrelevant how many dishes you’ve got on there because you’re basically maintaining the prep work that goes into it. Whether that’s for 60 dishes or for 12, it doesn’t really matter.

    So it doesn’t make it more difficult?
    No, I don’t think so. It just works here and it keeps it interesting for the chefs. Every 3 months we change several of the dishes, it’s constantly evolving and rolling through.

    Is it a Melbourne twist on traditional Thai food or do you stick to the Thai recipes?
    I think any time you do a restaurant of a certain culture outside of that culture, it’s going to be a twist on it. Based on the ingredients that you can get to the level of knowledge surrounding a certain cuisine. We try to be as authentic as possible. We’ve got some amazing Thai Chefs working with us and I’ve been cooking Asian food for the past 18 years, so my understanding of it is pretty good. If things are supposed to be made a certain way, then they are made that way. If they are meant to be hot, they’re hot. Sour, they’re sour. We try not to tone things down just to make people happy and with a menu that size you can afford to have few dishes that really challenge people. The duck liver dish on there is ridiculously hot and it freaks people out. We might sell 10 a week, some weeks we might sell 50, but because the menu is so big, it doesn’t matter.

    Do you have warn people before they order hot dishes about what they’re letting themselves in for?
    Generally the staff warn customers about that one. The jungle curry comes with a bit of a warning. I’m not really phased by it. I love chilli.

    Do you think your senses have dulled or have you always loved spicy food?
    I’ve always loved it! I reckon my senses have dulled a little bit to chilli but I have always loved spicy food.

    What’s the spiciest food you’ve ever eaten?
    Ghost chillies. That was offensively hot.

    Where was that?
    At a friends house in Sydney.

    Did you cry?
    There were no tears but I did struggle to breathe.

    Was it the love for Thailand or a passion for food that you noticed first?
    Thailand, Japan, all the Buddhist countries. Asian architecture, philosophy, the whole lot has a peacefulness about it.

    What are the 3 ingredients that you use most of here at Chin Chin?
    Chilli, chilli and… chilli. No, fish sauce is massive too.

    How many people work for you?
    On the rotation there’s 26 chefs and at any one time there’s 9 in the kitchen. It works like clockwork. Everyone knows their place and what needs to be done.

    Do you have a certain person working on a certain dish in your kitchen, how does it work?
    There’s 6 sections in the kitchen; fryer, curry & grill, wok, front kitchen, Gogo bar, and the front pass which is where I work. I taste every dish that leaves.

    The energy and the effort put in to Chin Chin at the start would make it work anywhere. The reason why a place works is the people who work in it. They strive to make it a place that people want to come, and that’s definitely what happens here; the front of house, the bar, the management team, the kitchen, even the guys that are taking the rubbish out or washing the dishes, everyone puts in 110%. That’s an important part of what makes a business work. People can feel that energy.

    You must be full all day?
    Pretty much, yeah. You don’t get to be 6′ 3 and 110 kilos without eating a bit.

    What are the most popular dishes here?
    It depends, there’s a couple. The Massamans definitely, the Barramundi salad, it’s become a bit of a signature dish. The crab curry everyone raves about. They are probably the main ones.

    What makes Chin Chin special?
    It just is. Everything goes together in this place. The staff are all amazing, each section of the building has incredible staff running it. The fit-out is stunning. It’s a beautiful space, so airy and relaxed. The music is great. There’s 3 major car parks within a 2 minute walk making it easy to get to. It’s smack-bang in the centre of the city so there’s an amazing amount of foot traffic. And the food is amazing. It’s the perfect storm, we just have to maintain it. I’ve got to constantly remind everyone that being busy is not a given, you’ve got to work for it. We’ve got to keep the quality up and be consistent. We don’t let any of the details slip, it’s when they slip that the cracks start to appear. As I said before, if everyone is paying attention then we pick up on it before anyone notices.

    What do you want to do before you die?
    I’m already doing it. I couldn’t ask for more.

    That’s why we’re doing this project! We want to meet people like you who are doing what they love to do. What do you think is the key to succeeding in something you love?
    You’ve got to listen to yourself. You’ve got to know who you are. I’ve got the most beautiful wife, she’s incredible. I was married at 24, which is crazy young these days. Most people asked why I was getting married at that age, it was because I was fortunate enough to meet the woman of my dreams at a young age. I’ve got 3 beautiful kids who are amazing. If I’d have doubted myself then none of this would have been possible. Plus, I’ve got the dream job. This is an amazing restaurant where I get to have fun at work everyday. The management here are amazing and Chris, who owns the place, makes sure that you take every opportunity and it’s up to you to make sure you succeed. I like that.

    <blockquote>You’ve got to listen to yourself. You’ve got to know who you are.</blockquote>

    Were the early days as a chef testing for you?
    Yes and no. It was a bit of a shock. the first hour as a chef, walking into that kitchen felt like the right thing to do. You go without a lot of things but life’s a journey. You don’t just walk up to someone who hands out money, you’ve got to create those situations. So on the one hand you’re not going out when everyone else is, but on the other hand my wife and I travelled around the world 5 times. We did 29 countries in 5 years and I couldn’t have done that without this industry. No matter where I turn up I can pretty much walk in to a kitchen and chop. It’s a universal language. I did a talk to some kids a while back and one of the questions asked was about success and wealth. I said to them that success is entirely relevant to what you appreciate in life. If wanting to climb Mount Everest is something that you want to do then success is doing it, and that’s got nothing to do with work or wealth, but standing on top of Mount Everest and looking at the view makes you incredibly wealthy.

    bottom photo chin chin

     

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    For more information, please visit:

    http://chinchinrestaurant.com.au/

    125 Flinders Lane Melbourne
    03 8663 2000
    eat@chinchinrestaurant.com.au

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