Masters of invention look to Asia

Esther Han
Inspired by Asia: (Left to right) Ross Lusted, Phil Wood and Ben Greeno have all been nominated for Chef of the Year at ...
Inspired by Asia: (Left to right) Ross Lusted, Phil Wood and Ben Greeno have all been nominated for Chef of the Year at the Good Food Guide Awards. Photo: Wolter Peeters

If the cooking styles of Sydney's best chefs are anything to go by, Asian flavours have firmly won over Australian palates.

From Phil Wood's lobster congee at Rockpool on George, to Ross Lusted's raw wagyu with robata-smoked enoki mushroom at The Bridge Room, top chefs are reinventing standard Australian fare one Asian ingredient at a time.

Wood and Lusted, along with head chefs Dan Hong at Mr Wong, Martin Benn at Sepia, and Ben Greeno at Momofuku Seiobo, are bound by their fondness for the complex flavours of Asia, and now by their nominations for Chef of the Year at the Good Food Guide Awards on September 2.

"They all have inquiring minds, a contemporary touch, a light hand and adroit technique, and all call upon Asian influences to various degrees," said Terry Durack, the chief restaurant reviewer of the Good Food Guide.

"There's a general loosening up as our top chefs realise they don't have to follow anyone's rules any more,'' Durack said. ''That may have a Japanese influence, or be straight off a charcoal grill, or be a refined version of street food. But it's more honest, more direct, and infinitely more enjoyable.''

Joanna Savill, editor of the guide, said the keen adoption of Asian flavours and techniques by top chefs showed Sydney dining was heading in a new direction.

Hong exuded easy familiarity with Cantonese classics through to modern Asian fusion, while Benn revealed his mastery of the charcoal yakitori grill, during the reviewing season.

''It's about the seasonings too. The use of hoisin and miso, soy and chilli, fermentation techniques with kimchi and pickles plus the aromatics of south-east Asia,'' Savill said.

Two of the finalists are lieutenants to the industry's most influential identities, here and overseas. Greeno works under David Chang, the Korean-American creator of Momofuku restaurants.


''But he [Greeno] is the one implementing the vision on a nightly basis and adding his own creative flair," Savill said.

''Phil works for Neil Perry, but he's been able to take Neil's vision, particularly with Asian influences, and turn that into something uniquely Australian."

Standing around the Momofuku Seiobo bar before dinner service, Greeno, Lusted and Wood shared a sense of surprise by their nominations.

"When I was told, I was thinking: For me? Are you sure? Do you want to speak with David?" recalled Greeno. "I feel like I'm really young, just starting out."

Wood echoed his sentiments. "I've been in the industry for 10 years but I feel like I'm just at the beginning.''

Lusted launched The Bridge Room three years ago after working overseas in hotel development. "I did a lot of travelling, and ate more street level than fine dining, each time thinking about what I could incorporate in a restaurant I would run."