Hot stuff: Chin Chin's Scud City jungle curry. Photo: Eddie Jim
There are restaurants that go about the business of serving food and drink and there are restaurants that capture the moment - like Rosati's supersized excess that encapsulated the giddy optimism of the pre-crash 1980s, or the high-flying anarchy of est est est. To the small but unforgettable list you can add Chin Chin.
Chin Chin's brand director, Jess Ho. Photo: Eddie Jim
Chris Lucas's extroverted Flinders Lane eating-house put the restaurant world on notice when it opened two years ago. Its message? Younger tastes are driving things now. It's all about pop art and double entendres, loud music and cheeky waiters.
If you think that dials down the sense of occasion, think again. People used to dress up to go fine dining. Now they put their glad rags on to eat at Chin Chin.
It's a crazy theme park of a restaurant, so the food has to be technicolour to compete. That's where chef Benjamin Cooper comes in. Flip through the pages of the Chin Chin book - part cookbook, part restaurant memoir - and the heart and soul of the operation is clear. Fluent in the high-voltage flavours of Thailand, comfortable with incursions into other Asian territories, and sprinkled with modern Australianisms, its insouciance is backed up with some pretty keen know-how.
Owner Chris Lucas.
You can analyse Chin Chin's success until your brain bleeds. Maybe it just comes down to restaurant umami, that indefinable extra flavour that revs things up from simply good to whoa! Behind the scenes there's obviously plenty of work keeping the wheels on the track. Zeitgeist restaurants certainly don't come along very often but when they do, the me-too brigade inevitably follows. So here's our 10-point gospel according to Chin Chin.
● Location counts. Sure, Flinders Lane was cool before Chris Lucas spied the potential in the sticky-carpeted Icon Bar - just ask Cumulus Inc - but the goldrush really started when Chin Chin revitalised an unloved old building. The postmodern Thai workers' caff fitout by the super-cool Projects of Imagination didn't hinder things either.
● Use social media. The tsunami of interest in Chin Chin from day one was thanks to a groundbreaking tease campaign on social media. Always a fan of technology, Lucas was smart enough to coin the idea of a designated social media director - food blogger Jess Ho - to guide it, complete with pictures of the building process and a wry sense of humour. Since Chin Chin, everyone does it. Everyone. The Twitter feed, the Facebook page, the Instagram account (redubbed, what else, but Chinstagram).
The dining room in full flight. Photo: Eddie Jim
● Be cheeky. Chin Chin means penis in Japanese, don't you know. The trademark pink neon rabbit is a left-of-centre grab for Gen Y's attention (even bolder is the cutely risque neon signage at Lucas's pizza joint, Baby). Slather the place in chop-socky street art. Yes, pop culture is your friend.
● No bookings. If you're not at Chin Chin before 6pm, you can kiss goodbye the idea of an early dinner and say hello to the queue. As general manager John Kanis points out in Chin Chin the book, Cadel Evans, fresh from his Tour de France victory, was turned away: ''Even Pink - whenever she comes in, she queues up.''
● Yet make it exclusive. Instagram pictures of famous people in your restaurant (hello, Jerry Hall). The Friends of Chris Lucas (FOCL) loyalty program started as a joke but it certainly got people, and gossip columnists, talking. And anyone anointed a FOCL is likely to go telling other people what a great joint it is.
● Go off-site. So you reckon the Chin Chin kitchen is big enough to handle the constantly occupied 100-seat dining room? Wrong. The main Chin Chin kitchen is based out in Moorabbin, with all that arduous prepping going on in the wee small hours (1am to 6am). With inner-city rents so high it makes economic sense - so much so, other restaurants are following the Chin Chin lead.
● Music matters. From the get-go, the soundtrack at Chin Chin was notable: a crazy-ironic mix of 1970s AM radio classics and modern non-top-40 tunes. As all good young DJs know, a 2:1 classic/indie ratio ought to do it. In the early evening rush when you're trying to turn tables over, music with a high beats-per-minute rate makes everyone get through their food that much faster.
● Talk to your customers in a language they understand. If something's hot, write on the menu ''Scud city! It's real hot!''
● Add a bar. Monetise that queue of waiting diners. The basement GoGo Bar is a cool holding pen. And alcohol makes more money than food. Ker-ching.
● Do it every day of the week, all day and late night. Because the fun never stops.
Chin Chin the book is on sale tomorrow in the restaurant and online at chinchinrestaurant.com.au. RRP $49.95.
If you don't Thai
Head chef Benjamin Cooper walks through the Chin Chin kitchen two or three times a week handing chillies to the chefs, making them eat ''these really hot little scuds''. Sadistic? Sure sounds like it, but there's professional intent there too. ''It's a trick I learnt from David Thompson,'' Cooper writes in the Chin Chin book. ''You are cooking Thai food, and if you don't have a tolerance to chilli you can't taste food properly and therefore you can't season it properly either. So I'm teaching the crew that you should first blast your palate then season.''
He's devoted his career to mastering the zesty complexity of Thai food, so here are some other valuable Cooper pointers:
● Cooking times should be driven by smell and taste rather than the clock.
● Water-rich ingredients (such as onion, garlic and ginger) take less time to cook than dry ingredients (galangal, roasted chillies). Add each new ingredient accordingly.
● When using coconut cream (not to be confused with coconut milk) you need to split or ''crack'' the oil from the solids before adding the curry paste. With fresh coconut cream this will happen naturally when heated; with the tinned product add oil and salt to overcome the added stabilisers. When the oil separates, use it to fry the paste.
● Make curry pastes from scratch. ''It's incomparable [with supermarket pastes],'' says Cooper. ''I like to get 10 or 15 friends over for lunch. We all chip in making it and everyone gets to take some curry paste home.''
● Push your boundaries. ''Every time you go to an Asian grocer, buy one or two ingredients you're not familiar with and have a play. It's OK to make mistakes - that's how you learn.''
Chin Chin has a stall at the Night Noodle Markets, November 18 to 30, at Alexandra Gardens on the banks of the Yarra for Good Food Month.