A Josephine Pignolet Award-winning, peripatetic, multi-hatted chef, restaurateur, TV personality and father-of-three is certainly a lesson in just how far someone can go with a higher school certificate score of 48.
Dan Hong – son of renowned Sydney-based Vietnamese restaurateur Angie Hong – can probably lift more weights than you (160 kilograms currently), cook better than you (see his mod-Asian Potts Point diner Ms G's and the Cantonese-ish Mr Wong) and likely has more shoes than you (his passion for a Nike Flyknit knows no bounds). Not bad for a high school dropout.
Hong was enrolled at Sydney's elite Barker College, but it wouldn't have mattered where he was going to school. He just wasn't all that academic, and smoking a bunch of weed was a lot more fun. He reckons his mother never knew about the pot, but she certainly knew about his academic record, and recognising he was unlikely to become a Rhodes Scholar, she suggested he try cooking school instead.
It resonated with him. Aimless, with few obvious skills to call upon, he suddenly shone. "It was great to find out that it was something I was good at," he says.
He was already obsessed with the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, who dominated Aussie TV in the 1990s. "[Jamie Oliver] is still my biggest hero," Hong says. "I was a massive fan of The Naked Chef and taped every single episode. I never really thought about a career [in food] until mum suggested it."
His first job in a professional kitchen was the hectic, electric modern Thai restaurant Longrain, under Martin Boetz. It was here he met his mentor, Joe Campbell, who went on to become Philip Searle's right-hand man at legendary Blue Mountains' restaurant Vulcans. "He took me under his wing and I was so grateful for that," Hong says. "He taught me how to chop, taught me that a great chef always knows everything in the cool room. He would quiz me every day."
I never really thought about a career until mum suggested it.Dan Hong
It was another Searle connection that took Hong to Marque, the (now defunct) experimental fine diner run by Mark Best. Brent Savage was Best's sous chef when Hong started at the austere Surry Hills restaurant. After the wild frontier of Longrain, working for and learning from Best was a total gear change for the young chef.
"It was the way he trained us," Hong says. "So different to any other fine dining chef – so outside of the box in the way he thinks. Generally, when you work at a fine-dining restaurant and you're asked to plate something up, you've got to put the chive here, a dot of puree there."
The first time Hong asked how the chef would like a dish to be presented, Best said, "Just f---ing do it". And so Hong was forced to learn initiative. "He'd be like, 'Just garnish it with that leaf. Drop it as it falls and that's the presentation'."
The high levels of skill and the perfectionism Best demanded of his young chefs meant the talent that came through the ranks was sharply honed, if not a little twitchy. "Look, it's f---ing nerve-racking," Hong says. "When you do something wrong, [Best] is an absolute arsehole. But I still credit him for showing me how to cook."
It may have been Best who showed him how to cook, but it was Savage who taught him how to run a kitchen, giving him his first taste of responsibility as sous chef at the newly opened Bentley Bar, in its original Surry Hills site. "It was daunting but I was ready for the challenge. I learned so much from him, how to do everything from the ordering, to making the decisions by myself."
Following his two years at Bentley, Hong took some time out of Sydney to work at New York's modernist, molecular restaurant WD-50 under Wylie Dufresne.
Returning to Australia a few months later, Hong was determined to follow a similar path. It never occurred to him to embrace his heritage and cook Vietnamese food. In fact, he actively turned his back on it. "It just wasn't interesting to me – I grew up eating it every week."
But then Hong, running Lotus bistro in Potts Point for the Merivale Group, got his hands on David Chang's Momofuku cookbook, a celebration of Chang's Korean heritage with a middle finger aimed standing to attention towards the establishment, and the wheels started turning.
"The thing is, I actually had already eaten [Chang's] food many times when I was working at WD-50, but because I was so engulfed in molecular gastronomy I didn't really realise that that was the style [of food] I wanted to cook, even though I thought the food was super-delicious and so unique."
Somehow, the Merivale big guns managed to secure Chang, who happened to be visiting from New York City, for a guest dinner at Lotus in 2010. Hong cooked the entire menu from Chang's book, and connected with it. It was food made for sharing, heavy on technique, simple on the plate.
"That's the night that changed everything, really," Hong says. "That's when I realised I just wanted to cook what I thought was delicious. I wanted to try and go back to my Vietnamese roots, and see what I could cook."
Soon after, poptastic mod-Asian fun-diner Ms G's was born, putting Hong's name in lights. Suddenly, there were television stints, cookbooks, sneaker collections. Mr Wong followed in 2012, featuring Hong's take on Cantonese food, open for yum cha, and serving until late.
It all but broke his kitchen brigade, initially. The pressure to get it right was immense. There was the scrutiny from Sydney media and diners, and Hong was once again flying blind, executing food he loved to eat but hadn't spent a lot of time cooking. By the second week, cracks started to show. Every chef was putting in a 100-hour work week. They were trading until 2am.
One night, a chef stuffed up, and Hong lost it. "I was like 'What the f--- are you doing? You know it's not right, why did you do it?' And then he was like 'I think I'm going to faint, chef'. And I was like, 'Don't f---ing faint on me' and he literally fell in my arms. He was a huge dude and he just fainted in my arms. That was an eye-opener and a bit of a low moment."
These days, Hong has chilled out a lot. Being an executive chef across multiple restaurants, with three children and regular filming commitments for the SBS cooking show The Chefs' Line means he's had to examine his work-life balance closely. "I have to at this age because otherwise I'm going to go crazy. I have to do my job as a father and a husband. One of the kids is starting school soon. S---'s getting hectic."
SBS' television series The Chefs' Line goes to air this year.
Non-cooking ninja skill I'm pretty good at squatting these days, and I'm really improving my chin-up game.
Kitchen weapon of choice Look, everyone is always going to say a sharp knife. But I guess my biggest tool is probably my advice – how I develop my chefs is the most important thing.
Menial task I really enjoy prepping fish for sushi. I find it really relaxing.
Formative food moment My parents took me to Claude's for my birthday when I was a first-year apprentice. At the end Tim Pak Poy came out and said hi to me, and I was star-struck.