Few chefs have the kind of insight of what it is like to be a chef in Australia's two most competitive cities that Victor Liong has. Having worked extensively in both Sydney and Melbourne, Liong actually thinks of them as two different countries, seasonally and culturally.
"I think there's more creative zest in Sydney. Look at the young operators like Dan Puskas (Sixpenny) or Mat Lindsay (Ester) – there isn't kind of an equivalent of that in Melbourne. You wouldn't go 'oh here's this exciting young chef who used to work at Guy Grossi's place or Vue de Monde'. These great temples of gastronomy aren't producing racehorses. Melbourne – what's going on?"
But then he also argues what Melbourne produces that Sydney lacks: chefs that are in it for the long haul. And that is the big cultural difference. "You see the chefs that work in these places, they've been there for ages. Frank Camorra's chefs have all been there since they were apprentices. I guess it's a different hospitality culture there."
It was while Liong was studying accounting at university that he decided to be a chef. And because he started quite late in comparison with a lot of his peers, he had to decide on his culinary path quickly. He started work in hotel operations at Star City Casino. It didn't take long to realise he didn't want to remain there. To him, it was a slow-moving death sentence. "You know, they'd have 55-year-old chefs that just cut watermelon all day for the buffet and I was just like 'OK cool. I'm not doing that.' "
His first big break was working for Haru Inukai at Galileo, the divisive French-Japanese fine diner at the Observatory Hotel in the Rocks. "Haru's was a very traditional kitchen. Everyone would bow in the morning and get Haru's section all set up. I was obsessed with Joel Robuchon at the time and really wanted that layer of French perfection. I loved the aesthetic and ended up working there for almost three years."
Taking a little time off after Galileo, Liong tried a few kitchens on for size but knew he wanted to stick with fine dining. He helped Sakai open the short-lived bistro Blancharu in Elizabeth Bay and worked for a few months with Hugh Whitehouse at Darley's in the Blue Mountains. "He was cooking out of the garden, which I thought was awesome, but I was (and probably still am) very technique-driven."
The Chinese pantry is only ever going to be ginger, spring onion and coriander and whatever's around. You could ginger and shallot a shoe, y'know?
Much of that attitude of bending ingredients to his will comes from his upbringing, in Sydney's western suburbs. "We were quite poor so you had to kind of manipulate what you had around you. A little bit of imagination, a little bit of aspiration, a little bit of throwing it all in there and seeing how it goes. I didn't really grow up having vegetables – the Chinese pantry is only ever going to be ginger, spring onion and coriander and whatever's around. You could ginger and shallot a shoe, y'know? In my school of thought, if you've got it, you can probably cook it."
The chef eventually settled at Mark Best's idiosyncratic (alas now closed) fine diner, Marque. "I've always worked with real thinking chefs and I took a lot from it. It reinforced my viewpoints on cooking a certain way and I'm very grateful for that. Mark's very quirky, very intelligent and he draws inspiration from photography, music and design. It allowed me to go 'hey it's not just about the work and the craft, it's about other things that tie it all in to make it your style.' And I think there's longevity in that because you're not looking out all the time, you're looking in."
Liong describes the Marque kitchen as a collaborative but highly disciplined workplace where the work was hard and the hangovers minimal. "It was that kind of kitchen – everyone who worked there was there to learn and go forward."
The industry-wide skill shortage means the culture of coming to work too wrecked to function is slowly being weaned out. "Everyone's on a health kick now. You're talking about how much you squat instead of how many bags you smashed. Which is cool."
It was his time as sous chef under Dan Hong at Mr Wong that really turned Liong to thinking about opening a place of his own. It was no small thing, managing 35 chefs in a hot, hectic work environment so far removed from the stillness of the Marque kitchen brigade of five. "It was my first serious sous chef gig, so it was pretty full on. I owe a lot to Hong, giving me the opportunity and letting us grow like that together. I remember thinking 'How do I f---ing control and manage 35 people on the first day'. I said 'There's only a few things you need to remember – my name's Victor, I'll figure out your name if you're still here in two weeks.' "
But his largest move to date has been hopping a plane to Melbourne back in 2013. "I was 27, I thought I was f---ing invincible. And then I thought if I f---ed it all up I'd come back by the time I was 30." He relocated partly for the adventure, and partly because he knew he couldn't open a modern Chinese restaurant in the same city as Mr Wong.
"Open any kind of Chinese thing within two years after Mr Wong and you're committing PR suicide. You'd always be compared to it if you were anywhere near it. I invested my own money [in Lee Ho Fook] and I knew I wanted to give it a good go and it's hard to shake that big shadow."
"I got [to Melbourne] at the right stage in my life. I didn't know what to do after leaving Marque and only working at Mr Wong for a short amount of time. I wasn't sure if I wanted to cook Chinese or Asian, or explore a European style. I hit that fork in the road. I remember having a conversation with Ben Shewry and he told me 'The key is if you tell an original story that resonates with you; you won't be trying to stretch for something'.
"I can't change the way I look, how I grew up and the culture I grew up in. I thought I could keep exploring this with a more Western lens, I suppose. I'm glad that's what Lee Ho Fook has become. For me it's important, because I'm learning still."
Having been in Melbourne for almost five years, Liong says he's in for the long haul. "I love it, the people are really cool, it's cheap. And I think I'll be here for the foreseeable future. I want to give Melbourne a really good go. I might be from Sydney, but Melbourne's home."
Music to cook to: Right now, I'm on the early 2000s house music. I'm really into it. Just good vibes.
After-midnight snack: I'm trying not to eat because I'm getting fat. Seriously, I put on 15 f---ing kilos last year. Lucky, because I've got a new black aesthetic where my shadows look like my round bits. But if I do, nothing beats noodles. And I f---ing love cacio e pepe.
Formative cookbook: The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller. Encapsulated exactly what I wanted to do at the time.
Kitchen weapon: My knives. I'm one of those knife nerds. I've always been obsessed with precision cuts.
Ninja skill: I could probably drink 10 Negronis and still feel fantastic. I think I might be 50 per cent Negroni.