The making of Kong

Kong fried wings.
Kong fried wings. Photo: Supplied

They say success breeds success. But it also breeds expectation. When restaurateur Chris Lucas opened Chin Chin in 2011, the buzzy atmosphere, young vibe and fiery Thai-influenced food struck just about every right note with Gen-Y diners. These days no one (including Cadel Evans and Pink, according to the recently released Chin Chin: The Book) is immune to the no-bookings queues, which regularly snake outside or spill downstairs into the attached Go Go Bar.

Since Chin Chin, Lucas has opened Baby, a busy but more straightforward pizzeria in Richmond. Now he's about to open the doors on Kong, a 60-seater Japanese-Korean barbecue house down the road, in the old Pearl Cafe site.

The success of Chin Chin - plans are afoot to open sister restaurants in Sydney, Brisbane and New York - adds to the burden of expectations for anything Lucas does. If Chin Chin was his smash hit, Baby his solid follow-up, does he worry Kong might end up his difficult third album?

Melburnians are lining up for a sneak peek at Kong at the Rue & Co pop-up.
Melburnians are lining up for a sneak peek at Kong at the Rue & Co pop-up. Photo: Chris Von Menge

"I never think about whether a restaurant will be successful or not," says Lucas. "I simply put that out of my mind and focus on delivering the best possible product using the very best ingredients. Every restaurant is different and I also understand that Chin Chin and Baby are unique in their own right. While there is obvious pressure based on our track record, it's not a factor in our thinking."

Lucas grew up the son of a Greek publican in Geelong but made his mark in business and IT as a young man. He returned to hospitality in his 30s, opening Number One Fitzroy Street in St Kilda. But his first real success came with a revamp of the Botanical in South Yarra, which he eventually sold for a reported $16 million. Cannily, he kept ownership of the freehold. Now he presides over the Lucas Group, a company that employs 350 people in three restaurants and an industrial kitchen in Moorabbin.

When the group first set about building a concept for the site, they had a larger restaurant called Yubi in mind.

Chefs Benjamin Cooper, left, and Daniel Briggs.
Chefs Benjamin Cooper, left, and Daniel Briggs. Photo: Eddie Jim

Five months into the process, with hundreds of thousands of dollars already spent, they literally hit a wall. The power company told them a natural rock formation under Church Street prevented the electricity company from being able to run enough power to the site to cater to the larger design. Lucas had to adjust plans and Kong was born.

"It wasn't so much a compromise in my view. We had a Kong type of concept on the table and when Yubi fell over, we decided to do Kong, which made sense for lots of reasons."

Where Yubi had been elegant and sophisticated, Kong would be more casual, do takeaway and include open-flame cooking using charcoal and sustainable timbers.

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By now, of course, the Korean barbecue craze is lighting up Melbourne. "I never follow any trend," says Lucas. "To me that's a recipe for failure."

Kong's Korean influence is partly Lucas doing some blue-sky thinking and partly inspired by his 2½ year stint living and working in Japan, a culture that has heavily influenced Korean cuisine. He adds that Kong is not just about barbecue, but "a philosophy, a belief, based around key cooking principles'', citing fermentation for things like kimchi, and techniques such as slow-cooking and smoking.

"My restaurants are built on integrity and knowledge, and lots of hard work and feeling, of the many years of experience that my team and I have built up.''

But for some there's no escaping the hype. In just 48 hours more than 2000 people signed up with online magazine Broadsheet to win a table of four to a "soft opening" later this week, while Fairfax Media hosts a readers' dinner tomorrow night.

Plenty of people want to see what Lucas does next. "There's always pressure and, yes, with success comes added pressure, but the only way to deal with it is to put it out of your mind and focus on the job at hand. My singular focus is creating the best restaurant in Kong. That way everything is kept in perspective."