Lucky charms: Tony Tan teaching from the heart in Trentham

Tony Tan in the garden of his cooking school in Trentham, Victoria.
Tony Tan in the garden of his cooking school in Trentham, Victoria. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

You can tell a lot about Tony Tan by his char siu. This barbecued pork dish is a treasure of Cantonese cuisine, and the streets of Guangdong, its birthplace, and Hong Kong are basted in its aromas. Tan's version competes with the best I have eaten. 

He cooks it for me at his newly opened cooking school in Trentham, in regional Victoria, and we chat about how the cuts of pork and breeds of pig in Australia differ greatly to those in China.

In the days after, Tan thinks and scribbles and rewrites his signature take on the dish. "I was thinking that Chinese pork is so much fattier and suddenly had the idea that instead of using pork neck, I should use pork belly. I experimented with a method of freezing the belly then cutting the top layer of fat off and well, now, I am really very happy with my recipe."

Tan's cultural and historical knowledge of China and Malaysia, where he was born, coupled with his talent for downright delicious cooking then imparting his skills to students, puts him among the best cooking teachers in Australia.

He grew up in restaurants, peeling scarlet mountains of prawns for his father's fine diner, The Moonlight, in Kuantan on the east coast of Malaysia, from the age of 10. "I slaughtered poultry, gutted fish. I was a little boy and I hated it!" he laughs.

Tan dressing dumplings at his cooking school.
Tan dressing dumplings at his cooking school. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

His mother cooked at the restaurant also and when the family ate together they would dissect the dishes in front of them and discuss how they could be refined to taste even better.

He arrived in Australia at 17, initially studying Renaissance history before capitulating to the call of the kitchen. He trained as a chef in Australia and France, then opened Tatler's cafe in Sydney, and ran Shakahari restaurant in Melbourne.

His twin passions for historical and culinary knowledge were served to eager students at his first cooking school when it opened in Melbourne in 2000. And it is "Asian culinary excellence with a modern edge" that Tan hopes to impart at his new school in Trentham, about 70 minutes' drive from Melbourne.

Advertisement

Architects Lauren and Amanda Martin of Studio Martin have transformed a low-slung brick veneer cottage into a school orbiting a central kitchen glinting with no fewer than 13 Gaggenau appliances set around a long island bench where eight students at a time perch.

In the garden, a handsome hothouse for ingredients such as fresh curry leaves, has joined a henhouse and rows of fruit trees in his fledgling food forest.

He hopes to generate a year-round supply of common and exotic greens that he will chop in tutorials on vegan Asian cooking, modern dim sum, the food of south-east Asia, and Hong Kong classics.

Tan in the henhouse.
Tan in the henhouse. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Students of the Tony Tan Cooking School can learn how to make dishes of extraordinary calibre: eight treasure duck, Singapore black pepper crab (including how to dispatch it), truffled dumplings and seafood and glass noodles scented with local saffron.

But it is Tan's simplest dishes, such as his Chinese bolognese and char siu (see recipes), that underpin his teaching and say so much about his approach to cooking: carefully curate the Asian section of your pantry, school yourself in the basics, honour the foundations of these great cuisines but don't be afraid to experiment and you will become an Asian cook able to feed people with the confident flash of a cleaver and searing flare of a wok.

Bookings for 2022 classes are now open. Go to tonytan.com.au or check Instagram @tonytan53. Class prices start from $250.