Adrian Li has been cooking a relatively short time and yet he has certainly made his mark in the Melbourne food scene. Executive chef of Saigon Sally and Tokyo Tina, he has his work cut out for him, but he always takes time with staff meals and has a lovely approach to starting service with his team.
How long have you been a chef?
Only six and a half years.
Oh, ok, really? So when you started, did you start with this group?
No. I started my apprenticeship with Donovans in Novemebr, 2009. I did my full apprenticeship there for three years with Adam Draper and Emma D’Alessandro. During my third year I was approached by these guys through a friend who wanted someone to cook Asian-ish food. I didn’t realise I was going for a head chef position.
Obviously you’ve got the goods. That’s impressive. What were you doing before that?
I was IT consulting.
What made you make the shift?
It was one of those things, I liked cooking, but my parents are both chefs so even although I like cooking, they are Asian parents so they said come on, you know, you could do better than that. I grew up, not working in the restaurants, but being with them in their restaurants because they didn’t want to hire a nanny or whatever. So I followed them to work and I’d watch my dad and I didn’t really think much of it at the time, and then the further on in life I got, I started liking cooking and food more. Then when I was working in IT, we’d work quite late so we’d do a lot of Supper Club type things, like go out for dinner after work and I loved that and then eventually they offered redundancy and I said yes.
And then this happened.
Then I started working in an Italian restaurant and then in a Vietnamese restaurant three years later.
So you oversee two of the three venues?
I oversee Saigon Sally and Tokyo Tina.
Do you share your time between the two?
I used to share my time a lot more, but our head chef down there, George, has stepped up and is taking control so I can step back and focus more on Saigon Sally now. This is the first time in the three years that I’ve worked with the two restaurants I feel as though we’re in control and not just going along for the ride.
It must be very intense. Obviously there’s a lot of pressure in the IT world, but the chef world is completely different.
It’s a different kind of pressure. In IT there are deadlines and everything. I guess the good thing about cooking, well, in IT you have to meet the deadlines no matter what so you’d be working at 3am, but when you leave here, technically it’s over. When the last customer is out, it’s over; you can pack down and get out of here. I enjoy this a lot more. I can do a 90-hour week and be like, what’s on for tomorrow? Whereas in IT I was always, tick, tick, tick, tick, watch the last hours, 4 o’clock to 5, then to 6. It would take ages.
It’s pretty great when you can find your passion.
Everyone says that and I guess I’ve ben doing this for six years now and I find it normal.
Quite a few of the chefs I’ve spoken to have said it’s hard to get people into the industry because it is hard work and long hours and they don’t get to see their friends.
There’s a lot of sacrifice.
Obviously for you, it’s worth it.
Yes. It was difficult at the beginning, not seeing my friends and I had a girlfriend at the time ad that didn’t work out because of the hours. But I’m used to this lifestyle now. I see these guys 60 hours a week and if you don’t get along with the people you work with it becomes pretty apparent pretty quickly, so when you find a crew you resonate with, it really works.
Is this the style of food you like to cook?
I do specialise in Italian cooking. People say my food here is good, but my Italian food is way better.
Oh ok. You wouldn’t have much of a chance if you’re working 90 hour weeks to cook Italian.
I do staff meals that are Mediterranean based, so that keeps it fresh for me.
What style food did your parents cook?
My parents did Chinese food, the food court sweet and sour pork kind of thing.
Would you say the food in these restaurants is authentically Vietnamese and Japanese or more Pan Asian?
It’s probably more Windsor, I’d say, with influences of Japan and Vietnam.
[Laughs] Ok. How do you learn that stuff? Do you get it from books, or other people, ideas you have?
I eat out a lot so a lot of inspiration comes from eating out. I do watch a lot of online media just to keep myself updated with what’s going on. A lot of googling because I don’t have as much experience as other chefs. I’ve only really been working for three years in one restaurant and then I was head chef so I have to teach myself and then teach my staff.
That’s impressive in such a small space of time. Do you think that creativity, that panache you have to have as a chef, comes naturally or do you have to grow it?
I think you need to be born with it. I used to think otherwise but just from seeing a number of chefs come in and out of the industry. People like the idea of it but the reality is a lot harder than what it looks. A lot of people think it’s like MasterChef and other cooking shows.
Speaking of the whole Windsor and Melbourne take on food, and food writers and all the hype that surrounds food here, do you think it’s too much? Why are we so excited about food these days?
I think it has something to do when the global financial crisis hit, everyone had to back away from buying new clothes and cars and going on clothes and they focused on what was around them and Melbourne’s love for coffee and food, which was as good as anywhere else in the world, so I guess those things actually stepped up during that period and it just continued after that.
Right, so we hedonistically keep buying fancy smashed avo and not buying houses.
What are some of your favourite dishes on the menu?
The kingfish ceviche is a dish that I had from the very first day. It’s hiramasa kingfish, diced, with a brunoise or finely diced mixture of shallots, green papaya, green mango, chillis and pomelo cells. We break up the pomelos and shred them into those little citrusy bursts then mix it all together with some fresh herbs and then serve it on a betel leaf which has a peppery taste and the serve it with nuoc mam, which is a traditional Vietnamese fish sauce dressing. Especially in summer time or when you need a snack, it’s so fast and delicious and that’s what this restaurant is about.
A dish I did get over cooking and prepping was our wagyu strip. It was a pomegranate ponzu, which had pomegranate molasses, soy infused with ginger and garlic and then there was a nice piece of wagyu porterhouse seared rare and garnished with crispy leeks and ginger and some pomegranate seeds. It was really simple. We took it off the menu at the beginning of the year because I was sick of cooking it. I’ve actually had letters; people have taken the time to write me a letter to tell me to put it back on the menu.
Ah, ok. So you can’t really cook for yourself. You have to cook for everyone else.
There are times when I’ve been selfish and put things I would like to eat on the menu. particularly like ox tongue and other kinds of offal but then the clientele haven’t really responded well to that kind of food. I guess on Chapel Street in this kind of setting, people just want something that’s refreshing and pretty; hearty as well, but they don’t want to be eating anything too out of their comfort zone. As long as the flavours are there and the quality of the food and the produce is good, then people really jump for it.
Yes and you have to compromise your artistic integrity a little.
Yes. Even though it means doing the same thing for the rest of my life.
What are your outlets then for your creativity and for what you want to cook?
Staff meals. We do put an extra amount of effort into staff meals, making sure we don’t just deep fry chicken and do chips. We actually have weeks when we choose a continent or a cuisine base and everyone works around that. We’re cooking out of a recipe book called Saha at the moment; we’re doing a lot of Middle Eastern dishes. Obviously we’re not going to go out and buy specific Middle Eastern ingredients; we use what we can find around us in Windsor. So our staff meals are kind of Windsor Middle Eastern, Asian at the moment.
That’s great. It’s a challenge and keeps everyone on their toes.
Everyone sits down and has a staff meal and has a nice chat before service starts, we do the briefing and then get into the evening.
That sounds wonderful.
2 Duke Street, Windsor
Mon – Thurs 6 – 11pm
Fri – Sat 6 – 12am
Sun 12 – 11pm