Dai Duong has recreated all that is good about Vietnamese cuisine in his St Kilda and Collins Street restaurants, Uncle. Fresh, flavour-filled dishes served in tropically coloured settings. We talked graphic design, chef life and how great it is having his mum in to roll the spring rolls each week.
How did you come to be a chef?
I became a chef because I didn’t know what I was going to do in life. I did graphic design first but it wasn’t the right thing for me. I was good at drawing and being creative. At high school I was good at a lot of things but not good at anything in particular. I really wasn’t sure what to do and I sort of got stuck doing graphic design because everyone else was doing it and I thought it was the right path for me, being creative, but then after the first six months I felt like it wasn’t the right thing for me. I ended up not doing anything for a while, being young and carefree, partying all the time. Then I had to decide what was I going to do for the rest of my life? I thought I’d do a hospitality course and see what it was like. I did a hospitality management course first and I thought it was amazing; interacting with people, being creative; food sense; hospitality management, back of house and front of house as well. But then I was drawn to becoming a chef. People told me about the long hours, the hard work, getting up early in the morning and finishing late at night but that didn’t bother me. As a young kid, I always liked earning extra pocket money from my parents and uncles and aunties, washing cars and things like that. I don’t mind working. I knew that becoming a chef definitely wasn’t about the money; you had to have the passion. Every day that I went to work as part of the hospitality course, I really enjoyed it. Waking up really early, working long hours, having a little break and then getting back into it, I loved it. I wanted to be a chef.
It’s interesting that you started down the graphic design path because I spoke to another chef who worked in design before becoming a chef and he said what he really loves about cooking is that it involves problem solving and it’s creative and incorporates a lot of the things he used in design but he now prefers cooking.
Absolutely. And the reward is there and then when you’re a chef. If you become a graphic designer and you design something, it takes such a long time to get to that point, whereas becoming a chef, plating something up and getting the compliment straight away was a big high for me. Most chefs get that, whether it’s negative feedback or a compliment, you get it straight away. These days a lot of restaurants have open kitchens and customers come up to the pass. They bypass the front of house staff and talk directly to the chefs. It’s great for the team, not just the head chef. In this kitchen, the first point is the cold larder chef and he’s probably the lowest person in the kitchen in terms of hierarchy, but he’s right there so he always gets the compliments and it’s a good thing because he’s learning early on in his career how to talk to the public.
I remember back in the day when I was studying and working front of house there was a real divide between kitchen and floor staff and, often between the kitchen and the public but as you say now things have changed.
There used to be a big divide and I can only speak for myself and for the venues I’ve worked at and I always hated that whole ‘screw you, you’re just front of house’ attitude. As they say, and it’s a really cheesy line, ‘one team, one dream,’ so if someone sinks, the whole team sinks. Everyone should have each other’s backs, whether front of house or back of house. At the end of the day what matters is that the customer is happy. In that sense, I think the culture in Melbourne kitchens and restaurants is much better these days. There are so many restaurants that you can quit and leave and find another job the next day if you’re not happy. We always try and keep our good staff. We seem to attract the right staff and they tend to stay. Half the staff here is from my St Kilda venue. The other half we’ve had to hire. The people who have come from St Kilda are pretty much the original crew. It’s good to see that the culture that Rene and I have tried to create is being passed on through our management team to the staff. Rene and I can’t be at two venues at one time.
Are you going between the two?
We are. It’s really tricky. I did a St Kilda shift yesterday. I think it’s one of the skills I don’t have yet and it’s a new skill for me to learn, to be able to manage two teams. It’s a little bit harder at first to work out my role. I can’t go in there every time and be chopping away. I do love chopping. I was in there yesterday chopping away and also managing. I had to explain to my head chef, Jack, who does a really good job, what I wanted done. I’m finding it challenging but it’s not impossible.
We came and ate here last week and I loved it. I’ve been to Vietnam and when I came back, I moved to Abbotsford and I was so disappointed with the food on Victoria Street having eaten in Vietnam but I have to say that I finally felt as though I was experiencing the essence of Vietnamese food again. It’s the décor too. It’s technically not Vietnamese, but I felt as though it was Hanoi and Hoi An all mixed in together and the favours were so fresh and beautiful that I was completely transported.
Awesome. That’s such a good thing to say. The thing is, this is not 100% Vietnamese. At the end of the day, when you have Vietnamese food over there, you think about freshness, but the thing is, when you’re there the freshness isn’t always there because the weather is so hot, but you have heaps of lettuce, heaps of herbs and things like that so we try to recreate that and the flavour comes from using good produce. You have to use the best produce and I have the best suppliers in Melbourne. Key ingredients are vital. Back in the day I used to try and put so much on the plate and the older I get, with all the kitchens I’ve worked in and restaurants I’ve eaten at, I’m putting less on the plate. A lot of chefs these days put one ingredient on the plate and that’s the hero, whether that’s a vegetable or a piece of fish or steak. I’m slowly learning that way of thinking as well; buying one key ingredient that’s amazing and working around that. I try and teach my staff that as well. We’re in the process of changing the menu at St Kilda and I ask my chefs, what do we want to put on there, what’s the key ingredient? Let’s start with that and work around it with whatever is in season. Vietnamese food is all about the freshness. For you to say you were transported, it gives me goose bumps.
You were young when you moved away from Vietnam.
Yes, I was a baby when my parents escaped Vietnam as refugees. I’m the youngest of four so my parents had it pretty hard. We went to Malaysia first and we were in a refugee camp for a year then my parents had the option to go to Australia or to wait and go to America. Everyone from Vietnam during the war wanted to go to America, but my parents on a whim just said we’d go to Australia. I’m so glad they made that decision because nowadays America is a bit mental. I don’t think I would’ve become a chef or met my wife. All my best friends are here. I’ve been back six or seven times to Vietnam on business trips or holidays with the family and with my parents but it’s completely different to my life here.
Is your sense of Vietnamese cooking something that you’ve learned or is it innate in you?
My parents taught me. They didn’t sit me down with the intention of teaching me. I had to make the rice when I was a kid. The amount of times I’d overcook it. My parents weren’t well off and we would never throw it out. My mum would say, “Dai, it’s too gluggy this time, Dad likes his rice drier.” Dad had to be happy. I had to learn how to do that. Also nuoc cham which is our dipping sauce, and we serve it with pretty much everything. It has fish sauce, a citrus, whether that‘s vinegar or lemon, lime or cumquat and sugar. Those three elements make the dipping sauce and it might sound simple but it’s one of the most complex things to get right. My sister had that job and every time she made it, my mum would say, ‘there’s too much lemon in that,’ or ‘it needs more fish sauce.’ There was no set recipe. There was never a set recipe for anything. You hear about these celebrity chefs like George Calombaris and his mum would have a recipe book; my mum doesn’t have anything like that. She just does has her memory and the flavour profiles; her palate. I’m hoping that over the years I’m developing that too. I know I can get better. I still like to get someone else to taste it even if I’m sure it’s right. There’s always that doubt because I think, ‘would mum be happy with this?’
Have your parents tasted your food?
Dad has. Mum has never been to any of my restaurants. She is set in her ways and cooks for everyone, doesn’t really go out, looks after the grandkids. But my niece is graduating this weekend and apparently they have decided to have it here so my mum is going to be here for the first time. She rolls our spring rolls here.
Yes. She comes in and spends a whole day making them. She made 430 spring rolls last week. 420 this week. That’s why on the menu it says mum’s spring rolls.
It really IS Mum’s spring rolls.
It sure is. It’s so great.
Apart from you parents, then, have there been any other key people who have shaped your career?
It’s a tricky one. I think I’ve worked with a lot of good chefs and a lot of bad chefs. For example, in my first year as an apprentice I worked in a café for 10 months and I learned a lot of what not to do. I’d question things and the chef would give me the wrong answers and I’d go to school and ask the teachers why my chef was doing tings one way but we were being taught another way. So I’ve taken on board what not to do from the bad chefs and what to do from the good chefs. I’ve worked with a lot of chefs who would yell and scream and I promised myself that I’d never do that if I was ever head chef. I’m not going to lie, it’s a very stressful job sometimes, you know, Saturday you’ve got 100 booked and a chef is sick or hasn’t turned up and it’s stressful, but I try and make sure that I don’t do the things that I didn’t like done to me. And on the flipside, I‘ve worked with a lot of good chefs who, at the end of service are in the kitchen cleaning up, mopping the floors and I thought I’d like to be like that when I was a head chef. So I’ll do the ordering and then I’ll get in there and hose the floor. One of the front of house staff members said the other day, ‘Dai, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a head chef grab a mat.’ I asked him what he meant because for me it’s one team, one dream. I don’t consider myself an amazing chef in regards to being high profile. I like being in there cooking away with the guys and I also like this as well. At first I wasn’t too keen on being interviewed, but you know what? I think it’s the next step in my career; becoming a restaurant owner with my business partner, we have deserved this. It’s just about taking the next step, then the next step and getting more confident doing these things. I’ve been giving some cooking classes at Prahran and South Melbourne markets and it’s a lot of fun. The more fun I have, the better it is for me.
And the better it is for the people eating your food.
Absolutely. I love it. It’s a lot of fun.
Level 1, 15 Collins St, Melbourne
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