ArChan Chan has worked in Andrew McConnell’s restaurants for six years, previously at Supernormal and Golden Fields. Originally from Hong Kong, ArChan loves eating and cooking, but equally finds listening to others an important aspect of being a chef. ArChan is the epitome of hospitality with her holistic approach and care for those around her, as well as her absolute mastery of delicious Chinese-inspired cuisine.
How long have you been a chef?
Did you always want to be a chef?
Not really actually, because in Asian countries, being a chef is not really a profession. When you think about studying, being a chef is not really an option. A job as a chef is for those who can’t study. It’s quite different from Australia. So as a teenager I didn’t even think of it.
I guess it all started when I had to pick up a subject to study at Uni. I didn’t know what I wanted to become but I always knew that I wanted to do something that I liked as a career. I love eating and going out. I love reading newspapers and magazines to try and find the latest places to go and eat. So I asked my lecturer if there was any subject related to cooking. There was a subject called catering. It was probably more hotel and tourist catering, that kind of stream, not like an apprentice. So I eventually went into catering and started studying it. I started working in a kitchen a little bit and when the placement opportunity came, I tried to get in somewhere so I could become a chef.
Where was that?
That was at the JW Marriott Hotel in Hong Kong. I still remember the HR person saying that it would be really tough and was I sure I could do it. I said I wasn’t sure, maybe, because it’s my interest, but whether or not it could become my career, I saw that as the time to try it out and see how tough it was and whether I could handle the pressure. That experience made me start to realise that I actually liked it. Even in Hong Kong, there are still quite long working hours and tough working conditions but I found it really enjoyable.
Did you have to convince your parents about your choice?
A little bit. They are quite open-minded compared to a lot of parents. They still tend to think my role is more management. I don’t think they are against it but no parent would want their kids to work crazy hours.
How do you manage those crazy hours?
I don’t know. Back then I was 20, so really young. I’d work a shift then sleep for four hours and then go back the next day. When I look back, it was really tough. I guess if you like what you do, you don’t feel as though you are working all those hours. It becomes part of your life. It’s something you can take home. It’s not like when you sit in front of a computer and then you finish and go home, you are not really using those skills, but cooking is something that can develop you personally, not just at work.
Did you come to Australia with Marriott?
No, when I was studying at Uni one of my professors used to teach at William Angliss and he noticed my passion in cooking and he said if I was really serious I should go to Melbourne; go overseas, because Hong Kong is quite limited in what you can do. I thought about a few options but Australia is really good because financially the courses aren’t too expensive, compared to somewhere like the CIA in America and you are allowed to work certain hours so you can support yourself as well. After I finished my placement with Marriott, I worked for a year and then I came to Australia in 2008.
You’re still here, so it must be pretty good for you.
Australia is a really good country. Melbourne is a great city.
It’s great for food, that’s for sure. You have the passion, which is really important to sustain you through long hours and hard work. What else do you think you need to be a really good chef?
I think you need to be open-minded. Caring, with people in general. We are in the hospitality industry, so you have to want to work with people in a team. Numbers are important and computer skills, I guess. That’s the other side. A lot of people might want to open a restaurant but people have to understand that cooking is only one part of the business. There are a lot of tings you have to monitor to make it workable.
Caring and listening skills are really important. I used to talk to my friends a lot and social work is one of the areas I was interested in. I never realised that those times of talking to friends and being with them become a benefit for now because you have to observe people while you work and notice if they are different on a given day, and check they are alright. Listening and counselling skills are important because you do work with a lot of people as a team and you don’t want your work times to be just about work. It’s a lot of hours and we are all humans at the end of the day.
No one has ever said that to me before about chefs but you are absolutely right. You need to take care of your team so that you can all take care of the diners together.
Chefs also need to have a good palate. Recipes are a guideline and sometimes it’s important to be able to taste the food properly.
How do you come up with your ideas?
A lot of it is from experience and a lot of it is what I enjoy eating and what my friends enjoy eating. When you put something on the menu it has to be something that you would come in and order. I think that’s quite an important principle. If you put things on the menu that you wouldn’t even order then it won’t be up to standard.
Australia is really good in terms of produce, so what’s in season; what’s really supreme quality. That drives a lot of the development as well.
And also what people like to eat, not just myself. Ricky & Pinky is Australian Chinese. Some of the dishes are quite new to me as well. We never serve doughnuts with pipis in Asian countries. Fortune cookies; a lot of my Hong Kong friends wouldn’t know what they are. They are actually an American-Chinese or Australian-Chinese thing. We also make things better here. You might like a dish in your local Chinese takeaway but it’s a bit dodgy. We can make it better here.
Is this your first time as a head chef?
How long have you been with Ricky & Pinky?
Since it opened last year in August.
There’s two parts to that then; your first head chef position and also a new venue. There would have been a lot of pressure.
Opening is always a bit tough. No one knows what is happening. I work with a great crew but not many of them had experience in Chinese cuisine, so there was a lot of teaching and guiding at first.
When it comes to sharing your ideas and teaching, are you more of a shower or a teller?
I’m more a shower. I like to show them how it’s meant to be and get them to try it. I like them to give me feedback as well; let me know what they think, if there is anything missing. A lot of the time when they make something, I taste it and get them to taste it as well and I tell them what I think and that’s how you train your palate.
A lot of chefs who have worked for Andrew McConnell have then gone out on their own and I chatted to Thi Le a couple of years ago when she opened Anchovy. Would you like to own your own restaurant one day?
I think so. Melbourne is a good city for it. I feel as though it is really encouraging for people to open their own place because there are a lot of awards, events and scholarships you can apply for.
Would you stick to this style of food?
I would probably twist it up a little bit. It also depends on the size of the restaurant. Opening a 50 seater restaurant is going to be different to a 100-150 seater place. Size guides what you can and can’t do.
Ricky & Pinky seems to have a few special nights and lunchtime offers, like Kung Pao chicken night.
Yes that’s on Saturday night. We do a few specials. There are a lot of favourites on the menu so we change some of the items but here are a lot of things that people really enjoy that we are scared to take off. So that’s why we have a few specials and that’s when we can have a bit of fun and be creative.
What’s your favourite dish on the menu?
There are quite a lot actually. Kung Pao chicken is quite good. Before I put it on the menu I wouldn’t have ordered that dish because the flavour is quite standard. A lot of places do it really gooey. here we do a really good version; really fresh. Sometimes when I’m on the pass, I see the dishes going up and I think, I’d really like to eat that. Pipis with black bean chilli is always my favourite and the rice cake is our take on a traditional dish. That’s with lap cheong and it’s dish unique to us, I guess. The Kingfish is always good; light with a good dressing. Yeah, quite a lot of the dishes!
That’s a pretty good sign if the chef is wanting to eat them all as they go through.
Ricky & Pinky
211 Gertude Street, Fitzroy
Mon-Wed 5.30 – 11pm
Thurs – Sun 12 – 11pm
Photo by Harvard Wang