Dan Hong, an essential ingredient to Merivale success

Dan Hong is one of Australia’s most exciting chefs. To say he made an early mark on the Sydney dining scene would be an understatement.

Starting his career in the kitchen of his family’s Vietnamese restaurant chain,Thanh Binh,in Sydney, Dan developed his culinary skills at an elite list of Sydney restaurants including Longrain, Pello Restaurant and Marque, where he completed his apprenticeship. Once qualified, Dan joined the Tetsuya team as Chef de Partie followed by his appointment at Bentley Restaurant and Bar as Sous Chef.

In 2008 Dan was honoured with the prestigious Josephine Pignolet Best Young Chef Award at the 2008 SMH Good Food Guide Awards.

After a stint abroad working with culinary great, Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York, Dan joined Lotus as head chef.Dan’s approach to the Lotus menu was one of simplicity with an injection of freshness, which he demonstrates with his use of fresh herbs and light Asian dressings.

In October 2010, Dan joined forces with Jowett Yu as joint Head Chefs to create an innovative and fun menu for Merivale venture, Ms. G’s in Potts Point. 

His latest venture is as Head Chef at Merivale’s first Mexican cantina, El Loco which opened in April this year at the Excelsior Hotel in Sydney dining hotspot, Surry Hills.

BISTRO:Tell us about the new restaurant El Loco?

DAN HONG:El Loco is a Mexican Cantina which really means Mexican street food. The atmosphere is casual and easy while the food is cheap and simple but really drives home what true Mexican food is all about. The menu is very similar to what you would find in a Mexican Cantina – all types of tacos, the best hot dogs you can imagine, salads, grilled fish and the like. We have added marinades with Asian influence using fresh produce.

B:How did you research to the menu?

D:Justin Hemmes and I took off to Los Angeles and Mexico. In LA we visited heaps of Mexican food trucks, we stayed away from LA Mexican restaurants as this was not what we are trying to replicate in Sydney. In Mexico City we sampled lots of street food. From these experiences we formed our opinion as to how to translate the Mexican Cantina experience to Sydney.

B:What does the term ‘authentic Mexican’ mean?

D:One Thing we do that is really authentic to Mexican street food is Al Pastor.

B:What is your opinion of the current Mexican restaurant scene in Sydney?

D:There seems to be a growing interest here in Sydney. They range in style but I have not seen any Cantinas so I think we are the first with this concept.

B:What are the advantages of working for a large and successful hospitality group like Merivale.

D:Working for Justin Hemmes I feel very privileged. He trusts me and lets me do pretty well what I want. To use the old saying he gives you ‘plenty of rope’. The Merivale Group is a large organization with internal marketing departments, IT and the like so we have all the resources we need. From a chefs perspective all I have to do is worry about the food. Many smaller operators have a list of other responsibilities which can take your focus off the main game.

B:What are the latest trends?

D:The whole paddock to plate thing. Growing your own produce. Organics etc.

B:How important is an apprenticeship?

D:A formal apprenticeship and the training that goes with this is essential. I did a four year apprenticeship where you absolutely work your behind off. There is no time left for much else and it is really tough. You will soon find out whether you are suited to be a chef because if you don’t have the passion it is going to show up fast. I think Masterchef and the like really do an injustice to any young kid who is thinking about a career as a chef.If anyone thinks they can be a good chef and open a successful restaurant without the formal traing behind them they are sadly mistaken. There are no shortcuts in this business.

B.Working with great chefs – how important is this in a chefs education?

D:I think it’s the other part of a great cooking education. I have been very fortunate to work with the likes of Brett Savage, Mark Best and Tetsuya Wakuda. The things you can learn from these guys is invaluable and not the sort of stuff you will ever learn at TAFE. I think any chef that has had the privilege to learn from the best has an obligation to younger chefs to nurture them and help them progress into the finest chefs they can be. When I think about it I suppose that is the chefs mantra.