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A Tale of Two Chefs

Published in Verve Magazine | August 2007

BY NOW THE GAY COUPLE SEATED TO MY LEFT HAVE the attention of all the nearby diners. The younger one, blond and green-eyed, delicately wipes a tear and smiles simultaneously. The older one, gray-haired, distinguished with a paisley foulard impeccably in place, looks on indulgently. Eugenia Tai Ye Liew, known to all well-heeled diners in Adelaide as Gina, knows exactly what to do. A sympathetic hand is lightly placed on the young man’s shoulder. Tongue firmly-in-cheek, she delivers deadpan, “Wait till you eat the main course.” A dramatic pause. Then “Sir.” Saying ‘Sir’ comes easily to Gina. She grew up hearing that word many times a day. Her father was employed in a Greek restaurant and Gina used to sneak in through the back door to watch Daddy cook. Daddy would, in 20 years, become one of Australia’s top five chefs. Daddy is, it’s time to tell you, Cheong Liew.

It’s impossible to guess which planets shone favourably on Liew back in 1995. Maybe his sadde satti cycle got over. So after seven years of heading the Regency Hotel School, he decided to quit. He joined the five-star Hilton in Adelaide as executive chef.

Surely, Jupiter flashed its brilliant smile in his solar chart. Liew’s life changed dramatically. As did that of the Grange restaurant. As did that too of daughter Gina, who is also a chef but now officiates as restaurant manager. “Just to round off my education”, she clarifies, “and then who knows, I might give Daddy some competition!”

On a really cold and wet Friday night in June, a friend and I are in the Grange. Liew joins us with a superb Merlot made by Robert Johnson in the Barossa Valley. He watches our faces as the waiter places before us the same starters that had earlier caused the young man to experience a culinary orgasm.

Salvador Dali once famously confessed, “At six, I wanted to be a cook. At seven, I wanted to be Napoleon. My ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” Liew may not have known what he wanted to be at age six, but he already was spending quality time in the kitchen. “At six I used to help my grandmother cut and chop chicken. At age to, I finally got the nerve to do what my aunt would do to the live chicken.” He makes a wringing motion with his hand, says ‘click’ just in case you missed the point and then takes another sip of the excellent Merlot.

If you haven’t been to South Australia on a gastronomic visit so far, a few points. About 70 per cent of Australia’s total wine production of over 120 million cases is made in South Australia. Like Australians themselves, most Aussie wines are outgoing and unpretentious. Reflecting this attitude is the Aussie chef’s approach to food. Unpretentious and adventurous.

Can we use these adjectives to express delight at what we are eating ? It’s called The Four Dances of The Sea. Four artistically arranged morsels of seafood have to be eaten clockwise. Liew watches intently as we follow his command. Soused snook first, delicate. It’s a do (as in do-re-mila), I think. Next, raw calamari placed on squid ink noodles. Yes, it’s a re. The slice of giant octo-pus marinated in aioli (pounded garlic) and smoky olive oil skips a nil and goes straight to fa. The prawn sushi has been doused in Malaysian sambafand placed on glutinous rice cooked in coconut. Which takes my palate right to the top of ti-do. I stand up and start singing in this chi-chi restaurant voice! Ok, just kidding.

Travel and leisure magazines were not kidding when they voted Grange restaurant one of the World’s Top to restaurants. America’s prestigious magazine, Food & Wine calls Liew one of the hottest chefs alive. Awards and accolades have piled up. Every year he is guest celebrity chef at the prestigious Cherry Blossom Gourmet Festival in Tokyo where a thousand VIPs give him a standing ovation. The icing on the cake? The OAM (Medal of the Order Of Australia) conferred in 1999.

Not bad going for a man who migrated from Kuala Lumpur to study electrical engineering! He also toyed with accountancy studies. Did the world lose a genius engineer or accountant? Hungry rail workers got hearty steak and sandwiches in a rail café and pubs, where Liew got his first job. There he sharpened his chopping skills. In his next job in a Greek restaurant he learned about Mediterranean herbs and sauces. His Greek boss also gave him a book on French cuisine. Ambition grew. Liew now wanted to be the next Gaston Lenotre, the next Joel Robochon. Fate led him to a French Australian steakhouse!

“From French cookbooks I learned to make creamy sauces. I’d slip in a Béarnaise with the steak, a mustard with the artichokes. I served up crisp vegetables instead of mushy stuff which Australians were accustomed to till the ‘8os,” he chuckles.

Liew’s journey in developing his unique dishes has mirrored that of a fast changing Australian palate. As the country’s population has been strengthened by different Asian immigrants, its eating-out has become happily adventurous. Contemporary Aussie cuisine is a rich palate of the senses, diverse, different and available in plenty in Adelaide’s buzz restaurants.

Creating his own buzz a 50-minute drive away from Adelaide is Mark McNamara, Aussie born and bred. If immigrant Liew’s signature dishes use Asian spices to jazz up fresh Australian produce, McNamara’s creations use refined continental ideas to enhance the freshness of Aussie produce. Look at it like this. Liew is the father of ‘East meets West’ cuisine, McNamara is the daddy-oh of ‘North meets South’ cuisine.

So away we go in our limousine to the Barossa Valley, Australia’s most famous wine region. A 50-minute drive through undulating hills, sleepy hamlets, orderly rows of vine trellises that stand like green uniformed soldiers, quaint towns with historic churches, cottages and bakeries brings us to our luxury vineyard retreat.

Pinch yourself. No, you are not in Tuscany. You are in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, surrounded by hundreds of acres of vines that stretch anywhere your horizon may be found. You could, if you possess an equally fertile imagination, get high, just breathing the air. Yes, this is one of those places blessed by Mother Nature that could easily be described as heavenly. Just to prove that poetry was alive in the minds of the English and Lutheran settlers who migrated here in the 1850s, the higher hills inside the Barossa are called Eden Valley.

So here we are in the man-made garden of Eden, checking into our individual suites, inside gated courtyards at Peppers The Louise (only 15 suites, each with king-sized beds, fireplaces, spa tubs, private outdoor showers, shaded terraces with exclusive vineyard vistas) for two singular experiences.

The second experience is harder to come by. It has meant waking up at the crack of dawn, getting into a 4WD Landcruiser and being driven to a nearby conservation park. A picnic blanket unfurled, a delicious breakfast is spread out. Bircher muesli, brioches, fresh fruits, pastries and a gently sparkling wine to raise a toast with. Whom are we saying cheers to? Hundreds of kangaroos and wallabies who, oblivious to our presence, have come out for their own breakfast. No, you may not approach. them. No, you may not make those horrible sucking sounds and throw breadcrumbs in their direction. Yes, you may take photographs and congratulate yourself for having made the effort of waking up so early. Especially since the night before’s experience was one to encourage a long, long, long sleep.

Which brings us to singular experience one. Dinner at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, The Appellation. It’s been rated as one of the world’s 18 ‘Best of The Best’ restaurants by Gourmet Traveller. Credit for such an accolade can only be given to the cheerful McNamara, a chef I call a friend.

I first met him in zoos during the world’s largest and longest (to hedonistic days) food festival called Tasting Australia which takes place in South Australia every two years. Three buses drove greedy journalists to the Barossa Valley for a day-long exploration of its charms. McNamara was then founding member of Food Barossa, a group established to market high quality produce grown locally. We discussed Indian spices. In 2003, I met him again, as he led his team to the first prize at Tasting Australia’s national culinary competition. I was jury member… impartial, I’d like to think We discussed Indian spices again.

The third time we met, rule out coincidence. This was meant to happen. An impromptu invitation from my friends at Jacob’s Creek Wines led us to The Appellation in 2005, where McNamara had become executive chef. This time he expressed a keen desire to visit Mumbai and our local markets.

And now, the fourth meeting with him, with the express purpose of finding out how his cuisines have evolved. What better than to sample all (All? Well, most) of his award-winning dishes. None of them use Asian spices. Only innovative continental ideas. Let’s have dinner, shall we?

Creamy Chowder of Springs smoked salmon, potatoes and spring onions, Little tartlet of poached Eyre Peninsula oysters with chervil veloute, Tasting plate of duck featuring rillettes, gum-smoked breast and liver parfait, Breast of local pigeon with semolina gnocchi, kohlrabi and juniper game glaze, Creamy Risotto of fine barley with roquette, braised leeks, pepper and parmesan, thin slices of Barossa corn-fed chicken with lachsschinken, garlic and sage, fillet of snapper with lemon pilaf, sauteed zucchini and verjus butter sauce.

It’s like taking your palate on a roller coaster thriller. The salmon chowder is like tasting flavoured air. The oysters are an instant aphrodisiac for the appetite. The duck reflects current global trends of lighter cuisine. After the generous servings of risotto, followed by the thinly sliced chicken, the appetite still finds space for the super snapper. It’s bold gastronomic statements like these that inspire foodies to fly in from all over Australia, Japan and the United States to stay at Pepper’s The Louise and sample McNamara’s food. From running his own small restaurant deep in the heart of Barossa, to being founding member of Food Barossa, to teaching, to returning to the kitchen, has been a long journey for McNamara. As it has for Liew. Their just desserts are immeasurable, both maestros on the global foodie’s map.

The sky turns into the colour of sparkling wine when the sun peeks out briefly as we leave the next morning, bidding adieu to the kangaroos. Trees lining the road, reach out proud and tall, touching the winter clouds, creating their own maestro land-scape. Through the sprawling vineyards we go, nothing to disturb our vision, our thoughts, but just a silent goodbye. No, not goodbye. Au revoir. I’ll be back.