Mentoring at The Botanical, one of Melbourne’s best-known gastro pubs, has been a novel and rewarding experience for Chef Cheong Liew over the past two years. Read on.
The Botanical is a full-on seven-day operation with breakfast, lunch and dinner, a function area and bar with fast snacks. Inspiration must keep flowing. It did.
The main game is the casual style that Australians love. I was given the scope to translate this casualness to every menu in an innovative, non-boring way. I really enjoyed the local touch, serving locals who were regular diners, who looked for the dish of the day. I also had my fair share of gastronomes checking out my style and flavours. This was a reminder of the heady days of Neddy’s in the Adelaide of the 70s and 80s, when we lived and breathed the slogan ‘anything is possible’. Now, 30 and more years on, I had a challenge to make dishes that people would say had ‘Cheong’s touch’, without straying too far from the familiar.
As any chef knows it is access to really fresh and interesting ingredients that builds success. So I became a tram and train aficionado, travelling to all the wonderful and different markets, shopping for inspiration and ingredients.
Among the main drawcards on the menu are the wood grill and wood oven selections. Red meat never seems to lose its allure, with popular cuts ranging from sirloin, scotch fillet, and prime fillet, to some more obscure offerings such as cider -cured shoulder steak of Berkshire pork, lamb ribs, braised brisket Mongolian style, confit of lamb’s tongue, and duck giblets with radishes. Then there is the bavette steak which is gaining in popularity.
EH and JMcG, in unison: “What is bavette steak?”
CL: “It is a small tasty cut from underneath the sirloin that is like skirt steak.”
Then there is grilled wagyu ox tongue for people who like to eat ‘nose to tail’. Choices of fish include local flounder, whitebait and tiny anchovies from Lakes Entrance, which were great for bar snacks. Seared scallops from Rottnest Island in WA with roasted garlic and sea essence sauce (my version of XO sauce), or spiced Loligo squid with curry leaves and pickled green paw paw, drawing on flavours of northern Malaysia, have been hits on the menu. Oil poached rock-ling with smoked cherry tomatoes is one of my personal favourites.
Steamed whole blue cod with ginger and spring onions, or roasted whole in the wood oven, have gone down a treat. We also cured wagyu brisket for our charcuterie plate and gave the punters my version of XO sauce with smoked salmon and salt-water duck. Australians today are nothing if not adventurous.
I was blessed with a devoted kitchen team that was very much a family. Luke Brabin, one of my former Grange chefs, was the head chef (now executive chef), Selvina made the very jazzy desserts, and a young gamekeeper from England was my grill chef, and a great lover of fire!
The life-blood of the kitchen, Ronald the baker, baked all the house white and rye bread, sour dough bread and more-ish sourdough pastries. Having your own in-house bread is an often neglected essential.
When it comes to fish, Melbourne gave me a much appreciated variety. I happily created a few new signature dishes using seafood. ‘Cheong’s steamed taglarini with octopus, clams, mussels, prawns in garlic and white wine with saffron aioli’, is based on the classic steamed Chinese e-fu noodles. These are strong noodles which retain their al dente state after braising with the seafood, to the point of chewiness, and are delicious eaten with saffron aioli and grated bottarga.
Another signature dish is based on risotto Milanese – with saffron, mushroom, and bone marrow. The recipe traditionally asks for white wine but I prefer to add red wine to give the dish a darker amber colour with a saffron glow, rather than the usual strident yellow. Moreton Bay bugs, cooked with Nyonya salted fish sambal, are both placed on top of the risotto. They impart a lemony spiced and salty fragrance that brings real excitement to the dish. I like these multi-layered flavours and I guess that is the point.
‘The Bot’ allowed all that creativity to flow, layer on layer, but in a way that was accessible to the casual diner or the big spender. I had great fun working with my excellent team, and, after all, that is one of the best rewards any of us can hope for…
Now was the time for crack researchers EH and JMcG to eat favourites from The Bot’s menu.
Kingfish wings with prawns poached in extra virgin oil with a pil pil sauce based on garlic, shallots and tarragon with a garnish of pennywort from the home garden.
A beautifully buoyant dish. If you are concerned about pennywort, fear not. Nicholas Culpeper claimed, in the 17th century, admittedly, that pennywort helps those suffering with the strangury. So that’s one disease fixed.
We ate a few other, erm, research samples to ascertain if Cheong had lost his mojo in Melbourne. Stuffed porchetta with a sensational relish of cumquats, capsicum, chilli, smoked hot paprika, tomatoes and tamarillos. Loligo squid with fried shrimp curry leaves. Pork rillettes. We won’t go on. We are not cruel people.
A revitalised Cheong is back home. All hail.