Cheong Liew’s reputation precedes him. As a chef he is vaunted rather hyperbolically as one of Australia’s best, an innovator, an experimenter, a genius.
A Cheong Liew Retrospective, was the first event in Tasting Australia’s lineup to sell out completely. With 150 seats to fill at a hefty price tag, this is no mean feat, and speaks to the enduring popularity of this iconic and unique chef. As a person who was too young to eat at Neddy’s or Grange Restaurant, the retrospective is more an introduction to Liew’s food than a look back. His dishes delighted diners at Hilton Adelaide’s Grange Restaurant for years, and while he worked he took a parade of apprentices under his wing. He guided them along the way, exposing them to the realm of possibilities his cooking explored. The Cheong Liew Retrospective celebrated Liew’s masterful cooking through the very chefs he taught. The chefs, each now successful in their own right employed across Australia and the world, interpret Liew’s signature dishes and styles in their own unique manner. Hosted by another decorated chef, Simon Bryant, the evening is comprised of eight remarkable courses with matching wines from the seven apprentices and Liew himself. In between each dish, Bryant, Liew and the chef of the latest course address the audience, chatting about the meal and what inspired their approach. It’s a convivial approach, bringing lightness and spontaneity to the evening, as the chefs share their memories of Liew’s kitchen, and diners gain a deeper insight into the food before them. With eight courses and just as many chefs to get through, the evening is an epic undertaking and just as enjoyable.
After a serve of Liew’s Grange sour dough, the first course is a soft fried prawn and air dried scallops, paired with a Melva Riesling from Wines by KT. The plate is prepared by Liew himself, and his words with Bryant sum it up well: “No fuss. Simple.” With a hot little sambal, the single prawn sits well with the Riesling and serves to warm up the audience for the oncoming slew of courses.
This Retrospective doesn’t pull its punches and the second dish is an interpretation of Liew’s most famous dish, The Four Dances of the Seven Seas accompanied by Inkwell’s buttery Blonde & Blonde Viognier. Chef Jodie Childs stays true to the original plate, with the slight twist in the inclusion of sustainable and native Australian ingredients, plus brown rice.
Liew notes that this is no easy dish to conquer. Comprised of 48 ingredients, Childs’ says she was forced to be “gentle” in its preparation.
The hits continue with Kym Machin’s mullet, squid and seaweed dish, coming with a Fino Jarana sherry. The dish is bold. Full of challenging flavours and diverse textures, and more an exploration of those elements than a delectable treat. The sherry is a heavy hitter too, and the evening’s drivers forgo most of their glass.
Next up, Luke Brabin puts up a serve of Kangaroo Island bourbon baked marron, with scallop mousse, lime and salmon roe. It’s certainly a crowd pleaser, and sits well with a sharp Ngeringa Chardonnay. Liew notes that his original dish was drawn from an old American cookbook, and relishes the “bit of coconut flavour” creeping in through the mousse. A duck dish follows shortly after from Jo Ward, also known as “the duck girl from Newtown” as Bryant informs the salivating crowd. Beautifully cooked salt water duck breast sits atop mustard greens and alongside a crepinette of duck and Liew’s signature black fungus. Wines turn red at this point in the dinner, as Shaw & Smith’s delicate Pinot Noir complements the bitterness of the greens and duck’s moreish umami flavours. Ward says she “kept it simple” and quickly qualifies her statement to say she wasn’t having a dig at anyone out the back.
Moving on, diners are delivered quail with grilled pear, spinach puree and yoghurt curry from Matt Upson. This dish has a distinctly 90s look about it, but its flavours aren’t dated at all. Each component is a hero in this dish, and it’s hard to say whether the quail or pear is more delicious. It appropriately comes with the deliciously complex Papillion blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Mataro from Spinifex. Liew and Upson explain that this dish was originally done with pigeon, and talk about the rather unappetising process of marinating the pigeon in cream with mango for a week. “Let’s just say, you wouldn’t want to eat the cream.”
The next plate is the most contemporary of the evening: a confit wagyu tongue, with pepperberries, smoked mash, dill, mustard and kohlrabi from Michael Elfwing. We come back to spice with this curious dish as the soft and heavily peppered tongue throws heat at the diner. At first, it seems too peppery, but accompanied by a Redman Cabernet Sauvignon, the mouth adjusts to the taste and is allowed to explore the curious texture of the tongue. The dish is a venture into the Nordic woods of cooking, says Elfwing, and Liew enthusatically embraces this “new style of food.”
All too soon the dinner comes to a close with pastry chef Paul Gillis’ collection of desserts; a warm water chestnut slice, nesselrode pudding, charred persimmon, Russian praline torte and macaroon. It is an eclectic collection of treats, with a focus on variety and textures. Liew notes the asian influence of the warm water chestnut slice, and Gillis reflects on his time working under the noted chef. Once all is said and done, the chefs and cooks parade through Coal to a standing ovation from a crowd that has been as much an audience as diners tonight. Bryant thanks all attendees, especially Liew, who he proclaims “the greatest chef of his generation.” Grand in scale and super-fine in detail and dedication, A Cheong Liew Retrospective is a stunning success and worthy of hyperbole. A Cheong Liew Retrospective was held at Coal Cellar + Grill on Sunday, May 1 as part of Tasting Australia. tastingaustralia.com.au coalcellarandgrill.com.au