Dan Hong didn’t grow up dreaming of being a chef, but having a restaurateur mum and a love of TV cooking programs ignited a spark that would see him working in some of the world’s best restaurants.
“I didn’t do well at school,” says Hong. “I only got around 40 in my end-of-year exams, and that wasn’t going to get me into university. But my mother was always working in restaurants, and one day, she said, ‘Why don’t you become a chef?’ Mum got me my first job at Longrain, and I basically fell in love with cooking from there.”
Earning his stripes at some of Sydney’s finest eateries, including stints at the world-ranked Tetsuya’s and Marque, Hong has had a career start that others would die for. These experiences provided him with the culinary arsenal that caught the attention of Justin Hemmes, CEO of Sydney’s hospitality juggernaut, Merivale.
Previously helming the now-closed award-winning Lotus Restaurant in Sydney, 29-year-old Hong is now executive chef at three Merivale establishments. He mixes things up among Asian-inspired Ms. G’s, Mexican cantina El Loco, and his new self-confessed “baby,” the most recently opened Mr. Wong.
“Working with Merivale has given me some great opportunities,” Hong says, gratefully. “I’m pretty fortunate that Justin lets me pretty much do what I want. There’s always a restaurant brief, but he lets me run the menu how I like.”
Despite their unique food offerings, all three restaurants are strung together by a signature Hong ingredient: fun. At Ms. G’s, diners can order the “Stoner’s Delight” – a flamboyant mashup of doughnut ice-cream, peanut butter, raspberry jam, candied bacon, potato chips, Mars Bar slice, and banana fritter.
Hong’s penchant for pushing the dining envelope extends to El Loco and its infamous “Secret Taco.” This mystery meal has been said to have featured everything from brains, to lamb’s tongue, to chicken heart.
Another key feature of Wong’s restaurants is the drinks list, which goes hand in hand with the food to create the right atmosphere. “At El Loco, you’ve got to have a margarita with your taco. Ms. G’s has such a fun vibe, so we offer slushie cocktails. Mr. Wong is more formal, so we had to have an amazing wine list,” he says.
At Mr. Wong, Hong’s latest venture, the chef serves up his take on Chinese food, despite any formal training in Chinese cuisine. “All my food training is European, and my background is Vietnamese,” he says. “But because I’m so passionate about eating Chinese food, I can replicate it, through watching YouTube videos, reading books, and trial and error.”
“At Mr. Wong, I wanted to show my style of Chinese food, which is less greasy and really fresh. And there are lots of great desserts, too, which is very important to me. More than anything, the food needs to be fun and be the kind people can eat every day.”