May 28, 2024
Wine & Dine

Three minutes with food icon Cheong Liew

Nearly 30 years after publishing his first cookbook, which is still on the shelves of today's top chefs, culinary pioneer Cheong Liew is set to release his second ever book which promises to unlock the secrets behind 100 of his most extraordinary dishes.

Cheong Liew is set to release his second book in nearly 30 years. Photo: Tony Lewis.

BEN What keeps you busy these days, Cheong?

CHEONG I live in Fullarton with my wife Mary, and I keep busy helping look after grandchildren – I’ve got seven – and gardening. I also do some collaborative dinners with Australian chefs.

BEN Tell me about your first book, My Food?

CHEONG It was written by Elizabeth Ho and it came out in 1995 at the same time as I joined the Hilton Hotel. It was popular among chefs and people in the trade. I often see it being used by chefs today, which means it hasn’t gone into the $2 bin just yet!

Chefs I meet often say, “I’m still using your book”, which is really nice to hear. Most recently, Lennox Hastie from Firedoor in Sydney got a copy of my book and asked me to collaborate for a dinner up in Sydney, all based on that book.

BEN What were things like when you came onto the scene in the mid-1970s?

CHEONG I cooked all over Adelaide at many different restaurants before I started my first restaurant, Neddy’s, on Hutt Street. I put my experiences on the menu; it was a bit of Malaysian, a bit of Greek, Italian, everything, and I developed my own style mixed with food that my mum and my grandmother used to cook back in Malaysia.

BEN What was dining out like in the ’70s?

CHEONG It was meat and three veg and you didn’t see any green succulent, fresh and crunchy vegetables. I decided to cook vegetables the Asian way, instead of your broccoli with cheese sauce or dauphinoise potatoes.

BEN Did you think people would embrace your style?

CHEONG When many of my old schoolmates came back from the Vietnam War, they told stories about travelling Asia and experiencing food in countries like Thailand. Our Premier in those days, Don Dunstan, was very much a foodie and there was broad encouragement of oriental culture. I realised that I shouldn’t be afraid of cooking food from home and I started a fusion style. I took what I knew of Asian cuisine and adapted it to other styles. That’s how it all began.

BEN How did you learn in those early days?

CHEONG Because we didn’t have the access to international cuisine like today, we were all reading books. So that imagination and creativity was abundant in the ’80s and ’90s. I’d never been to one French restaurant until going to Paris on my 45th birthday and I had been cooking since I was 25 years old.

BEN What do you hope people will take away from your new book?

CHEONG I want it to inspire people to explore new flavours and not to be afraid of new methods. Every part of the meat and fish should be used so it’s not wasted. Those are the things you find in the book. You’ll see a lot of cross-culture recipes, of course. Most of the recipes are an exploration of my imagination, with a few old favourites.

You learn about life and people through food

BEN What do you hope to impart on home cooks?

CHEONG A sense of exploration. At cookery school, I used to encourage my students – from all different cultures – to embrace the way their parents cooked at home. Although we were learning important techniques, it didn’t mean that your family’s home cooking was less important. We want to embrace that and keep it front of mind. I encourage the same ideas in this book – it’s what life is all about. You learn about life and people through food. All these things are connected and that’s what my style of food is all about.

BEN Do you think Adelaide chefs have always punched above their weight?

CHEONG Yes, I do. Ideas often start in Adelaide, but we’ve always had to work harder to compete with Melbourne or Sydney. I experienced that difficulty in the ‘70s and it took almost 10 years to gain recognition for Neddy’s. International writers were coming to Adelaide and writing about this restaurant that the east coast had never heard of. People would tell me we had been written up in New York.

Cheong Liew, pictured in 2007. Photo: Tony Lewis.

BEN What message do you have for people who have supported you over the years?

CHEONG I’m glad they enjoyed what I did. I also thank them for educating me as well, because a lot of the dishes and food were created because of them. They were the meter. I learned a lot through my patrons and some of the dishes were inspired by their stories which I’d try and put on the menu. Storytelling is just as good as reading a book.

BEN You’re 74 and obviously still excited by food. Have you learned everything there is about cooking?

CHEONG No, no, no. Across my lifetime, I haven’t stopped learning; there’s so much to learn. There’s always a new cuisine or a particular technique to discover and learn. We should all be excited about our adventures in food.


Cheong Liew: Inside My Food, Unlocking the Secrets of 100 Extraordinary Dishes, by David Sly, Cheong Liew, Tony Lewis, published by Wakefield Press, is available for pre-order and is expected to be published later this year.


This article was first published in the December 2023 print edition of SALIFE Magazine.

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