A kitchen in country Victoria might not be the first place you think of to level up your wok-work but this brand new experience in Trentham is here to change that. Pat Nourse shares how Tony Tan's Cooking School breaks the mould.
Star anise. Cumin. Chilli. Garlic. The nose says “China” but out the window, the view says “country Victoria”. Here, you’re in both places at once. You’re in a version of Australia that’s tied to Asia by a cook who lives the “think global, act local” ethos every day. In Trentham, a town of 1180 people, just 90 minutes north-west of Melbourne, a lifetime of travelling, teaching and learning around the world has been distilled into a special and singular experience. Welcome to the Tony Tan Cooking School.
“I’m just a Malaysian-born Chinese food nerd,” says Tan. Self-deprecating and a bit outrageous: classic Tony Tan. In truth he’s the food nerd’s food nerd. Or as no less eminent an authority than Stephanie Alexander put it in her foreword to Tan’s best-selling cookbook, Hong Kong Food City, “Tony is a cook’s cook.”
Born in Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast, Tan moved to Australia in the late 1970s to study but ended up in restaurants. After a decade running kitchens in Sydney and Melbourne, he transitioned into teaching, writing and presenting. He was one of the hosts of Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia on SBS and parlayed his love of travel and impeccable connections into writing for glossy magazines and leading food tours around the world.
Soon the same people who delighted in accompanying him on jaunts for three star yum cha at Lung King Heen and three dollar wonton mee at Mak’s in Hong Kong wanted more. Classes in his home kitchen grew into The Unlimited Cuisine Company, a school in an artfully converted garage in Toorak, where Tan wielded German steel and Chinese cleaver, referencing his experiences in the destination restaurants of Barcelona and the Basque country as readily as his decades of research in Asia.
Now, after a 10-year hiatus, Tan has a new school to call his own. This time it’s in the countryside – but Euro-rustic it is not. It’s in a house barely 20 years old that’s been remodelled by Studio Martin with an eye to present-day Scandinavia rather than colonial Victoria. The façade is slatted with battens of blackbutt, the interior is flooded with light (and dotted with Chinese antiques) and gleaming Gaggenau combi ovens open with a whisper to reveal delicately steamed Penang-style otak otak. In the yard, Tan planted an osmanthus and plans to perfume wine and biscuits with its flowers.
Whether you’ve arrived with mates for a private booking or joined strangers for a public class (which max out at eight guests), making dumplings together at the five-metre-long bench of snowy manmade marble is a great leveller. And folding minced chicken, peanut and shiitake into the fun gor of Chiu Chow tradition or pork, ginger and a very concentrated pork and chicken stock into wontons isn’t just an ice-breaker – it also helps Tan size up the skills and enthusiasm of his students.
After chowing down on dumplings, everyone is given their part to play in making lunch. One person is on chicken duty, poaching a fat Hazeldene hen in masterstock bright with star anise, licorice and rice wine. Someone else filets a plump hapuka that’s destined to be dressed with fermented chilli and salted black bean in the Hunan style and steamed in the combi oven. “This is actually quite delicious,” says Tan, sounding almost surprised at himself as he brandishes a tasting spoon.
At the other end of the bench, the char siu is tended. This world-class version of barbecue pork is made with a piece of free-range belly from Burnbrook Fields butchery. Basted and turned every seven minutes until it’s tender and crisp on the outside, it fills the room with an irresistible aroma. “The secret here is using the best rose-petal sorghum spirit,” says Tan, holding the bottle up for everyone to snap a photo of his preferred brand. “The name mei kuei lu chiew translates to ‘rose dew wine’ in English. Pretty, isn’t it?”
Prosecco and sangiovese from Tan’s friends at Heathcote vineyard Vinea Marson is flowing as green beans get the Sichuan treatment, shallow-fried in oil with pork, dried chilli, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, spring onion and ya cai, a pickled Chinese vegetable.
If you sat down to a lunch like this in Kowloon you’d be toasting your good luck; in sleepy Trentham, it’s a revelation. Platters are passed, numbers exchanged and everyone steps into the fresh air with a happy belly and a sheaf of recipes but better still, with an expanded sense of the pleasures of the kitchen and the table.
Tony Tan takes all comers and his style is as much a hit with professionals as it is with total amateurs. While his Chinese cooking is impeccable, his calendar also offers classes in the dishes of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and beyond. Whatever the flavour, all you need to enjoy the day with him, says Tan, is an appetite for fun. “Anybody who loves good food and has a sense of adventure is welcome here.”
Three other regional Australian cooking schools
The organic produce from this Southern Highlands property has long been a hit in top-flight restaurant kitchens in Sydney. Moonacres Farm now offers the chance to get hands-on, whether it’s with former Cornersmith chef and resident anti-waste warrior Sabine Spindler or guests such as cheese maven Kristen Allan.
The Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School
Rodney Dunn raised the bar for cooking schools in Australia when he and his wife, Séverine Demanet, opened their farm-toform institution at Lachlan, outside Hobart. In early 2022, the school will be in the same building as the award-winning Agrarian Kitchen restaurant. Register your interest now and you might land a spot.
Mooloolaba prawns with nahm jim mayo. Duck with lychees and Thai basil. Crisp fried whole fish with tamarind. Thailand might be off the table for the time being but its flavours are still within reach at this beautifully landscaped, long-standing favourite in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.