Tony Tan is a Melbourne-based Malaysian-Chinese chef who often works in New Zealand. He confesses to three of the deadly sins.
As a chef, you are working with food all the time. Do you consider yourself gluttonous?
If you are going to be a chef, you are presenting yourself on a plate. I am very gluttonous because I have this wonderful thing that I love -- that beautiful piece of meat or that beautiful piece of fish, that fantastic vegetable that just came into season -- and I want to turn this primary produce into something that everyone would love to eat. There are times when I wish I had a stomach like a cow, where you can have four stomachs so you can chomp all the way through everything.
What is your favourite thing to eat?
My perfect dish in the world is this fantastic chicken rice I grew up with. You have to have a free-range chicken; you have to have make sure that the chicken was grown responsibly with all the right feed, so you know you are eating a premium chicken. You have to make sure your rice is cooked in the stock that your chicken has been poached in and you have to make sure that you balance that rice with a broth. The sauce has to be made either with chilli and ginger and lime or lemon juice, or with spring onions and ginger. Then you combine either one of those sauces with a little bit of soya sauce. That is my ultimate comfort food. Culture, family and comfort are the key things we need.
What is your best New Zealand foodie find?
Oh my God, there are so many wonderful things I have found. I love puha; there are so many things you could possibly do with puha. I get excited by your black abalone (paua) which is such a luxury. I went to (Auckland restaurant) Pasture and I ate a fish which I thought was absolutely fantastic. Chef Ed Verner is a little bit mad like me and he was saying the fish had thorns or bones or something that are a bit poisonous.
You lead culinary tours and travel a lot. Are you greedy for experiences?
I love taking people to Hong Kong. I will walk into a shop that is a little hole in the wall and say, "What's that, could you please tell me what that is?" and they turn around and look at me and think what does that mad Chinaman want, barging in here with a bunch of people curious to know about that shrimp paste?
Don't you think that most people actually really like to share what they do?
Yes, I do. I really wanted to take this tour group to China proper, not just Hong Kong, to visit a young chef, Xu Jingye, in Foshan, where Bruce Lee is from. The place is called 102 House, it's like a private kitchen - isn't it exciting? He scours old cookbooks; he is like a scholar chef. His food is beautiful, everything is like edible art. It took a little while to get through to him because of communication etcetera etcetera, but as soon as he knew I was really that keen, he responded in the same way. Because he wants to share as well, he wants to explain why he is cooking a dish from the 18th century and presenting it to us in this modern-day context.
You talk about your lust for life - where does it come from?
I love life; we have to celebrate it because we only have this one life. I have had a lot of shit thrown at me. About 10 years ago, my life partner and I separated after 30 years. Of course I went to a very dark place, you'd be mad if you didn't, but you've got to go through that period of mourning. I was very young when I met him and it was a shocking thing, but it doesn't mean it stops me from loving life. I look out the window and there is frost out there and my bay tree doesn't look very happy but I know very well that it will be fine because I am going to give it all the tender loving care it is possible to give. I lost a friend recently who committed suicide. He was in a very dark place but I can understand that very well. I am terribly fortunate that I have some very loving friends and they were there to support me and so I have come out the other end of the tunnel now and I have this wonderful life, even though it can be lonely at times. -Eleanor Black
* Hong Kong Food City by Tony Tan (Murdoch Books, $55) is available now.