By Franz Scheurer
Born in Singapore, living the first seven years of her life in Sabah (Malaysia), then moving to Sydney in 1976, Chui Lee Luk grew up as an Australian but never forgetting her heritage.
As a child she devoured her mother’s South East Asian cookbooks and winning ‘Food of France’ by Waverley Root in a drawing competition (at the age of 10) she was first taken in by the pictures but read it from cover to cover a little later on. As a young teenager she started cooking, focusing on cakes, then giving in to her ‘tomato passion’ and for a long time cooking any kind of tomato dish she could think of. Trying again and again to perfect a dish no doubt laid the foundation for her determination to get it right today.
In those days cooking was an indulgence; now, cooking 5 days a week, there is more at stake, but nothing has really changed: Passion rules!
Chui finished her Bachelor of Law in 1994 at the University of Sydney. After her graduation she wanted to test the waters and applied for a job with Christine Manfield. However deciding that she did need a good grounding in law first she worked, mainly on stamp duty law, for a while first. Alas the passion for food just wouldn’t be banished by common sense. Eventually the need to cook overrode the need to earn and she went to work for Christine at Paramount.
Her first huge inspiration was David Thompson’s first book and the fact that he spoke and could read Thai, which inspired her to study Chinese. Doing nothing by halves, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Chinese Studies, writing a thesis on the Qing dynasty landscape painter Gong Xian. Her mother owns many Imperial Chinese cookbooks that are still on her task list of reading and translating.
Chui is a natural hoarder and fossicker. Looking for out-of-print cookbooks from Michelin star chefs is both enjoyable and a good way to expand her knowledge of French cookery and the integrity of food preparation.
Her most influential meal was cooked by Tony Bilson. He prepared a fish dish with a red wine sauce, which at the time was not done, and opened Chui’s mind to the fact that unusual pairings can broaden horizons and work beautifully.
Chui worked with Danni Chouet (Cleopatra), Annabelle Saville (Emporio Armani), Kylie Kwong (Wockpool), Christine Manfield (Paramount) and eventually, after a year’s long wait for a position, with Tim Pak Poy at Claude’s.
She always admired Tim’s work. His intuitive moves towards French techniques, without forgetting his Asian heritage and ancestry, just like herself. She wanted to know how Tim thought, get into his head and experience his work first hand.
It would be fair to say that Chui found her feet at Claude’s. Many of the dishes on the menu at Claude’s these days are her concepts, worked at and perfected over time to become uniquely hers. She expects top produce and enjoys working directly with the producers and growers, but the skill to make the best of it is even more paramount. Chui is a ‘seasoner’. She tries the food she cooks. Balance is most important to her, combining tastes and textures.
She wants to teach new tastes, take a known dish to new levels. Chui is enchanted by the mission, started by Cheong Liew handed down to Tim Pak Poy, of cooking with a multicultural approach, opening up the diner’s mind to all dishes, absorbing tastes and appreciating ingredients, creating a harmonious dish that is hopefully unique. She likes to rework classics, too. When asked how she copes with the repetitive aspects of her job, she replies: “Although many routine things have to be done, again and again, every day, they don’t have to become boring; it’s a way to meditate, a little like striking a yoga pose, again and again, until one masters it”.
What are Chui’s challenges for the future? She wants to change the diner’s perceptions and expectations. Educate the palate by layering her dishes to the extent that the diner can first get the familiar and can stop analysing at that point, or follow their palate down the layers and be rewarded with unusual, challenging combination of tastes and textures. Chui realises that many chefs, although having professionalism and perfect technique, lack heart and soul. She looks up to chefs like Janni Kyritsis, Cheong Liew and Tim Pak Poy and, just like them, never wants to lose cooking with soul. When I asked her for a phrase that describes how she feels about her cooking she said: “Never cook to the media’s expectations, but to what your heart tells you!”
We know she’s incredibly talented, possesses an exquisitely honed craft and has incredible passion that will propel her to greatness. Mark my words; this will be a chef the whole world will talk about!