Benjamin Cooper’s never been a fan of the traditional Christmas lunch. “Turkey was never my thing,” he says. “I never understood cooking up such a big bird that doesn’t cook well.”
The chef lives in the Warrandyte hills of Victoria with his wife, Fiona, and kids, Kanaida, Daisy and Felix. “I’m a country boy from Taree (NSW), that’s why I love it out here,” says Cooper. “Living here gives me the peace to be able to do what I do.”
Which is, of course, running the kitchen of Melbourne’s most popular restaurant, Chin Chin, where he is executive chef. Chin Chin is part of The Lucas Group family of restaurants, which includes Kong, Baby and Hawker Hall.
We’ve been invited to a dress rehearsal of his upcoming Christmas lunch; he’ll cook for around 25 people on the day. It’ll be a South East Asian-styled banquet drawing heavily from the Chin Chin repertoire.
The task of showing us around the house falls to six-year-old Felix, the youngest. En route to showing us his pet ducks and chickens, he asks our photographer and I, completely unprompted, “Do you want a beer?”
Cooper didn’t plan a life in the kitchen. He fell into the industry after high school when he was living in Manly and working as a kitchenhand.
“Growing up, I wasn’t really that interested in food. The only things I used to eat were porridge, and spaghetti with a chicken-stock cube and butter,” he says. His boss in the Manly kitchen convinced him to upskill.
“After my first day as a chef, I knew cooking was home. I thought, ‘this is the best thing ever’.”
The long hours at Chin Chin mean he isn’t home to cook that often, but he still loves doing it when he gets the chance. He gets experimental. The satay pumpkin he’s making today is him “having a play” at home, and is destined for the Chin Chin menu at some stage.
The kids get involved – picking herbs, washing vegetables, stirring pots where necessary. Daisy, who’s 12, has some decent skills on the pans already.
When Ben Cooper says he is entertaining, he means it in every sense of the word. At one point every person in the room stops what they’re doing and is transfixed by the show he is putting on in the kitchen.
There’s a massive, 40-litre stockpot on the stove, which he uses to poach lobster tails; a 20-litre tub to toss coleslaw; and dozens of takeaway containers with ingredients prepped and ready to go.
For someone about to dish up an 11-course banquet, he’s remarkably calm, organised and completely in control. That’s what more than 20 of years working in kitchens will do.
Before tucking into the meal, everyone finds a partner to crack open a bon-bon. Trinkets burst forth, as do the obligatory bad jokes: “What do you call two robbers?” someone reads out. “A pair of knickers”. Cooper laughs the loudest, possibly a symptom of working in kitchens, where humour – good and bad – is often necessary to lubricate a functioning brigade of chefs.
As everyone launches in, the pumpkin seems to be the star, even up against more celebrated items such as lobster, roast duck and pork belly. Fourteen-year-old Kanaida provides running commentary: “this crackling’s way too salty”; the dessert is “too sloppy”; and of the daikon, which Cooper has served raw on a bed of ice, “why is this tasteless?”
To be fair to him, Cooper’s Christmas banquet is pretty elaborate. While he doesn’t explicitly say, “don’t try this at home”, he does offer this advice for anyone entertaining this festive season:
“Have fun and play within your comfort zone. When the day itself is special, there’s no need to stress yourself out doing crazy things you’ve never done before. Know what your day’s about: people getting together. If making burgers is your thing, do burgers.”
Don’t make burgers – we believe in you. Here are Benjamin Cooper’s Chin Chin Christmas recipes:
To complete the Chin Chin Christmas banquet, find the rest of the recipes in Chin Chin: The Book which can be purchased online here or for $49.95 in any of The Lucas Group venues, including Chin Chin, Hawker Hall, Kong BBQ and Baby Pizzeria.
Chin Chin: The Book Recipes Roasted Pork Belly with Apple Salad, Coconut Dressing and Chilli Jam, page 194. Oyster Omelette with Chilli and Garlic Sauce, page 68. Grilled Tiger Prawns with Vietnamese Coleslaw and Apple Soy, page 196. Asian Mushroom Stir Fry, page 168. Morning Glory with Yellow Bean and Chilli, page 96.