“Excited, scared, stressed – everything,” is how chef Loong Oon describes his feelings about opening Amah alongside Ho Jiak’s Junda Khoo.
Opening his own venue is one source of Oon’s nervous anticipation, but there’s also the fact the restaurant is an ode to his amah, his paternal grandmother, who fed him as a child. After years of living with Alzheimer’s disease, she passed away early this year.
“When I was a kid she lived with us, and she cooked for us every single day,” he says. “She wouldn’t just make a quick meal out of nowhere, she put in effort, going to the markets before sunrise to get fresh ingredients and spending all day in the kitchen to make sure we got the best food.”
Amah will open in the District Dining precinct at Chatswood Interchange, taking over the more than 200-seat space formerly occupied by General Chao. Oon and Khoo are aiming for a late-May opening.
Oon tells Broadsheet he’s excited for the next chapter of his career. He joined Merivale’s Mr Wong in 2014 and eventually became head chef of the bustling Cantonese eatery. Before that he was at fine diner Quay and Lafite in Kuala Lumpur, among others. Oon believes Amah brings him full circle – back to the woman who instilled in him a love for feeding people good food.
Naturally, Oon’s fine-dining background has influenced his approach at Amah, but the newbie will be on the casual side of refined. “It’s a tribute to my grandmother. We’re not going to do something that wasn’t in her nature to cook,” he says.
The menu will feature tau yu bak, pork belly braised in soy sauce, a version of which is also served at Ho Jiak. There’s also braised red-beef short rib, a dish that gets its name from the dark amber colour of the meat, which comes about in part from the use of rock sugar. Oon has taken inspiration from many of his amah’s recipes, but the comforting fish-ball soup is the dish he’s most excited about.
The savoury, delicately sweet broth is slow-cooked with pork, chicken and flounder bones. He recalls his amah hand-pounding wolf herring to the perfect elastic texture before forming it into balls. At Amah, Oon will use Spanish mackerel.
“In my early 20s, I went back and visited Amah, and as usual, she cooked an amazing dinner for everyone,” he says. “She didn’t sit with us; she usually did that. No one questioned why, but that day I did. She said, ‘I just want to see you guys enjoy my cooking. That makes me really happy.’”
That moment shifted the way Oon thought of cooking. He realised cooking wasn’t for the chef, but for the person eating.
“It changed so much the way I think of food. I used to cook what I wanted to cook. But if people don’t enjoy, it’s pointless. Satisfying others: that’s the meaning of cooking and that’s what I want to do at Amah.”
Amah is slated to open at 436 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood, in late May or June.