“Sorry you had to wait,” says Dan Hong, sitting down at one of the high tables covered in a plastic cloth replete with rainbow fruit print. “We ran out of fish at lunchtime and I had to go get some more from Chinatown.”
We’re settling into the carnival-bright surrounds of the young-gun chef’s latest venture El Loco. It’s Hong’s newest post for the Merivale Group (he’s already known for heading up Lotus and Ms. G’s in Potts Point), strongly mentored by Merivale chief Justin Hemmes.
“We’re really happy with it,” he smiles, casting his gaze around the vivid space. “We did all this in just five days.” The result is an artfully slapped together ‘pop-up’ of raw concrete, Mexican street art, open ceilings and garden furniture. It screams of flamboyant fiesta fun and it’s a more permanent looking pop-up than most people expect, making it hard to imagine the planned August overhaul.
But the question on everyone’s lips is less about the possible upgrade for the diner, which is attached to The Excelsior Hotel in Surry Hills, and more about the inspiration behind the Mexican theme. Certainly Hong’s repertoire has covered everything from fine French to modern Asian, but why the sudden Mexican wave?
“It wasn’t my idea!” laughs Hong. “It was Justin’s. He wanted to open a Mexican restaurant and he wanted me to do it. I was really honest with him and told him I didn’t know much about Mexican food.”
The answer was a whirlwind taco research trip focused entirely on soaking up flavours, street food and lots of tacos.
“I researched lots of food trucks in and around LA and Hollywood, and then we went cruising around to each taco shop and smashed like thirty tacos in one night,” confides Hong, his own eyebrows raised in disbelief at the feat. “And then there was one day where we just did all of Roy Choi’s stuff,” he continues, referring to his LA based, Korean-American taco truck hero.
Following that, there was a solo trip to Mexico, where Hong focused on street food, eating his way along the stalls and laughing at the suggestion that it sounds like a tough job.
His rise to public culinary acclaim has been swift, but things didn’t start so well. “I wasn’t doing too well at school,” he chuckles, “like I was pretty terrible actually. I pretty much came in the bottom 10 of my whole grade in the HSC.”
It was his mum, respected Vietnamese restaurateur Angie Hong, who pointed him toward cooking school at The Intercontinental and hooked him up with his first spot in a kitchen.
“Mum got me a job with Martin Boetz at Longrain. That was my first job, first year apprentice. And that’s where my real passion started. It was just great to be learning.”
He picked up new skills with each stint on his impressive resume. “At Longrain, all I could think about was Asian food, then French/English food at Pello, like Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. Then I worked at Marque and I really got into my French. Every place that I’ve worked I just dedicate myself to that cuisine.”
So a crash course in Mexican flavours seemed natural. “I think after the success of Ms. G’s we realised we could do other things and that we could probably do anything…we want to cook what people like. We just do it in a more casual environment; really good food that won’t cost people an arm and a leg. That’s the priority.”
It’s all part of the revitalisation of the Sydney food scene, with its renewed focus on great food outside of the fine dinning sphere.
“Maybe four years ago, all I’d think about was fine dining; who’s doing the most hectic food and modern techniques. I’m still interested in that, but it’s not what I want to eat everyday. I just want to have more fun in the kitchen. And [El Loco] is the funnest place I have ever worked.”
But with each subsequent success there’s been more interest, more press, and more pressure. So what’s it like being the ‘it’ boy of the Sydney food scene?
“You know, I haven’t changed!” he laughs. “I’m just really grateful that people like the food. I’ve been lucky with these opportunities, to be able to open something like El Loco or Ms. G’s. There’re a of people around me who’ve helped to get me where I am.”
And what’s next for Sydney’s ‘it’ boy? It seems Merivale will be revamping another space at Tank in the CBD.
“It’ll become Mr. G’s. That’s probably early next year.”
And the food?