Antonio Kuo has been cooking every day since he was 16 years old. He’s lived and worked in Spain (where he chose his name), Belgium and back in Taipei, his hometown, he studied under Ah-chi-shih, one of Taiwan’s most venerated chefs.
Now he’s 62 and cooks in his own restaurant Taipei Chef, an unpretentious and adventurously yellow-walled pocket of tables in Artarmon. Among Sydney’s first wave of Taiwanese immigrants, Taipei Chef is loved for its traditional food and its owners, Kuo and May Young, his affable wife. While Kuo develops the food, Young creates the restaurant’s family atmosphere, greeting every person like a friend, many by name and some with their usual orders.
The food is old-school Taiwanese. Not the bao buns, crispy fried chicken and novelty waffles you find on Taipei streets and in exported Taiwanese chains. The most popular is the smoked chicken. It’s cooked twice, once with steam and then smoked with tea and sugar. The result is absurdly succulent and aromatic meat coated in a varyingly crisp-to-soft skin. Most tables will order that or what Taiwanese people call “three-cup chicken”. It’s a sizzling pot of tender meat that’s become sticky from a slow infusion with soy, vinegar, rice wine, sugar, ginger and basil.
Three-cup chicken (also substituted with squid or pork at Taipei Chef) is a common part of Taiwan’s snack culture, famously led by the country’s prolific night markets. For more street food try the Taiwanese beef noodle soup and sticky rice. A popular snack at Taipei Chef is the sweet-potato fries with plum powder. Both sweet potato and plum powder are integral ingredients to the Taiwanese cuisine, and this is its perfect marriage – crunchy, slightly sweet, tangy and immensely addictive – one of those easy dishes everyone can like.
The calamari rolls with salted egg and seaweed are not something you’d find in any other Taiwanese restaurant, here or in Taipei. That’s a vestige of Kuo’s training with Ah-chi-shih. The master chef was part of a tradition of Taiwanese banquet chefs who put a lot of effort into presentation, flair and creativity.