Interview + Recipe - Soon Lee Low

06 April 2015

Soon Lee Low is a 29-year-old chef from Melbourne who worked in multiple Michelin-starred restaurants before relocating to Wagga Wagga, in regional New South Wales, late last year.

His food is delicious and within a week of discovering his food in town, Tony and I had sampled everything from his Golden Gaytime-inspired lamb shanks to his meaty pork belly skewers that took us right back to our honeymoon in New York.

Despite my love of food, I’ve never interviewed a chef before, let alone one who has worked in internationally acclaimed restaurants. So I took the opportunity to ask Soon about how the industry works, where his inspiration comes from and what’s next for him in Wagga Wagga.

You recently moved to Wagga Wagga, what prompted the move?

I was based in London and then I got back to Melbourne after my 2 year visa expired. I did have the option to stay in London but Melbourne is always home. The reason I moved to Wagga Wagga is because of my girlfriend Audrey, she has a four year contract at the Department of Primary Industries, so here I am.

What were you doing in London? 

My career started in Melbourne, I did my apprenticeship in Melbourne, worked in a few good restaurants and I told myself that I needed to travel. My career kind of skyrocketed when I worked at Nobu, I just loved the flavours, the creativity of how the dishes are plated up - presentation is everything to me. I told myself London was a place to go because Gordon Ramsay is one of my favourite chefs - I adore him.

A friend of mine opened a restaurant in London called Wabi and I was called over to help him. I was with him for a year plus and during that time I got a job at a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant called Sushisamba as a sous chef. 

I don't know all that much about the roles in a kitchen, how does it work? 

When you first start to cook, actually before you enter the cooking scene and work in restaurants - there are two options. You can go straight in and be a prep cook or a dishwasher - and these sorts of people go from the bottom up. I've done that and have also been an apprentice, so I know both sides. 

One good thing about going into a good restaurant is that even if there are no positions, if you can show the chef that you are keen to do it, he will give you shit jobs to do. As long as you can hang on, prove to him, then eventually he'll put you in service. Once you finish dishwashing, if he does promote you, you are a line cook but you can only be a chef when you go to cookery school.

Talking about kitchens you have dishwashers, kitchen hands - that's the lowest. Then you have apprentices, the commis chef, then the chef de partie, junior sous chef, sous chef, head chef, chef de cuisine and executive head chef.

How would you describe the food you make?

The food I make is pretty much the food I would like to eat and also flavours from where I’ve worked throughout the years. I just like to fuse two different cuisines together. The dishes you had at my pop-up, it's mostly more towards Korean, Japanese flavours but sometimes there's also French influences and sometimes there's also Mexican and Spanish because I just love to play with food.

Is your food also influenced by your childhood in any way?

I grew up in Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur and I love my Malaysian flavours. It's salty, it's sweet, it's sour. It's like Assam Laksa - it's punch-in-the-face flavour. That's awesome but you can't eat too much of it because it's too heavy. I tend to get those kinds of flavours, tone it down a bit and add my own creativity into it and hence, create my kind of dish.

What’s been the most popular dish you’ve created in Wagga Wagga?

My most popular dish that I did at my pop-up is spicy lamb ribs with tomato chutney. That dish is actually one of my recipes, I was in the kitchen thinking about what works well - thinking about summer, tomatoes - and I just created that dish and it was amazing. When I create the recipe myself that's when I have a sense of satisfaction.

I would say that the lamb shanks [that you can buy at Thorne Street General Store] is also my recipe. It was inspired by Golden Gaytime ice cream because I love Golden Gaytimes. I went to Knights Meats and then I saw this new flavour - green and gold. I actually bought the whole lamb shank and I didn’t know what to do with it. I was eating the ice cream and thought - Ah! Okay! Let's do a gremolata.

Your pop-up at The Birdhouse will finish up soon, where will people in Wagga Wagga be able to find you next?

I'm going to do catering soon so when the pop-up ends there's a new thing. I will be doing it on my own probably in two months or in April, trying to cater for people for three days a week, something like Lite-n-Easy.

I’ll also be working with a charity called Dad’s Care 4 Kids, teaching dads how to cook simple meals that are also interesting and tasty enough for kids to eat. I want to educate them on umami flavours, which is basically not using excessive salt or sugar and using natural ingredients like soy sauce or  mustard where all the flavours are already there. I just want to give that mentality to them, it cuts down cholesterol and it's also healthier in a way because you are using natural flavouring agents.

I want to help them out because they told me that usually when parents separate, it affects the kids a lot. When my mum and dad separated, I was separated from my dad for six years - he was living in Malaysia and I was here in Australia. I'm just giving these dads an opportunity to reconnect with their kids using cooking as an approach. 

And a set course menu will replace the pop-up restaurant?

In Autumn and Winter I won't be having a pop-up but I've discussed with The Birdhouse and we're going to do a set course, a three course meal and you have to book to enter. We're going to have a movie night, so it's like a gold class cinema and I'll do a three course meal. It should be in two months time hopefully. In April I'll still be doing a pop-up and then the set course will be every Wednesday or Thursday.

What recipe have you decided to share and where does it come from?

The dish I’m going to share with you today is pork belly, which is cooked for 12 hours and served with apple salsa and a tamarind glaze. The process of how the pork belly is cooked I learned in London, at Caxton Grill. The way they cure their meats and how they cook their meats is how I do my meats here. I love cooking meats and I've worked in meat sections all my life because prepping meats is very relaxing. 

Does that make it hard to do vegetarian dishes?

I love vegetarian food, I have tons of vegetarian dishes but the reason I tend not to put them on my menu is because of people don't buy it. The first pop up menu I came up with I was doing 20 open sushi rolls a day, it would take me an hour and a half to do it and I would sell two to three a day. It’s just the market in Wagga.

Soon's pork belly with roasted cauliflower, green apple salsa and tamarind glaze

Serves 4

You'll need:

1kg pork belly, skinless

For the marinade: 

300g brown sugar
50g Maldon sea salt
50g cayenne pepper
50g smoked paprika
The zest of 2 oranges

For the tamarind sauce:

200g shaved palm sugar
100ml water
120ml tamarind water, use tamarind pulp if possible and avoid tamarind paste. To make it, mix and strain 75g tamarind pulp with 120ml water.
Fish sauce to taste 

For the green apple salsa:

100ml green sriracha
50ml rice vinegar
50ml mirin
2 green apples
1tsp wholegrain mustard 
1tsp sugar

To finish: 

Half a cauliflower
1 red onion
Spring onions, finely sliced

Here's how:

Cooking the meat:

Combine all the ingredients for the marinade and leave the meat in the fridge to marinate for an hour. 

Vacuum pack the pork belly at 85 degrees for 12 hours - sous vide cooking. The other method is to leave the skin on and score it before marinating the meat. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees celsius and roast it for 30 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 170 degrees and cook for a further 2 hours until the skin is crispy. Let the meat rest for 25 minutes before slicing :)

The meat will have a different texture once cooked if you use this method rather than sous vide. If you were to follow the sous vide method, pan fry or grill the pork belly to caramalise the fat so you get the smoky flavour and slightly crisp texture. 

To make the tamarind sauce:

Make a caramel with the palm sugar and water. Then add tamarind water and bring up to boil before cooling it down. Once at room temperature add fish sauce to thin out the sauce and to taste. There needs to be a balance of sweet and sour.

To make the green apple salsa: 

Chopped 1 apple and then blitz all ingredients in a blender. Brunoise (fine diced) half an apple and add into the mix for texture. 

To finish: 

Roast half a cauliflower and cut into florets. To assemble - tamarind glaze, pork belly, apple salsa and then toppings - roasted cauliflower, red onion and spring onion.

Thank you Soon! Follow him on Instagram, or get in touch via The Birdhouse.

Photos by Soon Lee.

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