In Melbourne in 1969, as a young student newly arrived from Malayasia, Cheong Liew worked at Spencer Street Station in Melbourne to earn his rent. Along with the job of cleaning and collecting tickets, he also prepared lunches of curried sausages and pies, breakfasts of fried liver, bacon and eggs, and dinners of roast-and- three-veg. He recalls the days when there was only one variety of lettuce available in Australia and notes, in a masterpiece of understatment: "We have all come a long way from there."
A move to Adelaide and a search for work found Cheong cooking in various places - first of all in a pub making steak sandwiches from 5am, rissoles on Friday, and chop suey every day of the week. From those auspicious beginnings, Cheong graduated to a Greek restaurant, as he says, "by sheer co-incidence".
He explains: "My brother woke me up one day and told me of a job on offer for a grill chef in a Greek restaurant that had just opened. So I went in. I didn't even have a T-shirt to wear for the interview - I had to borrow one from somebody else. But when I managed to convince the chef that I could grill a steak, and could cook other things as well, he was very impressed and hired me."
As it happend, the chef involved had international hotel training, but had never actually been a "Greek" cook. So instead of teaching Cheong the secret of a decent moussaka, he introduced him to the basics of classical cuisine.
Then came work at Kitcheners which was, in Cheong's words, "a very colonial style Indian place, a French steakhouse and a very exuberant wine bar". Cheong asked to move from the Indian kitchen to the steakhouse and was told that this was impossible because, after all, he was not a professional chef.
Eventually, however, he was given a chance and then started to look at the way in which vegetables were being prepared. If that was French cuisine, he decided, we "might as well give it up right now."
But he persisted, and began to introduce vegetables more related to the Asian style of eating. The steakhouse, Moos, soon became known as an innovative and exciting restaurant on the basis of its vegetables.
"Next, Jill Heaven opened a wine bar and asked me to design a menu for her," says Cheong. "I just cooked what I knew from home and put it in order for a buffet. I had no classical training or any other schooling in the culinary arts. My real experience and, probably my real training, came from my Grandma's kitchen."
Cheong talks often about his grandmother, about her 4 am shopping excursions in Kuala Lumpur, from which he learnt "the main thing - how to shop for yourself, organise yourself, and then come back, sort the rice, wash the vegetables then cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for the whole family".
His family included five aunts and six elderly cousins. Cheong's life in Kuala Lumpur had been at the crossroad of three cultures, and the knowledge he built up of the languages and eating habits of the Malays, Indians and Chinese as well as the English colonials has provided him with a rich and varied basis for his subsequent culinary explorations in Australia.
Cheong's Melbourne experience and the move to Adelaide opened his palate and his curiosity to the whole world. "Adelaide was a most exciting city in the 1970s. Don Dunstan was in power and that actually had a big influence in my life, as he was a person who really gave ethnic groups an opportunity to do what they wanted to," says Cheong.
Cheong met and married his wife Mary Ziukelis, and then a partnership was formed with Barry Ross - "a wonderful guy", in Cheong's words, who had been "off and on cooking up curries and dish-washing."
"He suggested I start a restaurant," says Cheong, "and I agreed, provided he agreed to do it with me. So we took over Neddy's. We walked into it knowing that he could carry a plate and that I could cook something, that's about it."
The menu at Neddy's was designed from Cheong's own experiences - Chinese, Spanish, Greek, everything. He drew on all his resources and then put in a lot of Malaysian adaptation and used what he could buy. In Adelaide in those days, the bean sprouts came in a tin.
Then followed the years of learning the business. Cheong says it was a slow graduation whilest he worked through his style Barry provided him with the essential link to the outside world. It was an intense learning experience. In the Adelaide of the Dunstan era, Cheong and Barry quickly became the darlings of the foodies. As Phillip Searle explains - "there was a population of maybe 300-400 who ate out seriously and they gave incredible support to anyone that was doing anything".
Cheong recalls the first four years and Barry's partnership - "that cultural link (through Barry) was more of friendship and affection. . .mateship, that's the beauty of Australia, it's what gives truth to life. . .and it gives you that binding to create something, to do something and to continue doing it and to continue pushing yourself.
Barry recalls those days with perhaps more a sense of the chaos than the binding. "Cheong is the most inventive of cooks and probably the most difficult to organise", he said recently. "Those were times of grand passions about food, of constant discussions about philosophies of style, of life . . . never about balancing the books or making a profit."
Barry left to set up a restaurant with and Cheong stayed at Neddy's for another eight years. Cheong describes that as "a period of, building up, creating a lot of new dishes . . . creating purely in my sense. I've never cooked anything traditional correctly. I'm the person who breaks the rules and does everything I like and that's how it should be evaluated."
After selling Neddy's, Cheong taught for seven years at Regency Park College where, he says, "it has been wonderful to see the enthusiasm of young Australian chefs who would complete their chef's course and come back and do a lot more professional courses - Italian, Vietnamese, Japanese, a lot more other cultures. And that's why I think a lot of Australian chefs need two to three cuisines under their belt, comfortably. . .they should have a depth, a way of eating and living, a style of living. "
Now at The Grange restaurant of the Adelaide Hilton, Cheong feels very strongly that his is a global cuisine, that Asia was simply his place of birth, and that his kitchen now provides him with the opportunity to grow and to develop - to draw on the culinary experiences and knowledge of other nations, other countries. The dinner which Cheong provided us with at Mietta's was his vision of an Australian cuisine, very much a global cuisine, with Indian, French, Malay, Japanese, Chinese and Greek co-existing on the same plate.
"I try to create dishes with many cultural tiers on the plate. My cuisine has got depth, it's got complexity, it's got the 60,000 years of Australian heritage."
Cheong's food is all of that and more. If Adelaide is not on your itinerary, a visit to The Grange at the Adelaide Hilton is definitely worth the detour. Less stressful to visit there than to have him visit you, almost lose the saltwater ducks in transit, celebrate with malt whisky, go out early to Chinatown to garner precious ingredients, find it closed (too many shopholders go out late to the Casino); but then all of this is forgotten when you watch and listen to his instructions. Everything has a reason, as with all the Asian chefs' in our series, there is always a centuries' old tradition which explains everything they do.
A 1999 interview (and recipes) with chef Cheong Liew.