Come with Coast for an insight into the life and influences of celebrity chef Elizabeth Chong. Her warmth, energy and and graciousness is an inspiration to us all.
Words: Katie Cincotta Photos: Warren Reed
One of celebrity chef Elizabeth Chong’s earliest memories is playing as a young girl among the fruit and vegetable stalls of the Queen Victoria Market.
It was the ‘30s, and Elizabeth recalls hard-working Chinese immigrants and the scent of spicy Asian cooking rising from the stalls of Melbourne’s bustling food epicentre built on the foundations of an old cemetery. “The Market was my playground. I remember that there was always somebody cooking,” says Elizabeth.
Her father William Chen Wing Young had transported his young family from a tiny rural village in China’s southern province of Guangdong, whose capital Guangzhou was formerly known as Canton. Elizabeth was just three when she arrived in Melbourne, the fourth of six children, in an immigration story that saw her family cast out from the country in a cruel political twist.
Elizabeth’s grandfather had settled in Australia in the 1850s and her father was born here. As a young man her father went to China to marry and bring his Chinese bride Jenny back to Australia. Some years later and in spite of being married to an Australian citizen and having two Australian born children, Jenny was forced to return to China because of the White Australia policy – legislation steeped in racism which one historian describes as “the rigid exclusion of Oriental peoples.” As a result, Elizabeth was born in China. Five years after being deported, the family were finally reunited with their father and granted visas to return to live in Australia.
The family’s involvement with the Melbourne food scene began on Franklin Street. Elizabeth’s father had invested in banana and pineapple plantations in Queensland, and went on to become the owner of one of the largest wholesale fruit businesses at the Queen Victoria Market. The family lived in a two-storey shop that was soon transformed into a busy manufacturing centre for her father’s food inventions, among them the iconic Australian dim sim.
Elizabeth explains that ‘dim sum’ – translated as ‘little morsels that dot the heart’ – is enjoyed in restaurants around Asia. William Young refashioned one of the favourite dim sum items – the dim sim – for the Australian appetite, making it bigger and heartier. “My father chose the little flower-pot dim sum and made it bigger to suit the Aussie appetite. It couldn’t be little and dainty: the pastry had to be thicker, and it had to be able to be frozen and transported. It was competing with the Four & Twenty pie as a snack,” says Elizabeth. In so doing, he created a Chinese-Australian fusion that would become one of the country’s most popular take-away staples. The dim sims became so popular that caravans selling them sprung up all over Melbourne – the original food trucks – as early as the 1940s.
It was Elizabeth’s older brother Tom, who popularised the dim sim in fish-and-chip shops, and it happened quite by accident. “One day he was supposed to take a box of dim sims to a Chinese business in Cheltenham, but the weather was fine and he decided to go out fishing with his Greek friend Joe in Mordialloc instead. Joe owned a fish-and-chip shop, and Tom gave him the box of dim sims. The shop didn’t have a steamer, so they dropped the dim sims in the basket and deep-fried them. Joe rang up a few days later and said his mates all loved them. Soon every fish-and-chip shop in Melbourne wanted to sell dim sims.”
The Young food empire at the Queen Victorian Market was run off its feet.
“My father could never let any business idea die. He employed cooks to make and sell Chinese pies and sandwiches for the hungry workers at the market. It was like a Chinese milk bar. And out the back was a huge factory where he initially roasted peanuts, and then manufactured the dim sims and chicken rolls.”
During World War II, the family’s dim sims were rolled out to workers making weaponry and uniforms for the war. “His dim sims were sold to the munitions workers as part of the war effort. During the war years there was less meat in them, and more cabbage and celery.”
Although Elizabeth has published her father’s famous dim sim recipe in her acclaimed cookbook The Heritage of Chinese Cooking, she is otherwise reluctant to share the sacred recipe. She feels the magic of that now-iconic food item rests in its unique flavours, which are a product of the time.
While there was eager acceptance of Chinese cuisine in Melbourne, Elizabeth says the conservative Anglo culture of the mid-twentieth century took some penetrating. “My first few weeks at secondary school were quite miserable. My sisters and I were the only Chinese girls there. It was completely Anglo. Names like Macintosh, Montgomery and McIntyre, not Wing Young, which was my maiden name. In the first few weeks I felt I was the odd person out, but by second term I was accepted. I wasn’t going to be browbeaten into being submissive just because I was Chinese.”
The self-confessed ‘scallywag’ intended to go to university, but the expectation to marry young and raise a family soon quelled those aspirations. “I intended to do an Arts degree and become a primary teacher. But I was typically impatient, and I had just met Norm.” Norman Chong, whom Elizabeth met at a Chinese club in Melbourne, was a pharmacist from Bairnsdale – , Australian-born of Chinese heritage
“It was unspoken, but I knew that I dare not marry outside of the Chinese circle. I simply could not go out with an Australian boy.”
When Elizabeth’s sister fell for Norm’s brother, their father, the quintessential businessman, decided to marry his daughters on the same day – with a spectacular ‘two for the price of one’ family wedding.” My father said, “You’re both engaged – I’m not going to have two weddings in the one year!”
There were politicians, celebrities and media coverage for the event at the family home in East Kew, which was transformed with big Chinese arches and imported flowers. “Our triple garage was converted into a Chinese restaurant and Dad brought in all his chefs from the factory.” Guests dined on a Chinese banquet and danced to Tom Davidson’s band. The double wedding ironically ended in a double divorce 24 years later, with four children apiece.
Although her father never said anything negative about the men his daughters married, Elizabeth knew he felt that the families – the Chongs and Wing Youngs – were very different. “We were business people, they were academics. We had a beautiful car; a beautiful house and we took holidays. My father wasn’t flamboyant, but he used his money well.”
The issue of frugality became one of many sticking points in Elizabeth and Norm’s marriage. She has never spoken about her private life, but admits there were many difficult times. “There were many sleepless nights and quarrels. When I was 45, I decided I didn’t want to live the rest of my life in conflict. When I told my husband I was going to leave him, it was a bombshell.”
Elizabeth’s cooking classes began in 1961, and by her mid-40s, they had become very successful. Her first students were her children’s teachers and the locals of North Balwyn, but it wasn’t long before she had developed a following as Melbourne’s Queen of Chinese cuisine. “My Dad advised me to cook the things I knew, the dishes I had eaten my whole life – a good beef stir-fry, fried rice, the perfect steamed fish.”
Her husband accorded public praise for her achievements, but privately she felt overlooked. “Everywhere he went he would extol my virtues, but I didn’t get any of that at home. He just couldn’t express it privately – and I was probably needing that affirmation.”
More than 55 years later, some 37,000 students have been trained by Australia’s first ‘wok star’. It was a rare thing to have an educated Chinese-Australian woman teaching people the secrets of Asian cooking with such warmth and confidence. “In those early days, I think I was instrumental in changing people’s perception of Chinese food.”
To Chinatown’s food industry, she was an important and respected voice.
“I think I gained the respect of Chinese cooks and waiters because I represented them in a way that they could not represent themselves because of language barriers.”
Looking back, Elizabeth sees her career in food as a transformative tool, a way of inviting Australians to embrace the melting pot of immigration. In fact, she is a Lifetime Australia Day Ambassador. “Through the medium of food I have tried to change perceptions. I talk a little bit about the beauty of the food, the recipes that came from my grandmother. I think from that comes tolerance, understanding and affection. It is almost ‘gospelling’ through food. Food is sustenance. Everybody understands the common language of food. It’s a great equaliser.”
Of course juggling work and four children wasn’t always easy, and at times, Elizabeth said she did feel overwhelmed. But with encouragement from her father, and plenty of perseverance, her career continued to flourish. “I feel I got my inspiration from my father – he was always dreaming up ideas – but I definitely got my hard work ethic from my mother.”
Her successful cooking school was also indirectly responsible for her successful media career. One of her students at the cooking school worked at Channel 10 and invited her to come in and chat to his producer about a cooking segment on Good Morning Melbourne. “I felt like a door was opened for me, and fortunately I had the confidence to say, ‘I don’t know how to do it, but I’ll try.” She enjoyed the experience and then worked on Good Morning Australia, developing a great rapport with Bert Newton.
The first televisions appearances were a challenge. “All I knew was that I had to cook a dish, and I had seven minutes to do it.” But viewers fell in love with her trademark smile, her energy, her elegance, her frank and passionate approach, and her knowledge. It was a stint that was to last more than 15 years. She proudly shows off some photos taken at the time, which she has displayed in her apartment.
At 85, she realises all those years of cooking on television have left an indelible mark on people’s hearts. She is recognised almost daily. “People tell me, ‘I’ve been watching you since I was this high,’ and then it hits me how old I am.”
Her poised frame and silken skin make it virtually impossible to guess her age. She admits her mother lived until 91, a picture of youth to the end. Her daughter Angie believes genetics may play a part in her mother’s radiance, but that her work ethic and outlook have also been instrumental in keeping her young. “I think Mum has aged well for a combination of reasons: partly the luck of genetics, but also diet, lifestyle and attitude,” says Angie.
Travel, diversity and continuing to work sustain the ‘Empress of Chinatown’, giving her joy and a sense of purpose. “In my career I’ve mixed with all sorts of people – young and old. I’ve always met a lot of people in my work. I think that keeps anybody vital.”
These days Elizabeth unwinds at her holiday retreat on the Bass Coast – a custom-fitted Jayco caravan facing the ocean. “We have a view of the sea when we’re cooking and eating,” she smiles.
Still passionate about expressing her love of Chinese food, she continues her busy work schedule and has only recently begun to contemplate winding down and spending a little more time relaxing at the beach with her daughter Angie and her Staffy, Rufus.
Angie’s own business, The Humble Dumpling, is carrying the family’s food tradition into its third generation in Australia. She runs dumpling making workshops, drawing on the flavours of her grandparent’s and her mother’s recipes, adding her own unique interpretation of the modern day dumpling. Elizabeth is proud that her daughter is carrying on the family food legacy.
Elizabeth herself is not yet ready to put down the wok. “I’m still not finished. I’m not the retiring type. I just think every day should bring something else.”
See the story spread in the magazine and read this edition of Coast online free.