Eighteen months ago, and just two weeks after Merivale supremo Justin Hemmes' latest restaurant, the Asian mash-up Ms. G's, was rammed with the glamorous and the gluttonous, Hemmes called in the restaurant's new executive chef, Dan Hong, to talk about the future. The young chef had barely drawn breath as his kitchen heaved under the strain of a manic kitchen, but Hemmes was in no mood for pausing. He asked the then 28-year-old Hong, a Vietnamese-Australian who trained at Tetsuya's, if he would run a new Mexican cantina that Hemmes had in mind. Easy enough. Then came the kicker: Hemmes also wanted Hong to head up a modern Chinese restaurant he was planning to build in his Tank nightclub space. "Justin's always coming up with crazy, visionary ideas but this was pretty daunting," says Hong, who took a week to get back to Hemmes.
"I knew just how massively huge Tank was."
Now that Mr. Wong has opened, Hong must be wondering if he really understood just how massive an undertaking it would be. The head chefs are doing eye-bleeding, six-day-a-week double shifts to cater for daily covers that can top 850 in the 240-seater, spectacularly fitted-out space. There are two kitchens - including one dedicated solely to dim sum, headed up by dumpling guru Eric Koh, headhunted from the Michelin-starred Hakkasan in London - as well as a three-tonne duck oven that empties faster than they can fill it. The glass-encased two-storey wine cage holds 5500 bottles. At times, the laneway off Bridge Street almost isn't long enough for the queues that snake from the restaurant's front door.
Mr. Wong hasn't just hit the ground running, it's smoked out of the blocks. And with a reported $4 million price tag (Hemmes will only admit that it cost "lots"), it probably needed to. "While there have been attempts at serious Chinese dining in Sydney," says Terry Durack, The Sydney Morning Herald's restaurant critic, citing the old Imperial Peking in the Rocks, the Jin Jiang in the QVB and Neil Perry's Spice Temple, "nobody's attempted anything quite on this scale before." Especially not in a laneway. And certainly not as far from Chinatown as you can practically go in the CBD without ending up in the harbour. "I don't think Sydney had a Chinese restaurant that, besides the food, had a great wine list, great service and a really cool vibe and interior," says Hong. "There was nothing here and definitely not in this part of town."
As the CEO of the sprawling hospitality group Merivale - which sports more than 20 bars and a dozen restaurants in its portfolio, from grungy, hipster pubs to pool bars of pure Sydney hedonism to a three-hatted restaurant - Hemmes commands a panoptic view of Sydney's slurping and swilling habits. And rarely does an emerging trend get past him. If, of course, he isn't creating it. In 2008, the then Herald food critic, Simon Thomsen, noted in his review of Merivale's Lotus that "when historians sift through the gizzards of Sydney's dining over ensuing years, the impact of the Hemmes family's Merivale Group should be noted as every bit as influential in shaping what, and the way, we eat as Rockpool and Banc before them". He got in early on the dude-food revolution at Ms. G's, before bringing his own take on the Mexican wave sweeping Sydney in 2011 with El Loco.
Cool and slick eateries, maybe - but just how did Hemmes, who has just turned 40, seemingly soothsay the current raft of high-end Chinese openings a year and a half before it happened? "We hadn't done Chinese before, so it ticked that box," says Hemmes drolly. He grew up eating Chinese food with the family at Nightingale restaurant and yum cha at a long-since defunct restaurant above Paddy's Markets. "It also tapped into the existing talent in the company, like Dan Hong and [chef] Jowett Yu," the classically-trained chef who headed Ms. G's with Hong.
Plain economics also played a part. After almost 12 years as a nightclub, the Tank space was tired and was only, as Hemmes puts it, "activated" on Friday and Saturday nights. A restaurant would not only be open day and night, but as a Chinese restaurant, Hemmes reasoned, it would attract a broader demographic. Not least, a burgeoning, middle-class Chinese tourist market crying out for better Chinese food. Toss in what Hemmes says is a shift in Sydney's dining habits to a more "New York-model where eating and drinking go hand-in-hand" and a room with soaring ironbark columns and exposed heritage brick walls, and, he says, "the place just lent itself to a 1930s, colonial-era Chinese feel ... all the blocks just fitted into place".
With the idea settled, it then fell to Hemmes' interior designer sister, Bettina, along with regular Merivale decorator, Sibella Court, architect Michael McCann and Hemmes himself to put the flesh on the bones - without a red and gold decoration in sight. "China in the 1930s was a really glamorous, sophisticated era," says Bettina. "They knew how to have fun and it also had a kinky edge to it."
The Hemmes siblings also drew on another piece of Big Apple inspiration. "We went to a Vietnamese restaurant called, I think, Indochine, in New York over 20 years ago," says Bettina. But it wasn't the black-and-white chequerboard floor, nor the fact that Al Pacino was dining at a table nearby, that grabbed them. "The colonial aspect made it feel aged and solid and comfortable, rather than polished and new, and that was the strong feeling we wanted with this place." (Indochine, incidentally, seems a handy lodestar: the New York mainstay is still packed after more than 25 years of serving everyone from in-the-know locals to Andy Warhol, Anna Wintour and Kanye West.)
Simon Sweetapple, the managing director of Beebo Constructions, which undertook the more than six months of building work, knows well the effort it took to create the look, under Hemmes' watchful eye. Though some of the detail was already there - "You can still see the hand-tooling marks on the old ironbark columns" - Sweetapple had to bring in artisan tradies, including shipwrights and a blacksmith, alongside the carpenters and sparkies. "They didn't want factory-finished work," adds Sweetapple. "What was really satisfying was having our team work on hand-crafted samples in brass and copper and timber, rather than polyurethane-finished MDF."
While Hemmes says the décor isn't paramount to the success of a restaurant - "Design is just one of the facets of a successful restaurant" - it's obvious from the moment you step in that serious time, cash and effort have gone into the fit-out. From research for the mural of Zhou Xuan - the striking Marilyn Monroe-esque '30s Chinese movie star - that adorns the downstairs wall of the restaurant, to sourcing custom-coloured French bistro chairs (one of five types you can perch on), a bespoke mirror with 320 sheets of gold leaf and glass jars full of Chinese curios from Cabramatta and Chinatown, the design process took just under a year from concept to completion.
It's a world away from the time taken to complete other Merivale fit-outs: two months for the Fish Shop, two weeks for the Beresford and just seven days for El Loco. "It's been our most challenging project to date," says Bettina, who included some brass standard lamps from her mother's former shop as well as pieces from their own attic. "And getting that slightly market-y feel downstairs in the cavernous space downstairs was difficult. It could have all gone so wrong."
The room size and cuisine also partly dictated the approach, especially downstairs. Sibella Court says there were endless discussions about the customers that Mr. Wong would attract. "It had to relate to larger groups, tables of 14 or 18, and families on the weekend out for yum cha, as well as small groups, couples and foodies," she says. "It had to have an authenticity to attract a crowd that we hadn't probably pursued before." Court was also keen on a sense of discovery. "It needs to feel different each time," she says. "You can feel in the action or hidden away."
As for Justin Hemmes' own input, the image of the sun-kissed playboy gives way to the reality of someone with an obsessive-compulsive, fastidious eye for detail. Court says he should have "1050" etched on his grave because it's the only height he wants his bar tops to be. ("He'll know if it's 1100 millimetres!", she says.) He and Court test all the chairs for comfort and sightlines through the restaurant (she's five feet two, he's six feet four). Sweetapple, meanwhile, says Hemmes was on site up to six hours a day towards completion date, checking under each table as it was installed and tweaking lights by centimetres if he wasn't happy. "We spend all our time focused on getting the hot water coming out of the hot tap," says Sweetapple, "and then Justin comes through with an eye for what people are going to experience."
The fastidiousness didn't abate once the doors were flung open and a traditional Chinese lion danced through to exorcise evil spirits. "We wanted the architecture to speak for itself," says Court, "but on the first night we realised we needed more things on the walls, so we did a mad dash out." She grabbed bevel-edged mirrors, painted shells and watercolour landscapes, and even took an oil painting of camellias off her wall that her grandmother had painted and given her when she was eight. "Grandma is now proudly behind the bar," she says. "It follows the theme of bringing personal things into the warehouse space."
Did they ever think they'd bitten off more than they could chew? "No," comes the considered response from Hemmes, before his sister says, laughing, "There were a couple of times we thought that, weren't there? I always think that!" Court has another take on Hemmes' apparent calm: "Sometimes he gets a moment of, 'What have I done?' But he never dwells on it because he doesn't leave anything to chance."
Certainly, Hemmes knew what he was doing when he chose the troika that now head Mr. Wong's two kitchens. Once he had convinced Hong, the 2007 Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year, to grasp the nettle, Yu, who was on the burners at Ms. G's alongside Hong, appeared as his natural offsider. The pair wolfed down Chinese on their days off - usually at Chinatown's Golden Century but also at restaurants in Beverly Hills or Ashfield - and they began to test classic Chinese dishes: salt and pepper squid, Peking duck, crispy skin chicken. But bereft of formal Chinese cooking expertise, they turned to ... Google. "Our training was from trial and error, reading books and watching YouTube," says Hong. "But we've been cooking for over 10 years, so it's not like we don't know how to cook."
The pair, who met working in the kitchen at Tetsuya's, also travelled to Hong Kong, hoovering up the à la carte dim sum at high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants. "The Cantonese food there is the best in the world," says Hong. "It's the produce, the finesse, the refinement. The skin is thinner, the sizes are smaller and the flavours are cleaner."
When dim sum chef Eric Koh, from the acclaimed London outpost of global, high-end Chinese chain Hakkasan, touched down, he brought that same craftsmanship with him (including the art of creating a dumpling with 18 tiny, individual pleats). And a work ethic that is taking a beating. "It's much bigger than what I was doing in London," says the Singaporean chef, who was headhunted by Hong and Yu and whose initial taste test impressed Hemmes and his two chefs, despite Koh having to use industrial-sized combi-steamers instead of bamboo baskets. "I'd never been to Sydney before but it's a very Asian city. And the people, culture and attitude of people here is excellent."
If the rave reviews are anything to go by, the foodies are impressed, with critics tossing around terms such as "damned delicious", "spectacular", "unshakeable atmosphere" and "unexpectedly brilliant". But, for opinion, the kitchen is also looking elsewhere. "The best feedback is from Asian families who love it, that's the real test," says Hong. "And besides the Chinese families, it's the other chefs that we really like getting accolades from. [Momofoku restaurant chef and owner] David Chang came in the other day - for the second time. And he loved it."
Chang's endorsement aside, is it worth $4 million? "That's really a question for the Hemmes' accountants," says Durack, who recently scored the restaurant 16/20, instant two-hat territory. But, he adds, with great food and a seductive ambience that will appeal to a cross section of the community, you can see where the money has gone. "This is a quality act. It's just what Sydney needed to generate a real interest in authentic Chinese food. Sydney's Chinatown has been dragging its heels for some time now. Maybe the success of Mr. Wong will help them to see the light."
TIMELINE OF A BEADED CURTAIN …
1/ Stylist Sibella Court travels to Ecuador in January. There she spots beads called "vegetable ivory", the polished seeds of Tagua palms, and has a handful sent to Sydney.
2/ She strings them up as a prototype for a potential screen at Mr. Wong, deciding on colours for the beads. ("They take the dyes really well," says Court.)
3/ Court contacts Australian Customs and Quarantine regarding their importation ("You want to avoid disappointment," says Court.)
4/ She sends dimensions, colours and details to a factory in Ecuador, where the beads are hand-dyed and strung up on agave twine.
5/ The beaded strands are shipped by sea back to Sydney and installed.
Total cost: approx $2000
Number of ducks sold a day?Between 60 and 70.
Number of chopsticks?650 sets of chopsticks a day, or 4000 pairs a week.
How many pots of jasmine tea?Approximately 180 a day.
The most ordered dishes?Prawn wonton; steamed fish with ginger and shallot; Singapore-style mud crab; Peking duck; prawn har gau; dim sum platter; pan-fried ice-cream.
Number of covers at lunch and dinner?More than 600 covers a day on average (up to 866, as Dan Hong tweeted).
Number of kitchen staff?36.
Number of dumplings sold?About 500 baskets per lunch (between three and five dumplings a basket) and 130 dim sum platters an evening.
How many har gau dumplings, at $9.80 for three, need to be sold to make $4 million? 1,224,490.
THE DUCK OVEN
It was Terry Durack's "Go-to dish" in his review of Mr. Wong, but what makes a great Chinese roasted duck? Jowett Yu, co-head chef, explains what goes on in the three-tonne Beech Oven.
"We get the ducks from Pepe's Ducks. They're pre-pumped, which means that they've already pumped air between the skin and the flesh.
This helps the skin to stay crisp and creates a barrier for the flesh when you're roasting.
"We brine the duck overnight in a solution of sugar, salt, water and spices. In the morning, we blanche it to tighten up the skin, then we dip it into a glaze of maltose, red vinegar and water. The glaze gives the duck colour and the sugar helps make the skin crispy when it caramelises.
"At this point, we hang the duck in the drying room for a minimum of two days to dry out the skin. You want to sufficiently dry the duck because the drier it is, the crisper the skin after you roast it. Then we leave them out for two hours to bring them up to room temperature so that there's even heat distribution.
"The ducks are then roasted in the oven for 45 minutes. You can only cook eight every 45 minutes or so, because we don't have enough room or time to do more than that. To evenly distribute the heat on the carcass, you can't over-pack the oven.
"It takes four hours to get the oven up to roasting temperature - 300°C to 350°C - and you can't turn it off at night because the temperature drops too much. Otherwise, it'd be lunch service before you could roast anything.
"When they're ready, we drain the fat immediately because the fat holds steam inside and the skin won't stay crispy. Then we rest it for 10 minutes and carve it. We add the fat and juices to a soy sauce that comes with the roast duck."