THERE are four of us scanning the menu for something hot among the black bean and sweet and sour when Phyllis our waiter arrives.
“We were hoping for something with chilli,” we say plaintively.
“You’ll be wanting the Dennis Prawns,” she says. We look sceptical. “It’s named after a friend of the chef,” she explains cheerfully. “Dennis loves it so much he talks about it to everyone he knows. The prawns are amazing.”
We’re won over by this logic. “And a second chilli dish?”
“Northern Chicken,” she announces, pen poised. “Thin strips of marinated chicken deep fried in a coating of egg and cornflour and served with a special Cantonese sauce. You’ll love it.” We nod vigorously. Phyllis tidies up the order, collects the menus and is off while we bob about happily in her wake.
And she’s right. The prawns arrive, plump and fragrant. They’re magnificent.
Later she introduces us to the man responsible, her boss of 18 years, Tom Liu, owner of Korumburra’s Rainbow Palace.
Tom Liu’s a man who’s on top of his game. In fact, this cheery, indefatigable man has been on top of it for a long time. He opened the first Rainbow Palace across the road from the top pub in Korumburra 26 years ago. The restaurant did well but he wanted something newer and bigger. He knew the town needed a restaurant with function rooms. So did the shire council. They suggested he buy a council-owned car yard in Commercial Street and helped with planning and finding a builder. He hasn’t looked back. “Customers come from everywhere,” he tells me “Wonthaggi, Phillip Island, Foster ... Many tourists come here too.”
Tom Liu (his Chinese name is Wing Kin Liu) was a Guangzhou lad who left home at 18 to become an apprentice to his uncle, a master chef in Hong Kong. Entirely without culinary skills, his ambition was to master the art of Chinese cuisine so he could make a life for himself in Australia or the USA.
His uncle taught him a lot, Tom says, instilling in him those fundamental principles of kitchen care from which he has never deviated: a clean kitchen and fresh food.
Chopping skills were finely honed and it wasn’t just about speed. Over thousands of hours of chopping, he learnt to chop every piece the same size.
And then there was the wok. “When you go to the wok, the fire in Hong Kong is much stronger.” The practice of injecting air makes for very rapid cooking. “You must learn to control the fire, not let it control you. Stir and turn. Stir and turn.” I gape when he tells me that apprentices practise with sand in the wok. ”Yes, sand,” says Tom. “Learn to use your muscle. It’s not hard, just practice. Must do this before you go to real cooking.”
He was 24, single and alone when he came out to Australia in 1977. It was a reasoned choice. He figured Australia was a developing country with a better chance to get ahead. In the USA, everything was established; it was harder to make a start.
A friend had told him all about Melbourne, that cooking Chinese food was much easier here than in Hong Kong. Hong Kong cuisine includes offal; it’s much more seasonal than in Australia and our palette is also sweeter. Added sugar alters the flavour. “Cantonese style, the flavour of the meat and fish is more pure,” he says. In Australia, about 90 per cent of customers prefer spicy dishes to hot chilli dishes.
His quest to understand Australian customs and preferences took him around the country, to kitchens in Bulleen, Doncaster, China Town, Port Fairy, Warrnambool. Geelong. He met his wife, Hui Ye, when she was working at the Flower Drum. “You learn by the customer telling you,” he says happily.
Tom supplemented his learning at migrant English classes. “This is sugar. This is spoon. Pick them up! ... And then you understood.”
Korumburra’s Rainbow Palace is open seven days a week but there’s no suggestion that Tom resents his lack of spare time. He starts work from about 10.45am and rarely finishes before 1am. Monday to Thursday is mainly spent chopping, preparing for the weekend crowds. Endless chopping. Mountains of it. And yet, he says, he never gets bored. Tom the chef, the second chef, the kitchen hand ─ they’re a team with a higher purpose.
When I ask him what gives him the most pleasure, he’s at a loss for an answer. Then he leans forward to explain his three principles concept. “It must look good, smell good, taste good. My dish must be better in all three.” So it follows, “if something no good, you chuck out and start again.” Tom’s a holistic kinda person.
And his favourite dish? “Chilli prawns, but my stomach no good,” and he laughs ruefully.
His sons, of whom he is quietly proud, are in the latter stages of their education but it’s hard to see this seemingly youthful, purpose-filled man looking for a reason to slow down. “Will you ever retire?” I ask.
He’s too logical to deny the hard reality of advancing years. “When you get old you go too slow,” he says. “ But I can still work a little. Maybe one wok.”