Eat: Nic Wong – Cho Cho San, Sydney
If your idea of Japanese food involves a train, it’s time to get reacquainted...
Potts Point is home to some of the most exciting restaurants in Sydney and amongst them is modern Japanese joint, Cho Cho San. While taking on a Japanese ethos, the sleek and modern eatery takes the clean and balanced flavors from traditional cuisine, presenting them with a fresh take on Japanese izakaya style of dining. Think Japanese Bolognese and Green Tea Tiramisu (definitely not a dessert to be shared) and an impressive Japanese whiskey and SAKI menu.
Featuring a minimalist interior of sleek wooden furniture and white walls, the understated design is perfectly suited to the restaurant’s smooth and unassuming vibes. Expect to be greeted by staff who look like they belong in Frankie magazine, the kind that attract the cool kids, and music that will have you sipping on cocktails at 4pm (TWAIN’s kind of place). The experience is reflective of Head Chef Nic Wong’s food philosophy, which revolves around respecting ingredients and having fun.
“I’m not too serious and I don’t take it too seriously” he explained. “I care more about the whole package, the whole experience. I think music plays a big part of it, not just food. The place, our waiters, and waitresses, their look as well, it all creates the right atmosphere. To me as a whole dining experience, food not plays a back seat but takes a smaller role. We work really hard to create good food but at the same time, you won’t see us in the kitchen using tweezers. I’m not about that” he explains.
For Wong, creating a dining experience that people want to come back to is key.
So we sat, cocktails in hand, and spoke to the veteran chef about that Cho Cho San experience, his food philosophy and other must-visit food haunts in Sydney.
Let’s start with the predictable… favourite dish?
*Laughs (and who wouldn’t.. we dread to think how many times he has answered this one, but hey … we wanted to know). I don’t have a favourite dish but a lot of the menu is food I like to eat. Most of the menu is pretty light, there aren't a lot of heavy ingredients. If it is a heavier kind of dish it’s counterbalanced with some kind of acid to cut it down. Our style of dining is the whole share concept, so it’s designed to eat multiple dishes together.
I do really enjoy raw fish, so anything from the raw bar is a must. It’s a pretty tough gig that I have to try a lot of the dishes and that I get to come in and eat raw fish every day (to be that lucky). We really do use the best ingredients we can get our hands on in Australia.
Where do you source your ingredients?
I used to work for Kylie Kwong and took that whole ethical and sustainable approach and I’m all for it but sometimes it’s just not sustainable to be sustainable. To push that hard and really try and use biodynamic ingredients, you actually just can’t get a lot of thing in Australia. You know we’re not that big in terms of size and population...
Most things come from Australia unless they are Japanese or Korean ingredients. Most of our protein like fish and meat and all our vegetables come from Australia. I mainly go towards farmed fish because we are lucky to have good farms here that are ethical in the way that they bring up their livestock and a lot of them are sustainable in the way that they do that.
At the same time, I’m not a treehugger…
TWAIN could go round three with the Hiramasa kingfish with pickled ginger and cucumber!
How often do you change the menu?
There have been some dishes that have been stayers from the start like the Japanese Bolognese, but I kind of change it as I feel. I don’t want to say I change it through the seasons. We don’t really have seasons here in Australia. Look outside today, it’s 27 degrees and it’s winter. As long as the dish ensures a balanced menu, then we will introduce it.
What is your favourite drink on the menu?
The Nippy Rockshop is good. It tastes like a Negroni with half the alcohol so I can drink more of it in between services. We’ve got a pretty extensive Japanese whisky list here. I’m really into Japanese whisky. When we started doing the menu, I really wanted to do that and our SAKI list is pretty extensive too.
Are you known for your Japanese beverages?
I wouldn’t say that we are known for them but we definitely have a big range on offer. While we carry a Japanese ethos, we’re not Japanese specific. There are also elements of Chinese, Korean and even Mediterranean influences. But yeah, we definitely do offer a good range of Japanese drinks. In terms of design, we have a good bar for it and you want to show off the bottles.
Who are you influenced by?
To be honest, mostly my peers, the people I work with everyday. I guess I am a bit biased because I will always go back to the chefs that I have worked with. Before I was here I opened Ester in Chippendale with Mat Lindsay and Mat is a big influence in my life. We’ve known each other for years and we used to cook together and Billy Kwong and he has taught me a lot. Neil Perry is massive. I worked at Rockpool for him for a few years. As I got a bit older and matured working with Jonathan at the Apollo was amazing and that changed a lot of things. The thing with Mat and Jonathan is that they really are like my best friends - they are the people I hang out with all the time and they are the people I respect the most in the cooking world. My juniors, the people I cook with on a daily basis are also people I get inspired by.
Where do you go on your nights off, where do you like to dine?
I can’t say the Apollo… can I? At the moment I really enjoy Huebert. Again, maybe being biased, Dan is a great friend and the added bonus, they are open really late, which is really good. You can finish service and you can go. It’s awesome. Apparently it was the first Chinese restaurant that opened in Sydney and it used to be really big with all the suits and it had been vacant for years but those guys really know how to make venues (run by the same duo behind Shady Pines Saloon). Again it’s the whole experience, you can just walk down the spiral stairs and get lost in there. You could stay down there for half a day. The food is amazing and the service is amazing. I’m really enjoying that.
What do you like to cook at home?
I cook a lot at home. Look, I like simple stuff, it’s the way I like to eat. At the moment I am really enjoying having people over for a steamboat. It’s just a fun way of eating and it means I can sit down and everything is in front of us and I can have a drink. To me that’s entertaining, sitting down with your guests and interacting. At the same time, people can eat what they want to eat. And it's healthy … and again that’s something Jonathan and I are pedantic about.
Let's talk healthy eating...
Not healthy like quinoa salads and kale shakes, but like were not drowning everything in butter and we don’t use heavy starches. Throughout our whole menu, we are really tolerant with dietary requirements. When we designed the menu, we wanted to make sure the meals were gluten free. We do get a lot of visitors with dietary requirements here, almost every third table we serve but we can deal with that very easily. A lot of our fried items are not fried with flour but all types of different starches just played around with. I wanted to make sure we were really accessible even if one person at the table had a dietary requirement that they didn’t miss out.
I don’t like walking away from restaurants feeling fully stuffed. I hate that feeling. I don’t like walking out feeling like I want to go home and go to sleep and we are really conscious on that one and that’s why our menu is on the lighter side.
That’s a big question, I might email that one… I always say this to a lot of the guys that I work with “You can always add and never subtract”. I guess that is more of a work motto but it’s one I use a lot.