2 Sydney chefs explore their heritage through Italian cuisine – hospitality
Arnold Wong and Jinsu ‘Steven’ Park met on Instagram, with the Sydney chefs quickly becoming friends. It wasn’t long before the young talents of Café Paci and Restaurant Leo decided to combine their collective talents for a sold-out pop-up at Cedric’s that proves the future of dining is as bright as found candied lemon. on a dish on their six-course menu.
Chef collaborations aren’t new, but are largely the domain of big names who can easily book space (or use their own restaurant) to host such events. It’s rarer and certainly much more difficult for bosses like Wong and Park to create a pop-up, but they did.
Wong talks to Hospitality about how it all came together, setting up plates that reflect their own culinary ethea for the first time and demonstrating the versatility of humble ingredients.
There’s nothing like a hand-rolled trofie shot to bond, and the same can be said for film photography. This was the material that led to the “reunion” of Arnold Wong and Jinsu “Steven” Park.
“We started out as friends on Instagram,” Wong explains. “I liked his pasta photos and I followed him and he liked my film photography; we both have a similar aesthetic. After Park dined at Paci, the couple chatted and “became real friends,” Wong says. “We went out for a few meals together and I was like, ‘Hey, we should do a pop-up one day’.”
The big question was not how, but where. As Cedric’s frequent patron at City Hall, Wong befriended co-owner Taiyo Shima. “I understood that Taiyo didn’t open the room on Monday and Tuesday and he really wanted us to do something together,” he says. “These opportunities are rare. But for young chefs like us, it’s really inspiring and a chance for us to get our names out there.
With the venue locked down, Park and Wong moved forward with four sessions over two nights. The vision was to do something a little different (but not completely different) from the dishes they prepare during their day jobs.
“Our goal was to use humble ingredients to showcase our heritage through Italian cuisine,” says Wong. “I see so many similarities between Italian and Asian cuisines.
“The style of food is communal and it’s about flavoring the starch and feeding the masses. We wanted to make people think about the similarities between different cultures and techniques.
It took Wong and Park about two weeks to iron out the six-course menu. The first week was mostly spent developing the dishes, with some changing into different shapes by the end of the second week. “We were going to make fried bread with shrimp mousse inside like shrimp toast, but we didn’t want people to fill up so early in dinner, so we changed it to something like a fried shrimp wonton,” says Wong.
The sardines were covered with a mixture of soy sauce and olive oil before being caramelized with a blowtorch and served with olive tapenade and candied lemon. “I used my mother’s lemons from the Central Coast which I preserved in half sugar and half salt for a few weeks,” Wong explains. “It was my first time making it, but I needed to use it because it was almost like candy and it balanced out the fish.”
Park was the originator of the two pasta dishes: lorighittas with cuttlefish, bottarga and chilli and agnolotti with pork, tomato butter and potato. Lorighittas are one of the most traditional pasta shapes made in southern Italy, the braided rings requiring a skilled hand to twist the strands of semolina dough together.
Creating the dishes allowed Wong to come up with ideas to implement in Paci’s pasta section. “I have my way of doing things, but I really respect his pasta game,” says the chef. “The dusting mix for pasta is traditionally semolina or plain flour. But he uses potato starch and coarse and fine semolina to prevent the dough from being overworked. This is just one example of the details of his pasta that I learned about.
The dish saw Italian and Korean anchovies combined, the latter being an ingredient Wong had never encountered before. “Korean anchovies are very distinct,” he says. “We used both anchovies to highlight the similarities between the two cuisines.”
The collaboration was a learning exchange that worked both ways, with Wong’s poached duck with master broth, sorrel and grapefruit demonstrating the skill required to nail the staple dish. “Poaching is a Chinese technique that gently cooks meat while giving it flavor, and he had never seen that before,” Wong explains. “We both learned a lot from each other.”
The chef names the dish as the most difficult of the pop-up due to the way the protein cooks. While a main stock traditionally includes ingredients such as shaoxing wine, ginger and shallots, Wong has taken a different approach to flavorings. “I was thinking of using Italian flavors like red wine, sage, rosemary and bay leaves as well as juniper berries instead,” he says.
“I had to poach the duck until it was around 40 degrees Celsius, cool it, melt the fat in the oven and cut up the legs because they cook differently than the breast.
“The legs went back into the oven, then the sauce component had the poaching liquid reduced with goji berries and grapefruit juice for sweetness and tartness. The goji berries were a nice touch to remind everyone that this was not a purely western dish.
Basil sorbet with mascarpone and Thai basil oil was the final dish, which was made in collaboration with Mapo. Wong bet on basil, spending big bucks on the herb to make sure the flavor comes through (and it does).
The two-day pop-up was not just a passion project for the chefs – who took turns in 15-hour shifts to prepare – but a test of what the future might hold. “It was special to cook our own food and think outside the box – not just using only what we learned from Leo and Paci,” says Wong.
“We both love working in our restaurants, but doing the same thing every day is becoming routine. Something like this makes us think about food costs, how we can make an entire menu work, and how to work with the front of the house. It’s a very small restaurant start-up.
Wong says there’s more to come after the first pop-up, with a second iteration likely to happen in the near future. Or potentially, something much bigger. Either way, the chefs are onto a good thing. “I’m happy that everything went well because it proved that the path I’m on feels good,” he said.
“Some chefs see it as a job, but Steven and I see a deeper purpose and meaning in it. We are passionate about sharing our cultures through food. With a few more events, maybe we can open our own places in a few years… We are still developing our skills, but our creativity is pushing us and there will be more to come.