Sue Bennett August 07, 2012
Numbers game ... at weekends, 4200 people visit the restaurant for yum cha. Photo: Quentin Jones
It's an unusual cooking competition. In the Sichuan region of China's south-west, two chefs battle for a trip to Sydney, to work in a Cabramatta restaurant for a month. They each create and serve a sumptuous banquet, with the owner of the Sydney restaurant present.
Their meals aim to show the region's food highlights and their prowess as young, progressive chefs.
Zhang Zhou's 19-dish meal is served in a richly decorated private dining room of the Jiu Yi Xiang Hotel in Chengdu's Gaoxin district, where the 29-year-old is executive chef. There's a key ingredient that uniquely identifies this region.
Sichuan pepper is hot, but not chilli hot, and aromatic with a woody, spicy, slightly citrus aroma - but its real power is an ability to pack a multiflavoured, mouth-warming punch that numbs the lips and tongue. The Chinese call it ''ma'', or anaesthetic, and in excess it can send the mouth into a tingling tango of pins and needles.
There's a hint of the pepper in Zhang's dish of twice-cooked pork. Thin slivers of meat are boiled then wok-fried with sweet bean paste, chilli bean paste, a dash of soy and a scattering of fermented black beans. Its home-style hot and beany flavour makes it one of the region's best known and loved dishes. Zhang serves it with sliced capsicum and garlic shoots.
For a dry-braised dish of pepper-tingling chicken, served amid a jumble of dried, bright-red chillies, he sources a prized black rooster from the mountains. Diners pick the meat from the pile with chopsticks. The dish has its origins in Chongqing, about 340 kilometres to the east, an area known for its scorching heat. Residents deal with the weather by eating more chillies and peppers.
Spicy sausage ingredients are marinated in peppers for six hours, dried then sliced, and white fish is served in a rich broth with pickled mustard greens.
Banquets follow a pattern. Cold dishes, often including pickled vegetables and fruit, are served first, followed by fiery, multiflavoured courses, often concluding with a blander dish. Rice rarely features.
Every meal is carefully constructed to highlight the Chinese five tastes of salty, sweet, sour, hot and bitter plus, in Sichuan, numbing. As the dishes keep appearing, the lazy Susan becomes crowded with a thrilling feast of textures, tastes and pageantry.
Zhang's 19-dish spectacular ranges from slow-cooked red braised beef to prawns in boiling oil, braised eggplant with minced pork sauce and wok-fried pork. Phillip Visalli, the managing director of The V Group, which owns hotels and restaurants in Sydney, is at the table.
Zhang has a reputation for creative cooking in a food culture renowned for its ability to adapt and take on contemporary ingredients and is hoping to be chosen for a placement at Visalli's Iron Chef Chinese Seafood Restaurant in Cabramatta.
His rival for the trip to Sydney is Lin Mei, 30. He's worked in restaurants across Chengdu but, in 2010 and in recognition of his skill in Sichuan cuisine, he was appointed secretary general for the province's gastronomist and head chef association. He's taken roadshows around China and represented the country in Taiwan and the US.
For his multicourse banquet, he uses the vast kitchen of the Yidong Guoji hotel close to Xinhua Park.
His cold dishes include crisp green beans in a sauce rich with sesame paste and oil and nuggets of pork rib in a syrupy sauce with a hint of vinegar. Sea cucumber is served in curly batons with Wunan-preserved beans, and a whole river fish comes on a platter in a chilli hot sauce.
In the kitchen, at a long line of flaming gas burners, pounding extractor fans compete with the clatter of metal ladles on cast-iron woks and the sizzle of oil meeting water. Here, Lin fries mud crab pieces to serve with chunks of firm tofu in a soupy, seafood broth.
Almost all cutting in the Chinese kitchen is done with one instrument, the cleaver. With extraordinary dexterity, the chef slices, dices, chops and cuts. With one hand, a chef can reduce a pile of red chillies into a paste with lightening speed.
Lin serves whole spicy prawns in a pile of dried chillies, with the unmistakable Sichuan pepper hit, and baby abalone are prepared in the shell, spiked with chilli slivers and Wunan-preserved beans.
To the Chinese, texture is as important as flavour and smell in a dish. It's one reason tripe, slippery noodles, jellyfish and sea cucumber are prized. Both chefs serve chicken or ducks' feet, a favourite for the chewiness of their skins. Lin offers them cold and marinated.
In selecting the chef to work at his 600-seat restaurant throughout September, Visalli looks for authenticity in the food. He's travelled widely in China and concludes Zhang best reflects what's he looking for.
''After travelling around Chengdu and eating at leading chefs' restaurants in other cities, I felt chef Zhang Zhou's flavour profile, delicate touch, plating skills and most importantly his accuracy on authentic tastes was superior to everything else I saw,'' Visalli says. ''I felt comfortable seeing him at work in his current role [he'll be] well able to handle the high volume of customers we expect during the month he is with us.''
Many dishes on next month's special menus at Iron Chef are Zhang's but, in a win-win move for both chefs, Lin will also travel to Sydney.
With a restaurant serving up to 11,000 diners weekly, you can't have enough Sichuan experts.
Sue Bennett travelled as a guest of The V Group.
Phillip Visalli is bringing a Sichuan chef to his Cabramatta restaurant ''to give my chefs an experience of another cuisine and region of China and to give something back to the customers … something authentic they maybe can't get elsewhere''.
And he's not short of customers. Iron Chef Chinese Seafood Restaurant caters for 11,000 diners weekly with its predominantly Cantonese menu.
The kitchen is split into three areas - dim sum, a la carte and barbecue, each with an executive chef. In total, there are 30 chefs, with a minimum of 12 in the dim sum kitchen at weekends when 4200 people visit the restaurant for yum cha.
The chefs offer 120 different dim sum from pork buns and dumplings to rice steamed with chickens' feet and pork on the bone. When regulars arrive in the early morning midweek, congee topped with cubes of jellied pigs' blood is a favourite.
''We offer 120 items but it doesn't mean they are all on the trolleys at any one time,'' Visalli says. ''They roll out at different times with the kitchen deciding on what's selling.
''There's no sequence. About 12 trolleys are out at one time and 95 per cent of the customers know what dishes they want so the kitchen makes them to order.''
As the day rolls on, dim sum gives way to a la carte and, at 3pm, when the 550-seat restaurant closes for a two-hour break, the yum cha kitchen closes. By 5pm, the other two kitchens are gearing up for dinner when lobsters and crabs are among their best sellers. The restaurant's site, at the Stardust Hotel, was once famous as Sweethearts nightclub. In the 1980s, Kylie Minogue, John Farnham, Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel were regular performers and Molly Meldrum was a presenter.
When the Australian-Sicilian Visalli family bought the hotel, they toyed with the possibility of opening an Italian restaurant.
''But Cabramatta was being cleaned up and had lost that seedier part,'' Visalli says. ''This is an Asian area so we should be catering to our market.''
They opened Iron Chef in 2006.
The month-long Sichuan festival will be the fourth time they have hosted chefs from different regions of China.
Sichuan food is famed throughout China for its sophistication, diversity and depth of flavour. Sichuan peppers and chillies are key ingredients. Dishes served at Iron Chef Chinese Seafood Restaurant in Cabramatta next month, during Sichuan chef Zhang Zhou's visit, will include:
Twice-cooked pork with ginger and Sichuan pepper.
Boiling oil and Sichuan peppers over sliced lamb.
Chilled deboned chicken feet marinated in red oil.
Steamed silver perch in Sichuanese chilli broth.
Braised tofu cooked in a clay pot, with spicy pork-mince sauce.
Deboned chicken feet marinated in red oil sauce.
Wok-flamed lobster in a mild chilli bean reduction.
Poached marbled beef in chive and enoki mushroom master stock.
Sliced sea cucumber with braised pork belly.
Dishes will be served a la carte and in banquets, starting from $288 for six people, which includes 11 dishes and two bottles of wine.
Sichuan food festival in September at Iron Chef, 84 Broomfield Street, Cabramatta, 9723 6228.
The capital of Sichuan province, Chengdu, is close to the epicentre of the devastating 2008 Wenchuan earthquake that claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
On the face of it, the city is an affluent metropolis with countless French designer stores and Porsches on the streets.
But many families have struggled to reconstruct their lives since the disaster. The cost of schooling is expensive for many. Free education is provided for six years of primary and three years of high school in China but extras, including lunches, cost 1000 yuan ($150) a year.
This in a city where an annual income of less than 1700 yuan is beneath the poverty line.
The managing director of The V Group, Phillip Visalli, has undertaken to sponsor 30 needy children from the Chengdu area from primary school to the post-university period.
He hopes to raise $150,000 for the project during Sichuan food month at Iron Chef restaurant, Cabramatta.