David Zhou may have 10 chef’s hats to his name, but for the Melbourne restaurateur behind David’s and the Oriental Teahouses, as long as his customers enjoy his newly pared-back restaurant and its Shanghai country-style food, he’s happy.
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3 Jan 2013 - 3:57 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

"I moved to Australia when I was 29, out of boredom. At the time, there wasn’t much you could do as a young person in Shanghai," says David Zhou. As a young boy in Shanghai, I would sneak out of our house in the night when I couldn’t sleep. I’d take Mum’s bike and ride to the 24-hour street stalls nearby and buy a wonton soup, dumplings or rice balls and then go back to bed. People from all nationalities and regions came to try their luck in Shanghai, so the cuisine is a real mix of influences.

I moved to Australia when I was 29, out of boredom. At the time, there wasn’t much you could do as a young person in Shanghai. I had a passion for tea and herbal remedies, so in 1998, I decided to open a tea warehouse just off Chapel Street, selling my unique blends. The next year, I added one table and chair for customers, and I was forced to get a restaurant permit. I decided to make the most of it and introduce the Shanghainese food I knew. And so, David’s was born. I only had a rough idea of what I wanted, but soon after we opened, we received rave reviews.

In 2006, my mother suffered a stroke. She had been an opera singer her whole life, and I decided to take her back to China to visit the places where she had performed. I pushed her wheelchair around the Great Wall of China and we visited Zhouzhuang, a water village that has isolated itself from the modern world. The cooks couldn’t always communicate well with words, but they used their heart in their cooking and communicated through the food, which was rustic, simple and humble. It was everything I thought David’s should be. I wanted to go back to the root of Shanghai food, which I felt was in this countryside.

We completed the makeover in June last year. David’s went from fine diner to 'Shanghai country comfort’. Our regulars didn’t want us to change, but I can see in their eyes they are excited with what we’ve done. The look is lighter and more homely, and the food is rustic and comforting.

Some of our recipes are passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents, but to me, authentic doesn’t mean you always do what your great-grandfather did. The world would never progress otherwise. Authentic is the essence of the food, and also means being creative.

As a restaurateur, I smile and feel great inside when customers talk about David’s and say the food is yummy. That means more to me than any number of chef’s hats.

 

Recipe
Sticky pork belly and chat potatoes

 

Photography by Derek Swalwell. Interview by Laura Venuto.