Frank Shek’s Scottish accent isn’t as noticeable as, say, the characters from T2 Trainspotting, but it weaves its way into conversation nonetheless.
“Sometimes it’s hard to understand me, so I have a few accents up my sleeve,” he says. “We have a very international team in the kitchen. I’ll break it down to pigeon English if it gets the message across.”
Clearly his communication skills – pigeon or otherwise – are strong enough to rally a team. After joining China Doll as sous chef, Frank quickly progressed up the line to head chef, a role he’s held with the restaurant since 2005. For a cook with no formal training or qualifications, it’s a pretty decent gig, but a passion for cooking seems to run in the family for Frank – just perhaps not as you’d expect.
“I was born into a takeaway family,” Frank explains. “Suburban Chinese where you get your chicken cashew nuts, sweet and sour beef, that kind of Cantonese grub.”
“I remember helping out as soon as I could walk – peeling prawns, peeling potatoes, putting lids on the takeaway containers. I was always involved in the kitchen… so it was not a conscious decision to learn cooking – that was just the life that I was exposed to.”
Capable in the kitchen from a very early age, Frank would often cook his favourite meal, chicken and chips, in shop while his family slept upstairs.
“When I was nine I used to sneak downstairs, turn on the gas and fire up the works,” he recalls, describing a parent’s worst nightmare.
“I'd grab some raw chicken and stir-fry it with a little bit of oyster sauce. I’d turn on the deep fryer and make chips, so I had this gooey oyster sauce gravy with chicken that I smothered on crispy chips.”
Frank’s “Asian chicken poutine” might not have made it on the menu at China Doll, but it definitely displayed his knack for culinary fusions. Despite its name, China Doll serves a medley of Asian cuisines, including Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Malaysian, Japanese and, as expected, Chinese. Signature dishes include a master stock pork belly, which hasn’t left the menu since day one; the Penang curry with locally sourced wagyu; and an Alaskan that’s not officially on the menu, but draws the diners even so.
“There's still a widely perceived notion that Chinese food is one of these underclass cuisines.”
“A lot of customers ring ahead to make sure that we've got the Alaskan crab,” he says.” In fact, their booking is dependent on that dish being available.”
The diversity and complexity of Asian food has come a long way in Australia since the “Cantonese grub” of yesteryear, but not everyone’s willing to buy it. Like fellow The Chefs’ Line entrant Jarrod Hudson from Melbourne’s Easy Tiger, Frank admits that some Aussies want Asian food to remain cheap and cheerful.
“There's still a widely perceived notion that Chinese food is one of these underclass cuisines,” says Frank.
“It does create a bit of a stumbling block for us because we're buying the best produce that we can with our dollar, we're buying fresh and local. Just like with French cuisine, you can cook easy dishes, and you can cook dishes take up to a week to complete.”
Frank says Chinese cuisine deserves alongside with the mighty cuisines of the world, such as French and Italian, and through his work at China Doll and recently released cookbook of the same name, he is challenging perceptions of what ‘Asian food’ should be. From Sichuan salt and pepper king prawns to coconut sago pudding with passionfruit, his cooking style combines popular Aussie ingredients with Asian flavours and techniques.
"The people [in Scotland] are a certain brand of nuts that I really like and identify with.”
Luckily for us, Frank has no plans of leaving Sydney anytime soon. Although, he still feels pangs of homesickness, particularly on 30-plus degree days.
“I like the crisp exhilaration of chilly cold weather [in Scotland],” he admits. “It's got a certain allure and charm for me which most won't have if they didn’t grow up in a cold country.”
“Plus the people there are a certain brand of nuts that I really like and identify with,” he laughs.