Jason Chan is half-Chinese. He doesn’t cook his grandmother’s food, nor does he pay homage to a thousands-year-old cuisine. Instead, he slides a Melbourne lens over memories of mid-week, bain-marie dinners and shares them at Chan vs Chan in Reservoir in the city's north.
“My mum lives in Blackburn [in Melbourne's east], so we’d be at Box Hill Central for a late-afternoon, early-evening dinner every week after school,” he says.
Half of Jason’s family is Hokkien and Hakka Chinese. His dad was born in Brunei and moved to Melbourne to study, but settled when he met Jason’s mum.
“Mum is from country Victoria and couldn’t be more Aussie – rissoles and mash for dinner her whole life,” says Jason. “We’d have Sunday lunch with grandma on dad’s side, who’s Chinese, but it wasn’t really traditional, it was just what they could buy in the '90s to make it an Asian-style meal.”
Jason’s wife, Vanessa Nitsos Chan, runs the floor at Chan vs Chan. Her parents are Italian and Macedonian. She grew up eating mostly Italian food.
“The interesting thing is that we have different heritages, but our memories are the same because we’re both first-generation Australians. We’ve had really similar experiences with Chinese food here in Melbourne,” she says.
The couple has taken Chinese food-court nostalgia and tricked it up with vegetables, sustainable meats and hospitality experience. That means lemon chicken has a light, crunchy batter and zingy sauce; kangaroo stands in for beef with black bean; carrots are heroes instead of pork in a dish of sweet and sour carrots. Even Jason’s Chinese bolognese – a Western-style sauce flavoured with master stock, ginger and black vinegar – isn’t based on tradition. Though you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s just his version of zha jiang mian (a noodle dish made with fermented soybean paste and pork mince), it’s also a union of flavours from his childhood and cooking career.
All sauces at Chan vs Chan are made from scratch, including the vegan XO. The menu is further supplemented by the Chans’ garden. Vanessa is especially big on vegetables and leads an urban food program at the Darebin Information, Volunteer & Resource Service (DIVRS), which helps people grow produce in their gardens for emergency-relief parcels.
“The interesting thing is that we have different heritages, but our memories are the same because we’re both first-generation Australians. We’ve had really similar experiences with Chinese food here in Melbourne.”
Vanessa and Jason first wanted to open a Chinese restaurant when they introduced Lady Bower cafe to Reservoir back in 2012. They sold it a few years later before opening Lucky Penny on the other side of town in South Yarra. Following the birth of their son and a break from running businesses, COVID presented an opportunity to return to Reservoir.
Chan vs Chan opened in September 2020, initially for takeaway only. Thanks to a community Facebook page and some old-school chalk-on-pavement marketing, the neighbourhood has gradually discovered its new local Chinese restaurant, even if it’s not quite what locals expect.
“People are a little bit surprised by the menu. We’ve had feedback that some people like traditional Chinese food, and that this isn’t their cup of tea,” says Vanessa. “But we’ve also had lots of people, including first-generation Chinese people, come in with their families and they like it.”
When new customers visit, Vanessa asks about their memories of Chinese food, encouraging them to pick out what looks familiar.
“People who were eating Chinese food as kids in the '70s recognise dishes and say, ‘We would bring our own pot down to the Chinese takeaway shop and eat this,’ which I think is really cool,” she says. “Now we’re encouraging people to do that on Thursday nights to reduce single-use plastic. They bring in their takeaway containers. No one’s brought in a pot yet, but I hope they do.”
938 High Street, Reservoir, 0468 338 459
Thu - Sat 4.30pm - 9pm
This nourishing bowl is filled with rice, tender five spiced-rubbed duck, and a rich sauce based on Oolong tea. The aromatic combination is balanced with steamed greens.