Chef Frank Shek spent his childhood immersed in the kitchen watching his mother and grandmother cook. His grandfather opened a suburban takeout shop shortly after immigrating from Hong Kong to Scotland in the 1960s and it has been run by the family ever since.
"I lived and breathed all the things they were doing, and I took an avid interest. When they were preparing food, I would stand at the chopping board and just watch," recalls Shek, the head chef of China Doll restaurant in Sydney's Wooloomooloo. "They said to me, 'You want to go play or do something?', but I wanted to watch and learn."
The first job Frank was trusted with was putting the lids on takeaway containers. By the age of five, he advanced to peeling the potatoes and prawns, and soon enough Frank was working full-time on weekends and school holidays.
Spending time in the kitchen was enjoyable for Frank, but family mealtime was always the highlight of his day. Before service began, his grandparents, parents, aunty and four younger siblings would sit down for a banquet style dinner. The central prep table would be cleared, stools would be pulled out and the table would be set with a bowl of rice, chopsticks and an assortment of share dishes.
"We'd all sit down and wait for my grandfather to start the proceedings. He'd be the one to take the first thing and once he had a bite, then we could all begin," Frank explains.
His parents grew up in neighbouring fishing islands on the Hong Kong peninsula and had a real affinity for seafood. After his family moved to Dundee, near Scotland's west coast and where Shek was born, they kept sourcing local sea produce. The highlight of the dinner spread was therefore a whole steamed fish, along with crab, shellfish, oysters and lobster on special occasions.
"If it was my birthday, I didn't get a toy or Lego set, I got a whole salmon," Frank recalls.
His grandmother also slaughtered her own chickens on a near-by free-range farm. She would roast or fry this up, along with lots of vegetables and fresh watercress which they harvested from the local river.
"If it was my birthday, I didn't get a toy or Lego set, I got a whole salmon."
These dishes differed vastly from the sweet and sour pork or cashew chicken stir fry that was on the menu at the takeout shop.
"The food that we ate was the food that my grandparents and parents grew up learning how to cook traditionally, but the food that we cooked in the takeaway was designed for the local palette," he explains.
Frank loved family dinners as they were the one time in the day that the family were all together. When they weren't telling jokes or discussing chicken shortages, dinner conversations revolved around understanding how the evening's dish was prepared and hearing tales about his grandparents' childhoods. Frank recalls stories about his grandfather bartering for fish at the markets, climbing down cliff sides to harvest bird eggs and hauling in large sharks using hand lines.
These conversations were instrumental in helping Frank to understand his Cantonese heritage. He also learnt a lot by being an active member of the Chinese community in Scotland. Frank's family would congregate with this community to celebrate special events, most notably Chinese New Year. They would close their shop for four days for this food centric festivity and feast on dishes such as braised abalone, dried scallop and hair moss soup, nian gao (new year cake) and a whole roast suckling pig.
These events provided Frank a sense of belonging and he valued the opportunity to talk to kids who understood what it was like being the only Chinese kid at school.
"You feel a certain disconnect or distance from your white friends because they're all mucking around at the weekend and getting up to all kinds of mischief. Whereas you're stuck in the takeaway," Frank explains. "That got a bit hard at times but it was nice to know that people understood you."
After graduating from an economics degree, Frank decided it was time to leave his hometown of Forfar and got a job working at a French restaurant in the capitol. This gig was initially a way for Frank to support himself but at 24, he used it as an excuse to escape to Australia. Frank dived straight into the kitchen working firstly at Sydney's Manta restaurant, and later at restaurants such as Rockpool and Billy Kwong.
He worked long hours in these roles, but this was a characteristic that came easily to him after decades spent immersed in the hospitality world.
"My parents were absolutely workhorses. My mum taught me a lot about how to work hard and that working hard in itself is a virtue," Frank says. "How you get tasks done, out of the way and moving on to next thing was a good positive work ethic to have, and that's still with me to now."
When China Doll opened in 2004, Frank jumped on board as sous chef and took over the role as head chef the following year. The menu he has designed at China Doll is inspired by dishes he ate growing up but with a modern twist, such as the prawn sesame toast with bloody Mary sauce or the truffle wagyu rice paper rolls.
"You won't reproduce the dish in its entirety, but you take an idea and then you go, alright how can I work it into a menu worthy dish," Frank explains.
"I get a satisfaction from knowing that they've enjoyed what I've cooked."
His desire to mix Eastern and Western techniques and play around with flavours is something he learnt from his days at the takeout shop.
"We had Cantonese offerings on the menu, but alongside that we also had Western interpretations of things like prawn omelettes and chicken Maryland," Frank says.
The restaurant has evolved over the years and Frank attributes this to the diversity of his staff.
"We have so many different nationalities in the kitchen, and they all have their little kind of input," Frank says. "We used to do this thing where we got someone different to cook each week, so we were getting Nepalese, Korean, Bangladeshi, Thai…"
These days, Franks greatest joys is cooking for his staff and using food as a way to express his appreciation for them.
"I enjoy feeding people, I get a satisfaction from knowing that they've enjoyed what I've cooked," Frank says.
What started out as a hobby is now Frank's full-time job. He is proud of his Cantonese heritage and grateful for the wisdom and knowledge that was handed down to him from his elders. Frank aims to pass on these stories and culinary traditions to his own children, as well as using food as a way to share his culture with the rest of the world. He's also on a mission to learn the secrets behind his grandfather's legendary curry sauce and recreate it on the menu at China Doll. "Watch this space," Frank says.
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Photographs supplied by Frank Shek
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