• Tony Tan making siu mai at his cooking school. (Audrey Bourget)Source: Audrey Bourget
After two years of planting a "food forest" and updating his home, the chef will finally open his regional Victorian cooking school.
Audrey Bourget

17 Jun 2021 - 11:31 AM  UPDATED 22 Jun 2021 - 9:25 PM

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better host than Tony Tan. As soon as we arrive at the chef's home in Trentham, an hour north-west of Melbourne, he's offering us coffee and walnut biscuits. An instant later, he's whipping out siu mai and improvising a dish of foraged mushrooms with rice cakes. All while regaling us with stories, like that time he chased a kangaroo off his garden with a broom to the bewilderment of his new neighbours.

While Tan’s warmth and exuberance can’t be replicated, his delicious dishes can be, and you can soon learn from the master himself. After two years spent renovating his Trentham home, planting a “food forest”, and perfecting his recipes, he’s ready to open his boutique cooking school (set to launch from July 10 2021). It's scheduled to open later this month, once the Victorian lockdown lifts.

A change of pace in Trentham

Tan was born on the east coast of Malaysia, and his parents are from China’s Hainan province. They used to manage a resthouse for British colonial officers, before opening a Cantonese restaurant. His older sister was renowned in their hometown for her curry laksa.

Growing up around kitchens, helping to shell cockles and prepare bean shoots, it’s no surprise that Tan became a skilful chef. After running restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney and teaching all over the world (including at his first cooking school in Toorak), he took some time off to write the book Hong Kong Food City. Once the book was released, he went on a quest to find the perfect location for his new cooking school. That’s when he fell in love with Trentham, a small Victorian town known for its produce.

“I wanted to come to an environment that was very nurturing. I looked at the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula. The more I looked around this area, the more I realised there’s much more here. How many places are there where you have truffles, you have saffron, you have farms?”

Since moving there in 2019, he has been working on turning his new house into a beautiful home and school. His vast backyard now boasts a food forest (with more than a dozen fruit trees like lemon, flat peach and pomegranate), garden beds and a hen house.

He takes us outside to meet the hens, explaining that Mabel is the head of the group and that Mala is his favourite. Recently, he even had to rush her to the vet when she got sick, but luckily, she has recovered. There’s also a quail house, though he’s still looking for jumbo quails to inhabit it. Eventually, he’d like to have ducks and a beehive as well.

His new greenhouse will hopefully be kinder to his lemongrass plant and finger lime tree than Trentham’s weather. Being a city person, Tan says that growing his own fruit and vegetables has been a big learning curve, and that he has gained a deep respect for farmers. 

The chef is looking forward to using his eggs and vegetables (and one day his fruit) for his classes. He’s also working with local producers to get all the best ingredients, from potatoes to truffles.  

A day with Tony Tan

Tan’s classes will focus on Asian cuisines with local twists. “It has to be personal, authentic and pleasurable. This sums me up and these elements come back to hospitality,” he says. “It’s very important for people to understand where I’m coming from.”

His first classes will showcase dishes from his book Hong Kong Food City, as well as unreleased recipes. Seafood, Malaysian and dim sum classes will come later in the year.

"The more I looked around this area, the more I realised there’s much more here. How many places are there where you have truffles, you have saffron, you have farms?”

He’s especially excited to share his tips for making the best Hainanese chicken rice. “That’s part of my heritage and people who have eaten my chicken rice have said ‘Oh my God, it’s very different from the one you get from the shop’. It’s about a particular cooking technique, it could be my signature thing, but we shall see,” he says. Also on the line-up for cooking students: Singapore chilli crab, dumplings, oyster omelette and eight treasure duck

Classes will be intimate, for up to eight people, and to start with, will run on the weekend, from 10 am until 3 pm. Tan welcomes his students around his kitchen’s long marble benchtop for a hands-on lesson, which is followed by lunch by the fire. But if the practice runs are anything to go by, students tend to stay close to the chef to chat and watch him in action. “They all want to sit here and watch me cook. We don’t make it to the table, we have too much fun,” says Tan, amused.

He has thought over every little detail, from the sheen of the benchtop to the delicate chawanmushi bowls he brought back from Shanghai. “I want people to feel valued and special,” he explains.

While he couldn’t be more ready for his grand opening, he admits that he’s a bit nervous. “I want to make sure that people who come really connect with what I’m teaching,” he says. “You have to be as authentic and genuine as possible.”


The Tony Tan Cooking School launches July 10 2021 and you can follow Tony Tan here.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @audreybourget and Twitter @audreybourget

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