Food News

Coming soon to Sydney: Amah, a new Malaysian restaurant from the Ho Jiak group

For the first time in his professional career head chef Loong Oon is cooking the food of home, in tribute to his late Amah.

Junda Khoo and Loong Oon, pictured in 2019. Khoo and Oon, along with William Xie, are the co-owners of Amah restaurant in Sydney's Chatswood.

Ellyna Tjohnardi

It’s taken Loong Oon 17 years to come home. Not physically, mind you. Three bodies of water separate Sydney, where the chef is based, and Taiping, a city on Malaysia’s east coast where he was born and raised. But for the first time in his professional career, he’s unravelling years spent in western fine dining to cook Malaysian food, just like his grandma used to.

The dot points on his CV are the breadcrumbs tracking the way to his culinary home: from a commercial cookery course at TAFE in Perth to old-school French training at Lafite in Kuala Lumpur; followed by a stint at Jackson’s, the establishment credited with bringing dégustation to Western Australia; then four-and-a-half years in the kitchen rank-and-file of Sydney’s Quay where he eventually turned down a junior sous chef role.

“[By then] I asked myself: do I really want to eat fine-dining food every day of my life? It’s not what I want to eat, and it’s not the food that gives the same meaning as the food I grew up with,” says Oon.

The turning point was joining Mr Wong in 2014, the Cantonese powerhouse of the Merivale group, where he swapped his chef’s knife for a cleaver, copper saucepans for carbon steel woks, and where the food of the south-east China region resonated with the flavours of his Chinese-Malaysian upbringing. There, Oon flourished, working his way up from chef de partie to the plum head chef posting in just four years.

And then: Amah (“grandmother” in Teochew and Hokkien), the work-in-progress Chatswood venue from the Ho Jiak group, currently a trio of Malaysian restaurants by Junda Khoo and William Xie, with Oon coming on board as Amah’s head chef and – after years on the books at larger, established hospitality juggernauts – part-owner. (He credits Merivale’s executive chef Dan Hong with giving him the confidence to become a restaurateur.)

In the Ho Jiak culinary universe Amah sits between the home-style cooking of the Haymarket restaurant, and the Malaysia-remixed caviar-on-wagyu-satay offerings found at its Town Hall location, with Oon’s late paternal grandmother front of mind. “The things I’ll do are based on memories and observations [of her food]. I can be innovative, but I don’t want what she did to be lost,” says Oon.

Junda Khoo and Loong Oon, pictured in 2019, at Ho Jiak Haymarket.

(Photo: Ellyna Tjohnardi)

He remembers Amah rising before sunrise to gather ingredients from the market, and watching her cook for the household. When he was six, Amah returned to her hometown Teluk Intan and Oon would visit monthly; these visits became annual pilgrimages when he settled in Australia in his 20s. And though eating her food was a formative part of his childhood, he never actually cooked alongside her.

“I didn’t want to because I was into fine dining [at the time]. Then when I realised I wanted to, it was too late,” says Oon. Lockdown was the trigger to start cooking Malaysian food at home, but by then, Amah was living with Alzheimer’s disease. She passed away earlier this year. “That’s one of my biggest regrets.”

The menu will be in the shape of Amah, coloured in with Oon’s memories: the scent of soy and star anise in the making of tau eu bak (braised pork belly), the thud of a cleaver against chopping board in preparation for hu wan teng (fish ball soup). She would finely hand-chop the wolf-herring flesh for the fish balls – “She never had a blender” – and would repeatedly slap the fish mixture against the side of a bowl to achieve that prized elasticity. Chee cheong fun – silky rice noodles with hoisin sauce and fried shallots – may make a menu appearance, perhaps, further down the track, once he’s had a go at the technically demanding specialty of Amah’s home town.

At Amah, some Ho Jiak signatures will remain: char kway teow, curry laksa, Hainanese chicken rice. The restaurant will be located in the space formerly occupied by General Chao, above Chatswood train station; the open kitchen, planted right in the middle of the restaurant; the grand reveal, sometime in June if all goes to plan.

Oon says his family is proud. His Amah, however, might find the attention a little overblown. After all, she was a woman who would watch on, but not join in, on family feasts she’d spend all day preparing. “[One time] I asked her, ‘Why won’t you join us, when your cooking is so great? And she said, ‘It just makes me happy to watch you eating my food.’ That’s all she wanted. Since then, it really changed my mind about cooking. … I dropped that chef’s ego, [that determination] to be the best in every little thing,” says Oon. “She taught me the true meaning of cooking.”

Amah is set to open in early June

Chatswood Interchange, District Dining, 436 Victoria Ave, Chatswood NSW


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