Esca Khoo

Esca Khoo

Born:


Borneo.

History:

As a teenager in Borneo my first inspiration were Chefs on television (think Curtis Stone, Jamie Oliver and Anthony Bourdain). Their passion for cooking was mesmerising - I couldn’t stop thinking about it! So you’d find me playing football and thinking about food while clearing plates and preparing dishes in small ‘kopitiams’ in Malaysia.

By 16-years-old, I’d saved up enough for flights to Western Australia and suddenly I was in a new country and experiencing a new culture.

I began my studies at the Australian School of Tourism and Hotel Management, but balancing a new life and finding work was extremely difficult. I would knock on restaurant doors to ask for a job and slowly but surely, I was allowed in as a kitchen hand.

Those early years were constant battles of balancing college, work placement hours, getting a kitchen job and visa issues. I even failed the English test more than 10 times! But I persevered through all of the adversity. Eventually, my studies were completed and my work experience in the dish pit and cooking grew. I gained experience in numerous dining establishments, cooking everything from burgers to food trucks.  

Then I got hooked on the creativity. I still remember my first time seeing octopus marinated in spices and vinegar, parfait encased in butter and deconstructed cheesecakes. I felt like I was in a magical place and I was hooked. From that moment on I worked hard, landing jobs in huge restaurants such as Noma Australia, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Sepia, Brae, Andre, Longrain and more.

Miss Mi is my first Head Chef appointment and a place where I can recreate Asian cuisine. We work to educate, inspire and reimagine the possibilities. I am very happy to finally have this opportunity to share my world.

Have you always wanted to be a Chef?

I was always fond of Chefs on television but never thought I would ever be one. My decision to choose culinary college was because it interested me more in comparison to all the other subjects. It was initially my way to get into Australia to progress my career in professional football, but things happen. I fell in love with Australia and the food world and the rest is history!

How would you define your style?

Reimagined, eccentric, purposeful, generous and flavourful.

What is your feature flavour these days?

I balance flavours in the dishes I create most of the time, but I enjoy having a combination of two to three notes from spice, sweetness, savouriness, bitterness, salt and umami.

Obsessive-compulsive about?

Wastage! It is something I cannot stand. There is actually no wastage if you see the possibilities (which are endless) and if you know how much work goes into it, or if you used your own hard-earned money to attain it, you would look at things entirely different. Wastage is a problem and we all need to work to reduce it.

Your greatest culinary influence:

It would have to be my Mother. Her food was so good that it made me want to learn to cook, but I draw inspiration from so many places. This includes Chefs such as Rene Redzepi, David Chang, Virgilio Martinez, Alex Atala, Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver to the indigenous cooks from my region and all the food lovers that surround me every day.

What do you love about this business?

I love the passion and creativity, the focus, dedication, discipline and love of the craft. I love cooking so much I don’t even call it work. The joy and happiness I get from cooking for my guests is addictive.

An ingredient you can’t live without?

There are too many to list, but I’ll give you my top ten! Here it goes. Coconut, eggs, fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, chillies, lime, rice, garlic and tomatoes. Without these ingredients, life would be a tad sad.

Most ‘eyebrow-raising’ menu item?

My play on oyster, oyster and oyster. It was birthed from having leftover oysters, which I used to make my own oyster sauce. I roasted the oysters to make them into a stock, which I then reduced and served on freshly shucked oysters with oyster leaf. The dish packed an intense oyster taste, which is exactly what I was looking for. I suppose that’s how oyster sauce was created, but it is pretty cool to do it the original way. These days you have oyster sauces made with thickeners, flavouring and colouring agents, which is fine, but naturally made flavours will always rule in my kitchen.

Signature dish:

I have spent half my life in Australia and half my life in Malaysia, so it makes sense that my signature dish is a combination of quintessential Australian ingredients cooked in the Malay way. This dish takes the form of satay, which is a skewer usually made with chicken or lamb grilled and served with a side of peanut sauce, including cucumber, red onions and steamed rice cakes 

However, in my version, I use red kangaroo as the meat grilled with a glaze made of vegemite before being topped with macadamia nut satay and served on flamed paperbark.

What do you think the past 12 months of COVID has taught restaurants and Chefs about their diners and the industry in general

It has been unforgiving, but I have learned that patience and solidarity are vital. Things haven’t always worked out for us, but we go through it together and have each other’s back. It’s not all about just making dishes, serving the guest and making money. We need to care about the mental health and happiness of everyone trying to make ends meet and doing what they can to drive the recovery of the industry. All we want to do is just look after people – that is what the hospitality world is all about.

Tell us something no one knows about you?

I actually fast 16 to 18 hours a day! I know it is hard to believe as a Chef who plays with amazing food all day, every day. You could call it a self-imposed challenge to have more control over myself and to better my eating patterns.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

I hope I can share my journey and vision in books, television and other media platforms and eventually open an intimate 20-seat restaurant where I can explore my take on Modern Asian dining even further.