Q&A with Chui Lee Luk

Hannah Koelmeyer
20 November, 2013

Cooked talks to celebrated chef Chui Lee Luk ­– formerly owner of the much-loved Claude’s in Sydney – about her new venture, Chow Bar & Eating House, and her new cookbook, 'Green Pickled Peaches'.

Q: Congratulations on your beautiful cookbook and the recent opening of Chow Bar & Eating House. It’s been a big year for you!

Thank you. I hadn’t set out to open Chow and to launch the book within the same month but it’s made the end of 2013 full of excitement and celebration for me.

Q: Chow Bar is a big gear change from Claude’s – what inspired you to take a more casual approach?

I’ve spent my whole professional career cooking formal cuisine and I saw a lot of friends and colleagues moving to or starting more casual places and having so much fun. And when I cook at home, it’s often a much more spontaneous and casual form of cooking. This made me think about the possibilities of starting a restaurant with a more flexible, spontaneous and casual approach to cuisine.

Q: Restaurants in Australia are increasingly tending toward casual dining. Do you think this is a trend or a true cultural shift in the way Australians want to eat out?

I think this is a cultural shift that stemmed first from economic circumstance (such as the recent and continuing global recession). I also think it is influenced by the changing way of how we are these days: everyone has frenetic lifestyles, we have been trained to be impatient for things to happen quickly, we’re presented with a constant overload of stimulation that makes us crave simplicity and casualness and simply some ‘down’ time. I think dining casually in an environment where you don’t have to think too much and that is simply fun meets that kind of need.

Q: It seems that so often when you dig into a chef’s biography, there is a moment of discovery or epiphany relating to French cuisine that has been a driving force in their career. What do you think it is it about the French discipline that is so inspiring to chefs?

I can’t speak for other chefs. In my case, I was attracted to the way in which French cuisine is logically systematised; for example, roux forming the basis for a whole family of sauces, which have as their bases flour and butter as thickening agent, etc. When my interest in cuisine began, I wanted to learn as much as I could in as little time as possible and French cuisine presented that opportunity to me. And being in Australia, information and exposure to French cuisine was more prevalent than Chinese which was the other cuisine that I felt I could learn in that systematic way.

Q: In Green Pickled Peaches, you describe cooking and eating as a ‘national preoccupation’ in Malaysia. What do you think it is that drives this cultural culinary obsession in some countries, while it is not at all prevalent in others?

I wonder if every country has something culinary that they obsess about, some more so than others. It’s probably about degrees. Malaysians from all walks of life seem to be highly obsessive about a large range of foodstuff, and about the minute details of provenance and preparation. So I guess in comparison to countries where this obsession is seen to be less prevalent, fewer people show that depth of interest and over a smaller range of food stuffs.

Green Pickled Peaches

Q: Has the process of writing a book changed the way you think about food and cooking?

My aim in writing the book was to explore in words how I had been creating dishes and developing ideas. In writing the book, I am more aware of the thought processes that I was following. I take on inspiration from my environment and imaginings and think laterally around it, and gradually a pattern emerges which reveals its way to a new idea for a concept or dish.

Q: What dish in Green Pickled Peaches is the most meaningful to you, and why?

The dishes drawn from my memories are all emotionally significant to me in some way. Favourites include the banana fritters which came from excursions to night markets with my father or uncle; corn soup made under the keen eye of a very strict aunt; stuffed crab claws which were a rare treat only to be seen on special occasions. I remember tastes, flavours, smells and the dishes in the book were chosen because they evoked a special response in me.

Q: Do you use cookbooks when you cook? And if so, do you have any favourites?

I look at a large range of cook books to stimulate my thinking. My favourites are the ones that excite my imagination including the books by Paula Wolfert, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Florence Lin. These books explore ideas and history not simply recipes.

Q: Do you still cook at home? If so, what are the main differences in the way you cook at a restaurant, and the way you cook at home?

I do cook at home from time to time. There are more ingredients, stocks and condiments on hand in the restaurant which makes improvising a great deal easier. At home, cooking is usually more relaxed as there is no real deadline, and it’s for healthy sustenance and enjoyment rather than concentrating on craft to create a special statement piece.

Green Pickled Peaches is an exploration of Chui’s influential experiences from her childhood in Sabah, Malaysia, and how each – perceived through one of the five senses: scent, sight, sound, touch, taste – is central to the food she creates today. 

Cook the recipes from Green Pickled Peaches. 



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