The Pasta Master
From Hong Kong to Beverly Hills, it’s been a journey of culinary adventure for Sydney’s rising star, SPAGO Owner & Head Chef, Eddie Leung
The SPAGO Italian Restaurant is located in Beverly Hills…not THE Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, California. The “other” Beverly Hills. A suburb many Sydneysiders may not even be familiar with. Located in the city’s south, along the A3 (King George’s Road), it is not the first place you would expect to find one of the city’s hottest new chefs, William Blue graduate Eddie Leung. Here is his inspiring story, in his own words.
At school I enjoyed studying, although sport was my main interest. I played basketball seven days a week as well as taking part in the cross-country 10 km run for my school team.
From an early age, I loved cooking – while the other kids were in the playground, I would be with my dad in the kitchen. I just wanted to cook!
My father was definitely the main influence in my childhood. From the age of 10, dad let me stand on a stool next to him in the kitchen, and showed me how to prepare the vegetables and look after the stir-fry, his specialty dish. We were a big family – I had six siblings, a lot by Hong Kong standards – so there were always appreciating mouths to feed! Growing up, I read lots of cookbooks and watched cooking programs on TV. Jamie Oliver was already popular in Hong Kong and became my favourite celebrity chef. (Later, when SPAGO won the Savour Australia “Italian Restaurant of the Year” award in 2013, beating Jamie’s Italian Restaurant, it was such a proud moment for me).
I always knew I wanted to pursue my studies in cooking, and after High School I did a 1-year Diploma in Hong Kong, which included a three month apprenticeship at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, working under an Italian chef called Mario. From there, I joined the Island Shangri La Hotel for six months, working as a Commis Chef at the banquet cold kitchen. However, this experience came to a sudden halt with the terrible SARS outbreak in 2003, when many hotels and restaurants were forced to close or downsize, and all the casual staff at the hotel were let go overnight. After that, I moved to the Kowloon Shangri-La Hotel and worked as a Commis Chef at their buffet restaurant “Café Kool” for three years.
My first trip to Australia was in 2006, when I visited for almost a year on a working holiday visa. I lived near Central Station, together with some mates from Hong Kong. It was a good experience, especially working at the Elixir (Espresso) Café in Wynyard, where I was well treated and learned all about the café culture in Australia.
After saving up some money, I travelled across Australia for six months. I had the time of my life! This was definitely when I fell in love with Australia, and decided to make my future here. The highlight of this wonderful period was when I visited Tasmania. I spent a whole month driving across the state and admiring the stunning scenery. I even arranged a homestay with a local chef! We had a great time exchanging recipes, and I helped her volunteer at a music festival, where we cooked pizza and pasta for three days for all the festival goers. It was also the first time in my life that I was able to experience camping and the great outdoors. It is a safe to say that I fell in love with the country and its rich land – and being a budding chef, I loved the freshness and taste of the ingredients, and this inspired me to create new recipes and dishes.
My original plan had been to head back to Hong Kong, then travel to England – but as the economy there wasn’t good, and I was having such a great time in Australia, I decided it was time to make a new plan.
I returned to Hong Kong to see my family, and started to plan my return to Australia. I had an open job offer at the Elixir Espresso Café, so I decided to pursue further hospitality studies. A close friend recommended William Blue College of Hospitality Management, and told me about the college’s great reputation in the industry, and I decided to enroll.
Studying at William Blue was so much fun because I was learning something that I am very passionate about. By the time I graduated in 2011, I knew I wanted to open and run my own restaurant – and a couple of friends were willing to co-invest with me.
In Italian, spago means ‘string’, with spago a description of what spaghetti looks like. We kept thinking about names related to pasta and Spago seemed to work. I didn’t even know of Spago in LA before this. We had a concept of a pasta restaurant and I wanted to do it in Beverly Hills as the rents were much cheaper than anywhere I could find in the city.
So I opened SPAGO in Beverly Hills and after an initial rocky period establishing the restaurant and working out what the market wanted, it became a huge success. SPAGO has won the Savour Award four times which is a very proud achievement.
From all that I have learned over the years, I know the qualities and attributes aspiring chefs need to have to be successful. First of all, talent. You can train to be a cook but you cannot train to be a chef. A good chef has an intuitive sense of how to make up a dish combining the most suitable ingredients (seasonal, taste, color, fragrance and the most important is the trend). Secondly, taste. This has to do with a knowledge of food or ingredients, and an understanding of the background, the theory and the history. And thirdly, you must have passion. Chef work can be dangerous (hot water, hot oil, sharp knives, hot pan, slippy floor) and there are long hours, double or triple shifts, no weekend breaks, no public holidays and a limited social life. You have to really love what you are doing, otherwise you will not be happy.
My top three tips for someone who is embarking on the journey of starting their own restaurant is to know your market and then position yourself well; do something that you are the best at; and ensure you have good business partners.
In terms of my ultimate dream – I dream that one day my name EDDIE LEUNG, SPAGO will be all around the world.