As Melbourne’s home of regional Chinese fine dining, Spice Temple, enters its 14th year, we hear from head chef Maggie Chan on what needs to be eaten in 2024. 

You might remember me from such establishments as Spice Temple in Melbourne, where I’ve been working for five years. I’m able to pull a lot of inspiration for the Chinese cuisine from my Hong Kong background, which has a Cantonese style. It’s just one of the styles of Chinese cooking, which is very rich and diverse, and varies greatly between regions. I’m lucky in that every day at Spice Temple feels like an exploration and improvement of my Chinese culinary knowledge.

I’ve been cooking for 10 years, professionally. I’ve enjoyed cooking since I was a kid, and decided to pursue my dream of becoming a chef by moving to Australia back in 2014 and starting my career in hospitality. Since I was so green, I had to start my learning from scratch, studying in a cookery course and working as a cook in a small café for my first hospitality job. I knew I was starting later than most people in the industry, so I had to really put in the hard yards in both work and study. After a couple of years of experience in different workplaces under my belt, I was ready to make further steps in my culinary career.  

The brief for my gig at Spice Temple is keeping the authentic Chinese taste that Spice Temple is so famous for. The menu focuses on many types of regional cuisine: Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang. The different regions all have their own specific characteristics, and we like to keep the authentic local flair with Australian, locally produced ingredients.

Inspired by Sichuan cuisine, we have our firewater beef dish, which uses beef tenderloin fillet, for example. The tender beef is accompanied with a fiery hot broth, very indicative of Sichuan flavours. From Hunan cuisine, we have fish Hunan-style with a black bean and chilli topping.

And I’m passionate about always being on the lookout for new restaurants. It doesn’t matter the cuisine: the only way to make good food is to eat a lot of good food. Each cuisine offers a completely unique flavour profile, technique, and opportunity to learn. Eating is one of my passions, especially when sharing a beautiful meal with friends. An amazing meal at a great restaurant will make anyone’s day.

Which means I like to cook honestly, anything and everything. I’m open to all cuisines and really love the process and artistry of cooking. What I love about food is its ability to connect and bring people together. I’m so fortunate to work with chefs from all over the world. Harnessing each of our individual strengths and learning from one another to improve gives me such joy. 

My favourite Chinese region to cook from is Sichuan! I personally love spicy food and Sichuanese dishes have this undeniably strong character that you just can’t find anywhere else. That’s not to say that it’s one note: Sichuan is so varied in flavour and depth. Yes, you get that hot, or mala flavour, but there’s also a lot of sweet and sour notes, which we call “fish-fragrant” flavour, to cook with eggplant or pork. For cold dishes, there’s a rich and spicy sesame paste that is really popular, both with vegetables and meat. There’s bang bang chicken, gong bao chicken, mapo tofu, fish-fragrant eggplant… the list goes on and on. I can’t get enough of Sichuan food: that spicy sensation is completely addictive. 

And if there’s one thing I don’t want you to leave Spice Temple without trying it’s the charcoal-grilled pork belly char siu with garlic-chive pesto, for sure. Pork char siu is a classic Cantonese-style barbecued pork dish. Our signature char siu uses streaky pork belly, and is marinated with our secret char siu marinade for at least 24 hours, which incorporates many different kinds of Chinese sauces and spices to enhance the flavours. After the marination, we sous vide the meat to cook through, and charcoal grill it after for a nice smoky flavour and beautiful caramelised surface. We drizzle a Shaoxing wine glaze to finish. We serve it with a special house-made garlic-chive pesto, which is also charcoal-grilled and mixed with pinenuts and house-made spring-onion oil. You won’t be able to stop eating it.

Spice Temple, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, (03) 9081 0533, open 5.30pm-8.30pm daily, plus noon-2.30pm Thu-Sun,, @spice.temple