Five minutes with a Legend: Elizabeth Chong

Published on 3 July 2020

Photo: Chef, author, teacher and presenter Elizabeth Chong

Elizabeth Chong is a Chinese-born chef, author, presenter and teacher who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2019 for her significant service to the hospitality sector and her promotion of Chinese cuisine. She is affectionately known as The Empress of Chinatown in Melbourne, where she has been conducting tours for many years. Her Chinese cooking school, established in 1961 in Hawthorn, has seen more than 35,000 students pass through its kitchen while across Australia Elizabeth’s face became well-known thanks to regular appearances on Good Morning Australia with host Bert Newton. In 1994 her book, The Heritage of Chinese Cooking, was awarded the prestigious Prix La Mazille as International Cookbook of the Year. Elizabeth was inducted into the MFWF Legends Hall of Fame in 1993.

The proudest moment in my hospitality career was being made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2019. It was an official recognition that through my work I had changed the perception of Asian food and brought about a better understanding and appreciation between my two culinary worlds – the Chinese and Asian industry, and the Australian food industry.

The mistake that taught me the most was choosing who you put your trust in, no matter how much you want to believe in them. In matters of business ethics, I learned that prudence must always precede professional aspirations. That mistake cost me dearly.

My first job in hospitality was as a cook at Shakahari on Lygon Street in Carlton in the early ’70s. I had to learn vegetarian cooking in a hurry as the restaurant was then operated by the Hare Krishna. I loved working in surroundings that were so different from Chinese restaurants.

The reason I got into this industry was accidental. As a young housewife and mother, I was conducting cooking demonstrations as part of fundraising efforts for the local community. I discovered I had a natural talent for cooking and for communicating, which led to opening the Elizabeth Chong Cooking School.

The reason I stayed was I found my niche, which combined my passion for cooking and my passion for connecting with people. I was always rewarded with warm appreciation from those who attended my classes, which amounted to infinitely more than any financial gains.

My mentor was my late father, William Wing Young, who always encouraged his children to give generously to life, and to be good ambassadors to our country of birth and to the country I now call home. My father was himself involved with the food industry. Among other achievements, he was responsible for transforming the humble dim sim into one of Australia’s culinary standards.

If there is one positive thing to come out of this lockdown experience, for my part, it’s that I have become more thoughtful about my values. I’m grateful for what I have in family, friends and community – it’s precious above all else.

If I could return to any moment in Melbourne hospitality of the last 50 years, I would not want to. The past is gone and we look forward to the future.

But the most exciting development in Melbourne hospitality in the last five years is the acceptance and appreciation of the different cuisines brought by so many people from different backgrounds. Culinary diversity is embraced and is an integral part of Melbourne.

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