When you step into The Rice Den in St Leonards, Sydney, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve walked into a gorgeous Hong Kong eatery. Old-style floral wallpaper adorns the walls, greenery is nestled against the high windows, and a warm amber glow comes from lights that peek through wicker birdcages suspended from the ceiling.
The Rice Den is St Leonard’s home of traditional Cantonese cuisine, inspired and lovingly crafted by Roy Chan. The focus is on authentic flavours and traditional techniques paired with a modern twist. From the pickled vegetables lining the exposed-brick walls to the wooden abacuses displayed above the opening into the kitchen (watch the chefs work their magic as you sip on a cocktail), every aspect conveys a tasteful fusion of classic and contemporary.
To mark the release of The Rice Den’s delicious new menu, we took the opportunity to sit down with Roy and find out a bit more.
Hi Roy, thanks for taking some time out to talk with us. We hear you bought your first restaurant when you were just 22 years old! Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in the whole restaurant business?
It was a long time ago, but yes I did take over my first restaurant when I was around 22-23 years old, straight out of university. When I completed uni, I started applying for jobs and actually took a few months off surfing and pondering on what I would choose as my career.
I always say, “If you ever want to clear your mind, the ocean is your best friend.” Sitting on my board, I was thinking that when I started full-time work it would be behind a desk and not physical. That is when I decided that I would do something totally out of left field. I borrowed some money from my family and promised that I would repay them in one year. This was the start of my restaurant career.
And what a start it was! The Rice Den began as a small eatery in Chatswood but you quickly outgrew that and moved to St Leonards. We love the look you’ve got going on – how did you decide what the place should look like?
We started The Rice Den in Chatswood because we wanted to create a hip and casual eatery that had the best of Southeast Asian cuisine. We have been lucky enough to have met a lot of good people in Chatswood that helped us grow quickly; even our landlord here in St Leonards, Joe Moschella, was a customer of ours in Chatswood.
We wanted to make this Rice Den to be something special for our guests and also something we could be really proud of. We had a designer to help create some of the structure of the space and then my brother Peter and sister-in-law Rita helped us with creating a more homely and welcoming feel to the restaurant – there would be nobody else better to ask than family.
You’ve recently launched a new menu and there are a lot of delicious Canton dishes in there. Where do you get your ideas from?
The ideas behind our dishes come simply from our families and upbringing. We love to cook dishes that actually mean something to us, just like the hand-made ‘Cheong Fun’. This was one of my first memories of delicious, simple food that we can get off the streets of Hong Kong, and we make it just like they did in the olden days with a muslin cloth. That is how they got it so silky smooth.
What is it about Cantonese cuisine that you love?
The reason I love Cantonese cuisine is that it has so much complexity to it. There are so many elements to Cantonese cooking that make up a great dish; the balance of flavour is very important to me.
Take something as simple as fried rice for example. To make great fried rice, you must do things ahead of time like cook the rice one day earlier and start dehydrating the grains before cooking in the wok.
It’s great that you’re using traditional techniques to make your meals. So what’s your favourite item on the menu?
I actually have two favourites on the menu. Firstly it has to be the muslin cloth steamed Cheong Fun with our sesame, peanut and hoisin sauce. And the second one would be our Hong Kong Milk Tea Creme Brulee because it tastes exactly like the milk tea we have in Hong Kong.
You obviously know how to make some amazing stuff. As a chef, what would you say goes into creating the perfect dish?
It is difficult to call a dish perfect as it is so subjective to your audience, but I would say that using your heart and memories would be the best ingredients to put into a dish because it tells a story and is meaningful.
So the food you’ve got here is delicious but we can’t ignore the knock-out cocktails you’ve got going. Can you tell us a bit about those? What’s your favourite?
We were very fortunate to get great help when we started here in St Leonards. Julian Serna, a friend of my sister-in-law Rita Cheung, taught us and designed our original delicious cocktail list. I asked him how he came up with such great flavours and ideas, and he basically said he worked closely with chefs to work on the flavour profiles of the alcohol and other ingredients. Since then, I have started to work with the bar to create new seasonal cocktails and mocktails.
I would say my current favourite cocktail is ‘The Bruce Lee,’ made with Kahlua, home-made salted caramel vodka, vanilla syrup, Frangelico and fresh cream.
I think it’s safe to say the Rice Den is only going from strength to strength. What do you think is the secret behind your success?
I think there isn’t much of a secret to success. The main thing we go by here is to have a great working environment. Once you have that, you will automatically have a venue that people would love to go to.
Do you have any advice for any young chefs out there?
I would advise them just to work hard and be open to new ways of learning and cooking. Every chef needs to do their time before becoming a great chef.
Thanks for the inside scoop Roy. Before we leave, we’re always on the lookout for good food – when you’re out of the kitchen, where are your favourite places to grab a bite?
On my days off, I always like to see what is new and delicious, but I have to say my favourite restaurant to eat at would be Bar H in Surry Hills and no other than mum’s house.
The Rice Den is open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Sunday and can be found at 30-32 Chandos St, St Leonards. Head to their website to check out the new menu!