— Watch Frank Shek appearances on Cooking with Adam Liaw June 11, June 27 and July 30 at 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. on SBS Food, or stream the spice episode for free on SBS On Demand. —
Chief Frank Shek spent his childhood immersed in the kitchen watching his mother and grandmother cook. His grandfather opened a suburban takeout store shortly after immigrating from Hong Kong to Scotland in the 1960s and it has been family run ever since.
“I experienced and breathed all the things they did, and I showed a keen interest. When they were preparing food, I would stand in front of the cutting board and watch them, ”recalls Shek, the chef at China doll restaurant in Sydney’s Wooloomooloo. “They said to me, ‘Do you want to go play or do something?’, But I wanted to watch and learn.”
The first job Frank trusted was putting the lids on the take out containers. At the age of five he started peeling potatoes and shrimp, and soon Frank was working full time on weekends and school holidays.
Spending time in the kitchen was enjoyable for Frank, but family meals were always the highlight of his day. Before the service began, his grandparents, parents, aunt, and four younger siblings would sit down for a banquet-style dinner. The central prep table would be cleared, the stools would be removed, and the table would be set with a bowl of rice, chopsticks and an assortment of dishes to share.
“We would all sit down and wait for my grandfather to start the procedure. He was the one who took the first thing and once he had eaten we could all start,” says Frank.
LEARN TRICKS AND TRICKS FROM FRANK
Her parents grew up in the neighboring fishing islands of the Hong Kong Peninsula and had a real affinity for seafood. After her family moved to Dundee, near the west coast of Scotland and where Shek was born , they continued to source local seafood. The highlight of the dinner was therefore a whole steamed fish, accompanied by crab, shellfish, oysters and lobster on special occasions.
“If it was my birthday, I didn’t have a Lego toy or set, I had a whole salmon,” Frank recalls.
Her grandmother also slaughtered her own chickens at a nearby outdoor farm. She would roast or fry them, along with lots of vegetables and fresh watercress that they harvested from the local river.
“If it was my birthday, I didn’t have a Lego toy or set, I had a whole salmon.”
These dishes were very different from the sweet and sour pork or cashew chicken stir-fries that were on the take-out store menu.
“The food we ate was the food my grandparents and parents grew up learning to cook traditionally, but the food we cooked to take out was designed for the local palette,” he explains.
Frank loved family dinners because it was the only time of the day the family was all together. When they weren’t telling jokes or discussing chicken shortages, dinner conversations revolved around understanding how the evening meal was prepared and stories about her grandparents’ childhood. Frank remembers stories about his grandfather bartering fish in markets, descending cliffs to collect bird eggs, and bringing back large sharks using handlines.
These conversations helped Frank understand his Cantonese heritage. He also learned a lot by being an active member of the Chinese community in Scotland. Frank’s family would come together with this community to celebrate special events, including the Chinese New Year. They closed their store for four days for this food-centric feast and feasted on dishes such as braised abalone, dried scallop and hair foam soup, nian gao (New Years cake) and a suckling pig. whole roasted.
BAKING SCOTLAND-CHINESE POUTINE WITH ADAM LIAW AND FRANK SHEK
These events gave Frank a sense of belonging and he enjoyed the opportunity to talk to children who understood what it was like to be the only Chinese child in school.
“You feel a certain disconnect or a certain distance with your white friends because they’re all snooping around on the weekends and doing all kinds of nonsense. While you’re stuck in take out,” says Frank. . “It was a bit difficult at times, but it was nice to know that people understood you. “
After earning a degree in economics, Frank decided it was time to leave his hometown of Forfar and found a job at a French restaurant in the capital. This gig was initially a way for Frank to support himself but at 24 he used it as an excuse to escape to Australia. Frank took the plunge into the kitchen, working first at Sydney’s Manta restaurant, then at restaurants such as Rockpool and Billy Kwong.
He worked long hours in these roles, but it was a characteristic that came easily to him after decades spent immersed in the hospitality world.
“My parents were absolutely workaholics. My mom taught me a lot about how to work hard and that working hard is in itself a virtue,” Frank says. “The way you get things done, clear the path and take the next step was a good, positive work ethic to have, and it’s still with me now.”
When China Doll opened in 2004, Frank joined the group as sous chef and took over the role of chef the following year. The menu he designed at China Doll is inspired by dishes he ate growing up but with a modern twist, such as sesame shrimp toast in Bloody Mary sauce or wagyu rice paper rolls à la truffle.
“You don’t reproduce the entire dish, but you take an idea and then you go, okay, how do I turn it into a dish worthy of a menu,” says Frank.
“I’m happy to know that they enjoyed what I cooked.”
His desire to mix Eastern and Western techniques and play with flavors is something he learned in his days at the take-out store.
“We had Cantonese dishes on the menu, but next to that we also had Western interpretations of things like shrimp omelets and Maryland chicken,” says Frank.
The restaurant has evolved over the years and Frank attributes this to the diversity of its staff.
“We have so many different nationalities in the kitchen, and they all have their little contribution,” Frank says. “We used to do this thing where we had someone different to cook every week, so we became Nepali, Korean, Bangladeshi, Thai…”
Nowadays, Frank’s greatest joy is cooking for his staff and using food as a means of expressing appreciation for them.
“I love to feed people, I’m happy to know that they enjoyed what I cooked,” Frank says.
What started as a hobby is now Frank’s full-time job. He is proud of his Cantonese heritage and grateful for the wisdom and knowledge passed down to him from his elders. Frank aims to pass these culinary stories and traditions down to his own children, as well as to use food as a way to share his culture with the rest of the world. He’s also on a mission to learn the secrets of his grandfather’s legendary curry sauce and recreate it on China Doll’s menu. “Look at this space,” Frank says.
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Photographs provided by Frank Shek
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