An old photo of Cheong Liew
What: The Backstories
Where: Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
When: Until 12th March
How Much: Adult $49, Friends $42, Concession $39, Under 30 $25
The Backstories showcases a series of Adelaide residents of Asian descent, with figures such as fashion designer Razak Mohammed and soccer star Moya Dodd. However, the sitting I attended told the life of Cheong Liew. In case that name alone doesn’t make you start salivating, Cheong is a pioneer of Australian cooking and has been recognised as one of the top chefs across the globe. But his story didn’t start this way, and The Backstories allows the audience a glimpse into Cheong’s past.
Born in Kuala Lumpur to a Chinese Malaysian family, Cheong grew up in a vegetable shop in the city. Often surrounded by some 60 members of his family, his time was spent between the shop, school, and the family’s poultry farm just out of KL. It wasn’t until the May 1969 riots that his family was torn apart, and they spread across the globe, from London to Hong Kong and to Ballarat, where Cheong found himself.
Cheong finished high school in Australia and tried his hand at engineering and accounting before his brother, Khai, moved to Adelaide. Cheong quickly joined him here, and he soon started working at a pub in the south of the city, making sandwiches during the morning shift. One thing led to another and he never looked back. Cheong moved from restaurant to restaurant until one day he bought his own. It wasn’t long until he became the Consultant Chef at the Grange Restaurant in the Hilton and was named one of the chefs to watch by New York Magazine.
Cheong was joined on stage by a pianist and the music accented the story. The family photos projected behind him bring familiarity to the story, and I even spot someone I know. As Cheong speaks, he prepares food. He chops up a cucumber, throws some meat into a wok, and rolls a Peking duck parcel. I audibly groan as the family photos on the projector turn to food and I start craving laksa. Take it from me: eat dinner before you come.
Cheong’s life story is fascinating and funny. The Backstories reignites my fondness for family stories and oral histories. I leave the theatre feeling like I know Cheong pretty well. He has come across genuine, like an uncle figure. And best of all, there’s a Peking tofu parcel for every member of the audience as they leave.
4 out of 5 stars