Chin Chin, Baby and Kong maestro, Chris Lucas, swears he wasn’t looking to expand his Melbourne restaurant empire quite so soon, but the idea of bringing the hawker market cultures of Singapore and Malaysia to Melbourne had been niggling at the back of his mind when he stumbled across the vast Windsor warehouse space that’s currently being transformed into his latest venture, Hawker Hall. Not that it was love at first sight, exactly.
‘I walked past the space a few times and didn’t think anything of it, even thought it was too ugly, then they finally encouraged me to walk through,’ Lucas says. ‘As soon as I stepped inside, I just couldn’t believe it. It was too beautiful to let go.’
A former stables from the turn of last century, the Chapel Street space is all towering brick walls and exposed timber beams. Lucas spotted the potential to recreate some of the vibe of those hawker markets he loves to hunker down in and eat heartily while on one of his many trips around Asia. He’s just returned from a recent research trip to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur with executive chef, Benjamin Cooper.
‘If you want to have integrity, you’ve got to give the cultural aspect some due respect,’ Lucas says. ‘We really immerse ourselves with the food, and wouldn’t be able to appreciate authenticity in the flavour without doing that legwork. We didn’t just go to shopping malls; we really rolled up our sleeves and got right down where the locals eat and ate with our fingers. Ben sat down with the cooks in the kitchen and talked to them about their food.’
Lucas admires the cultural melting pot of these countries and the fusion of cuisines on offer, which is what they intend to bring to Hawker Hall with the aid of newly engaged head chef, Damien Snell, formerly of Charlie Dumpling, who will head up the kitchen.
‘Ben and I have been friends with Damien for quite some time and we’ve followed his development over the years,’ Lucas says. ‘We’re very exited about him; he’s a young guy, 31, and he loves the culture of hawker food. He’s spent quite a bit of time at his own expense travelling through those areas, so we didn’t have to transplant anything to him. He got it from day one.’
Lucas reveals that he rarely interviews prospective chefs—he simply challenged Snell to whip up two dishes at short notice: an oyster omelette and a laksa. ‘The oyster omelette is a very traditional hawker market dish that’s quite simple, but a lot of people screw it up,’ Lucas says. ‘Sometimes the simplest dishes are the hardest ones. Both the omelette and the laksa were beautiful.’
With Snell on board at Hawker Hall, the menu will encompass as many as 50-60 dishes, with the ethos of multiple family-run stalls pulled under one kitchen and that spectacular stable roof. ‘Hawker Hall will represent the multi-ethnic environment of the hawker markets,’ Lucas says. ‘Everyone from factory workers to schoolteachers, lawyers to investment bankers eat there every day of the week, with each individual stall representing a small family that’s been specialising in one or two dishes all their lives. It’s almost like going to Mecca in some ways.
‘We’re bringing it all together, taking the essence of the food culture and representing that in the menu structure,’ Lucas says. ‘So the menu will have effectively maybe six-to-seven sections, like stalls in 2D rather than 3D.’
Look out for the likes of Hainanese chicken, barbecued duck and wok-tossed noodle dish Char Kway Teow, and there will also be a big focus on independent beers, with 25-30 taps. Refusing to do a deal with any big suppliers, Hawker Hall punters will be able to select from a broad beer selection and the biggest sellers will be the longest dwellers. ‘We’re calling ourselves an independent beer hall,’ Lucas says.
Regular Lucas Group interior design collaborators, Eades & Bergman, are on hand working with Hawker Hall’s spectacular bare bones in a team-up with architect, Craig Tan. Daanen Nootenboom, who handled the graphics for Kong, is also on board.
Lucas is stoked to be moving into the Windsor precinct with Hawker Hall. ‘I’ve lived in and around the area for many, many years,’ he says. ‘Windsor has an edgy element to it and still has a young, fresh vibe. The food scene is really evolving and becoming quite dynamic. It provides a cool, delicious matrix of energy.’
As far as he sees it, there’s strength in numbers, rather than seeing your competitors as the enemy. ‘If you look at Church Street where we have Baby and Kong, you have Top Paddock across the street and Pillar of Salt up the road, which creates a fun precinct. Even with Chin Chin, Coda and Cumulus Inc. where already there, but if you look at it since we’ve opened up, Flinders Lane has exploded and become one of the coolest precincts in Melbourne. I love the idea that there’s a real energy with plenty of people around and lots of other places to go.’
Hawker Hall is set to open late July
98 Chapel Street in Windsor