Chin Chin king Chris Lucas is set to fuse American, Korean and Japanese flavours with new barbecue joint Kong, joining his pizza palace Baby in Richmond. Kong is set to take over the spot formerly known as Pearl Cafe, with an interior design provided Eades & Bergman, whose other hospo fit-outs include Meatball & Wine Bar, Bomba and Mr Miyagi.
Lucas Group executive chef Benjamin Cooper, who has stints at London's Nobu and Bluebird restaurants as well as Melbourne's Ezard and Longrain under his belt, is making the move from Chin Chin's kitchen to Kong. He's been working on the menu for 15 months, including prepping the kimchi for a year, and says he plans to live in the kitchen once it's up and running.
"We've got an incredible pit barbecue we've had custom built and a lot of the stuff coming out of that is super-exciting," Cooper says. "I can't wait to be cooking off that and sending it out. It brings an extra level of complexity to the food."
Cooper says there are specific benefits to Korean cuisine's current zeitgeist moment. "There are ingredients available now that 18 months ago you would have struggled to find. That's a big bonus and opens up a plethora of dishes I previously couldn't have done. Now I can interpret them and bring my own style to it. Japanese is something I'm very passionate about, too."
With a flare for pan-Asian cuisine that skips from Thailand to Singapore, Bali to Malaysia, he's looking forward to adding Korean to the mix. "I'm pushing my boundaries here. Everything's exciting, so I guess that will come across as a guest. I'm having an absolute ball doing the tastings for this menu, discovering a lot of things about my food. To experience that after 20 years of cooking is incredible."
Though Cooper's been experimenting with kimchi at home for years, he was nervous about scaling up to 100 kilos for Kong. "As a chef, most things these days you prep to serve that day or the next morning. People's reaction is instantaneous. With kimchi we're about to open stuff that's been down for 12 months. I tried it after eight months and was like 'whoop,' it worked. It's quite risky, but we're really happy."
A much smaller space than the expansive Chin Chin or Baby, there's a real intimacy that will accentuate the drama of the kitchen and that showcase barbecue. Over 20 pendant strips lights, custom made by Please Please Please, will bathe the space in bright grass green, with even bigger lamps outside. Inside there will be banquette seats, a long communal trestle table and a large space devoted to takeaways. Bold Asian-inspired graphics will punctuate the clean, warehouse-like space, with a vast sign on the corner outside set to announce Kong in enormous letters.
"Branding will have the biggest visual impact," Wendy Bergman, of Eades and Bergman, says. "You will not be able to miss the sign; it's huge. It'll be a prominent feature. It's a very simple design, with the main accent colour for the space being green."
She loves the idea of the green lighting. "The custom-made lamps will look great en masse, and that will have the biggest impact on the space."
Bergman enjoyed working with Lucas. "He's great to work with because he knows what he wants and he has a great team around him. It's been easy to get where we needed to get to, and the food offering is what us Melburnians love – fresh and Asian-influenced. We seriously can't get enough of it, and having it in an offering that's quick and easy, especially with takeaway which is great for lunch, I think it's gonna be a winner."
Kong is set to open in Richmond 30th May.
Main Image Credit: Daanen Nootenboom.