Effervescent showman chef Suyen Thornhill dishes up delicious South East Asian food with a side of laughter at her weekly home-based pop-up, Chez Fong.
Here’s the thing about eating at Chez Fong. You never know what you’re going to get. It could be fall-off-the-bone oxtail with a sour kimchi kick. Or prawn lollipops sizzled on a sugar cane stick until the sweetness caramelizes. But then again, it could be crispy crab claw followed by creamy sago pudding.
The point is that whatever culinary delights you experience over the several hours, and 10 courses, you spend with Suyen, the most important ingredient is the element of surprise. Even she isn’t quite sure how the evening will go, because the foods she chooses, and the stories she tells as she prepares them (always a highlight of the evening) depend significantly on what’s been happening in her life, or just in the world in general.
Needless to say, Chez Fong isn’t your average dining out experience. As Suyen explains, it’s all about having food you wouldn’t be able to make at home, served in a home environment. “Growing up in Hong Kong, we almost never ate at home – I suppose because there was so much variety. While my friends saw eating out as a treat, I thought the treat was eating at home!” Suyen recalls.
That thought lurked at the back of her mind, and was reignited when, returning home to Hong Kong on holiday from her studies in medical microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, she read an article in the inflight magazine about a Parisian man who opened his home once a month to anyone who wanted to eat there. Students rubbed shoulders with statemen in the great equalizer that was his dining room, and Suyen became quite taken with the idea of bringing together people from all walks of life to eat at a home.
Not that she was ready to do so just yet. First came finishing that degree, then a brief attempt at a PhD – although Suyen quickly decided that while she loved the idea of virus-hunting, she wasn’t cut out to spend her life in a lab. So, instead, she completed her Masters in science communication, gaining work experience at Nature magazine before moving on to London’s Science Museum, where her job was first explaining science to children and then developing exhibits.
Then, after a world tour via New York, came the decision to relocate to Joburg …. a move Suyen describes as ‘coming full circle’, as her father is half-Scottish, half-South African. And this is where her food journey started.
Suyen was no stranger to the kitchen, having familiarised herself with the contents of The Penguin Book of Cooking – “the kind of book you’d give a new bride” – after her mother took to her bed, warning that she wasn’t likely to get out and Suyen had “better look after her father or he would probably marry someone awful from the golf club”.
“Naturally, I sought out the kind of recipes any eight-year-old child would be drawn to, like brownies and pizza. And my father kindly ate them all, never mentioning the migraines he suffered as a result of all that cheese and chocolate.” Suyen’s mother recovered, as it turned out, but not before her daughter had developed an affinity for the kitchen, which she honed at nighttime cooking sprees in her boarding school kitchen and, later, hosting dinner parties.
So, when she found herself unable to obtain a work permit, her thoughts turned to the pop-up restaurants that were trending in London. Her first break came cooking dishes to accompany the wine tastings hosted by wine expert Michael Fridjohn, then she launched the Kitchen Space, giving cooking demos in Parkhurst. This experience helped refine her already well-developed flair for the dramatic, so that by the time she held her first Chez Fong dinner in December 2015, her discussions during food prep were as engaging as the food was delicious.
Seven years later, you’ll need to book well in advance if you want to take your tastebuds on one of Suyen’s gastronomical holidays. “If you’re looking for Michelin-star plating, you’re not going to find it here. But what you will find are authentically cooked South East Asian dishes that dance on your tongue so that you hanker for more, delivered with a laugh, in an environment where you wouldn’t find it amiss if someone told you off for your table manners!” Suyen promises.
The secret to dinner parties no one will forget
Although Chez Fong offers three-course lunches, it’s the ten-course dinners that keep Suyen most inspired, because this is when she’s able to turn the kitchen into her playground. “If you’re serving just three dishes, every single one of them has to be on point. If there are lots of different things for people to taste, you can experiment a little, because people are open to trying different things when they know that there is more coming.”
This translates into a tip for home chefs: Serve up a variety of dishes; firstly because it’s easier than trying to scale up a recipe and secondly because people eat with their eyes. A dazzling display of smaller mezze style dishes will be visually appealing, which is half the battle won.
Ultimately, says Suyen, cooking for someone is like serving up your heart on a plate – and that’s what makes it special. Cooking is alchemy. Taste, smell and food are all different things, and they’re very basic, but when they come together they create magic.
Details: 074-361-9079 or Facebook @Chezfong
Text: LISA WITEPSKI. Photos: Megan Brett