Access industry expertise.

Join Now
August 30, 2023

Destiny-Defining Dishes

Once or twice in a career, a chef might create a dish so iconic it will follow them forever. Here are the stories behind five such dishes.

Words: Rushani Epa
Photography: Shelley Horan

An iconic dish can do so much: drum up attention, foster a dedicated clientele, put a chef on the map, make that same chef crazy when that one dish is all anyone wants to talk about (or eat). The positives undoubtedly outweigh the negatives. 

It’s hard to predict the algorithm to create a restaurant-defining dish. Perhaps it’s being in the right place at the right time, or tugging on the heartstrings and nostalgia of your audience, or sticking to what you know and doing it best. Or maybe it’s all of the above. 

Five chefs across Melbourne and Sydney, with five different dishes that have become iconic and are largely responsible for their fame, share the inspiration behind their venerated recipes and why they have nothing but love for the food that put them on the map.

“You put love into food, and I sort of had to put love into my food, almost as a matter of survival.”

Lasagne, 1800 Lasagne, Joey Kellock

For Joey Kellock, who runs cult-status restaurant 1800 Lasagne, lasagne represents love in its purest form. 

“I had a pretty troubled upbringing, so going to Italian restaurants and making Italian food was the thing that probably brought me the most joy in my life,” Kellock says. “I suppose that's why there's so much effort and joy I put into it. I sort of had to put love into my food, almost as a matter of survival. I wasn't really getting love from anywhere else. And that's the core of comfort food, right? Making food for others, to comfort them in hard times.” 

His lasagne provided solace to many during the pandemic, when Kellock was operating as a take-away-only business. The densely rich, tomatoey amalgamation of pork and fennel sausage, beef, more pork and bechamel benefits from plenty of cheese, and “really good sheets,” which he blanches for a minute to avoid a stodgy finish. The key to it all is love; love in what he does and how he operates. 

“I think it's all in the attention to the different elements. I would say there are no corners cut whatsoever.” 

Asked whether he ever gets sick of the dish that has defined him and his restaurant, Kellock responds “I LOVE LASAGNE!!”

653 High Street, Thornbury, VIC.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Halloumi cheese pie, A1 Bakery, the Raji family

In a recent poll held via Lebanese bakery A1 Bakery’s Instagram, the humble cheese pie took out top spot as crowd favourite. It’s no surprise, either, as it’s been on the menu since the bakery’s inception in 1992. In Lebanon, these pies, or fatayer, are filled with minced meat or cheese. Traditionally, the cheese iteration is stuffed with ashawan, a semi-hard sheep's milk cheese, but co-owner Haikal Raji’s family omitted ashawan for the more popular shredded halloumi. The result is a pillowy crescent-shaped pie that’s buttery, briney and bears the signature halloumi squeak on the inside.

“Halloumi was always very popular and easy to access. Nowadays, there’s a bigger variety of cheese, whereas before there wasn't a lot,” says Raji. "The most important thing about the cheese pie is the dough, and once the dough is right, the halloumi follows.” 

Perhaps the secret ingredient to the long-serving stalwart’s success is also consistency. 

“A lot of people might mix their pies with mozzarella so you get that stringy cheese look, which is great for visuals or for Instagram or something like that, but we've never wanted to do anything like that. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”643-645 Sydney Road, Brunswick, VIC.

Hopper thali, Many Little Bar & Dining, Gayan Pieris

Some of the country’s best Sri Lankan fare is on the Mornington Peninsula, at Many Little Bar and Dining, headed by chef Gayan Pieris. For Pieris, this was his one shot to expose the region to the little island nation’s cuisine. 

“The inspiration for the thali is that I wanted to celebrate my culture. This way people are sharing and they have something in common to talk about. It’s created a bond just for that occasion.” 

The thali is a celebration of diverse dishes; there are crisp hoppers and flaky paratha roti, delicate string hoppers and rice, various sambals, condiments, and curries, including a charged beef curry and creamy dhal. All of which invite you to eat with your hands and break bread together, just like his family would. 

“There’s a dish in the thali that always makes me think of my mum. It’s the memory and the aroma of it; whenever I make it, it still feels so special. We add these tiny dried shrimp that my mum used to add to coconut sambal.” 

Pieris says that he always tries to work with dishes that remind him of home. 

“Our house would smell like it in the morning and we would wake up to it. It was the most delicious thing in the world.”

2–5/159 Shoreham Road, Red Hill, VIC

Char kway teow, Ho Jiak, Junda Khoo

In Sydney, restaurant chain Ho Jiak and its owner and chef Junda Khoo are synonymous with Malaysian cuisine. Khoo hails from Penang, where, as a child, he would follow his grandmother as she shopped in the wet markets and ate char kway teow for breakfast. 

“There are many different variations of char kway teow that you can find throughout Malaysia. The difference between the market and the hawker stall-style is that the hawker stalls would fry a single plate at a time. Whereas the ones in the market would cook up a big volume of it to make it cheap. There wasn’t much wok hei to it, and it was done quickly, so they called it ‘economy’. What they do is add a lot of dark soy or soy sauce to it for flavour.” 

At Ho Jiak, Khoo serves his love letter to the varying styles of CKT that have people craving it from all corners of the country. He has mastered the technique of marrying high heat and wok hei with soy sauce, and manages not to burn it by separating fresh noodles every day to avoid it going stodgy when it’s ready to cook. The result is a beautiful CKT, glossy and umami-rich from cubes of pork fat, prawn oil, soy and lap cheong, topped with the usual suspects of prawn, bean sprouts and garlic chives. 

Shop 33 Strathfield Plaza, 11 The Boulevarde, Strathfield, NSW.

Mackerel dumplings, Shandong MaMa, Meiyan Wang

There’s something about the mackerel dumplings at Shandong MaMa that makes them irresistible to chefs and punters alike. They’re a regional specialty in the coastal city of Yantai, in the Shandong province of China, from which owner and chef Meiyan Wang (Mama) and her daughter Ying Hou hail. Yantai shares the Yellow Sea with South Korea, Japan and an abundance of fatty blue mackerel. Wang’s memories of her father, a sea captain, include the times he would haul in fresh fish and prawns to feed neighbours during the Great Famine, and of him making the family mackerel dumplings at home. It’s his recipe that she migrated to Melbourne with, but here she has to make do with the firmer flesh of Spanish mackerel. 

“People say the dumpling isn’t very fishy at all. That’s because we prefer to work with line-caught fish, even though it’s more expensive. As opposed to net-caught fish, line-caught fish are deboned then and there, which makes them a lot fresher, the meat very easy to work with, and it doesn’t taste fishy,” says Hou. 

The fish’s flesh is mixed with water, garlic chives, ginger and coriander, and the resulting texture is fluffy and mousse-like. It’s then swaddled in a handmade dumpling wrapper and pan-fried, the ends open so that the juices flow out and the Maillard reaction can work its magic. 

“We’ve always stuck to what we know. We concentrate on making dumplings, because we're familiar with the skin and texture. Even if there are other ingredients, we know the balance or we're trying to achieve.”

7/200 Bourke Street (inside MidCity Centre), Melbourne, VIC.

More from A+


Get the A+ monthly newsletter delivered to your inbox: articles, news from around the world of hospitality, events and more.