Head Chef of Lotus Dining Group, Steve Wu oozes passion, precision and most importantly, patience. When he’s not spending his time spotting sous chefs with potential to rise the ranks, he’s teaching dumpling masterclasses to the public at Lotus The Galeries and The Gardens by Lotus.
Cooking with mum in Taiwan
As the oldest female in a family of six, Steve’s mum was responsible for the cooking at home. It didn’t take long for Steve to get the hang of traditional techniques when his mother needed help in the kitchen.
“My mother specialises in cooking many traditional Chinese dishes including Chinese New Year rice cakes, and Zongzi stuffed with pork belly, shitake mushrooms and peanuts for Dragon Boat Festival. We made them for our relatives – being part of a big family meant we had to make 12 to 20 bunches. When plums were in season we made plum wine, apple wine and apple vinegar,” he says.
By the age of 17, Steve was studying hospitality at university while honing his skills in the kitchen at a local café.
“The theory-heavy course only allowed us to spend one day per week in the kitchen, and while I enjoyed learning about management styles, I knew the kitchen was where I wanted to be.”
From military service to campus cook ups
After graduating, Steve undertook a year of required military service, which he says was an eye-opening experience. From there, he was ready to explore:
“I wanted to go out and see the world, so I headed to the USA for a year where I spent six months at an International Language School in Seattle and the other half in Washington DC.”
It was during this time that his love of cooking blossomed. Living in student housing and missing dishes from home, Steve skipped the dining hall buffet in favour of experimenting in the kitchen – much to the delight of his peers.
“I started with Chinese food and slowly moved into other cuisines from different countries to build up my knowledge. I would cook Thai food and invite my Thai classmate to try it and tell me if it tasted like their traditional style. I would make Bánh Xèo and Bánh mì and ask my Vietnamese friend for feedback.”
Cooking for up to ten people every weeknight, Steve’s following grew as he continued to develop his recipes. “That’s when I knew I wanted to become a chef,” he says.
The road to Sydney
Upon returning to Taiwan, Steve saw an ad for Le Cordon Bleu and instantly knew that’s where he needed to be. But would his parents allow it? Although they knew he wanted to be a chef, they had hoped he would continue studying and find work in an office. But Steve had other plans.
“I explained that if they could help me for the first semester, I would be able to take care of it from there. They finally agreed – I moved to Sydney and studied French cuisine and Pâtisserie,” says Steve, who put forward a strong case to persuade his parents to agree to the plan.
Steve worked hard to refine his culinary skills. He took a short-term role at a local café, before seeing a chef role advertised at China Lane. While his peers were looking for work in French and Italian kitchens, Steve was searching for a role that enabled him to flex his culinary skills in both Asian and Western cuisines.
The role at China Lane working beneath head chef Ben Haywood was an opportunity Steve jumped at. “Ben knew what I was capable of. He taught me so much,” says Steve.
Initially intending to live in Australia temporarily, Steve soon decided to stay.
“Australians appreciate good food and the chef who makes it for them. At China Lane we would regularly have customers coming up to the pass-through and thanking us for the food they had just eaten.”
The golden years
After three years at China Lane, Steve met Lotus Group’s Chris Yan and Michael Jiang. Starting as sous chef at Lotus The Galeries, then moving into the role of head chef within three months, Steve’s skills didn’t go unnoticed.
While maintaining the venue’s signature dishes, Steve began introducing more seasonal ingredients.
“From Brussels sprouts and lamb ribs in winter, to fresh sashimi and oysters in summer, I wanted the menu to reflect the best of Australia’s fresh seasonal produce,” he says.
One of Steve’s favourite creations was truffle fried rice, which was so popular he was making 30 to 40 portions per service. He loves working with seafood, particularly live lobster cooked in duck egg yolk, salt and pepper and XO sauce.
When Lotus Dining Group expanded to the Chinese Gardens of Friendship, Steve was brought across to oversee the menu and recruit the team. Steve’s passion for building teams is his driving force.
“It’s a great experience to be able to get someone fresh, see their potential and train them up.”
Steve’s excited to be working on Lotus’ pastry offering in the coming months and looks forward to introducing diners to under-appreciated Chinese desserts.
“There’s a misconception that Chinese restaurants don’t have good desserts, so we’re looking forward to blowing people away.”
The student becomes the teacher
Steve also hosts regular dumpling masterclasses at Lotus The Galeries and The Gardens by Lotus, offering everyday cooks the chance to try their hand at the age-old craft.
He loves watching participants start with making mushroom spring rolls before moving onto chicken sui mai and pork wontons.
“It’s really cool when you see people sitting quietly before the class and asking no questions, to afterwards when they are so happy eating their finished product, and want to know all about how they can make them at home.”
Despite overseeing several kitchens, he believes it’s important to find time for the things you love. For Steve, that’s staying fit in the gym and indulging in a nice scotch fillet and a glass of Shiraz with friends.
Having risen the ranks from student to head chef, Steve’s got some sage advice for younger chefs starting out in the industry:
“Think about what you like to do. You need to find those things and spend more time on them. Doing what you enjoy creates a much more sustainable and stable life.”