When Devon Café opened two years ago in Surry Hills, critics at the time raved the all-day menu was serving up one of the most luxurious breakfasts: The ultimate toastie. The winter-only dish was made up of fresh black truffle generously shaved over soft fried eggs, grilled mushroom, fontina cheese, and sourdough toast.
At that time, it also marked one of the proudest moments for Zach Tan, the brains behind the menu.
“One highlight as a chef was when I first did my first menu, and actually executed it. That was two years ago with the original Devon. As a young chef you’re always writing notes, doing sketches about what dish you want to do, and then finally you have the opportunity to do what you want to do,” he said.
After working in some of Sydney’s most highly commended kitchens including Bistro Guillaume and Pier, Tan wanted to escape the fine dining scene and headed straight into casual eatery.
“I’ve got a young family and that was the reason for me going all casual. I think my business partner Derek [Puah] and I found a niche market in Sydney where it was in need for something brunch and something casual, yet of good quality. It also didn’t hurt that I was a chef, and compared to other places that were doing lunch and dinner, we were just focused on brunch food,” he said.
However for Tan becoming a chef wasn’t initially on his mind. In fact he was so close to completing a degree in pharmacy before he decided to defer it during his third year to pursue a career in cooking.
“I hated pharmacy, so that helped. I just wanted to do something that would let me express myself, and I wanted to use my senses in everyday life; I wanted to feel alive,” he said.
Growing up in Penang, Malaysia – a city that was declared by Time Magazine in 2004 as having the ‘best street food in Asia’ – Tan admitted he did a lot more eating rather cooking when he was younger. Like most Malaysians, hawker food, such as char kway teo, steamed taro cakes, and home cooking by his mum topped the list of childhood favourites.
“My mum is a very good cook. She’s very gifted, so I was always very lucky. Living in Penang we had an abundance of seafood, and my parents are the type that would never buy B grade seafood; they always bought the best, so I was always very lucky to be eating good produce all the time,” he said.
But after working his way up in the kitchen washing dishes, before landing an apprenticeship at a five start resort in Penang, Tan had a stronger desire for more.
“I kind of realised Penang was too small to grow. I had to travel and needed to further my craft to learn new techniques, which was why I moved here [in Sydney].
“I think Sydney is a more metropolitan city. You can’t beat street food in Penang, but I’ve learnt so many techniques from so many different cultures, and that’s why I think it’s worth coming down to Sydney. Sydney I think is on par with New York in terms of Asian and multicultural cooking.”
But for the 32-year-old, he was not satisfied with just doing brunch anymore at Devon, which led to spin-off of Devon by Night being born. Known for its Asian-infusion food, Tan describes the menu as Malaysian, but his way.
“I wanted to go back to my roots. I missed the flavours a lot,” he said.
“I think everyone’s childhood influences the way they eat, that’s why nostalgia plays a big part in our food. I always want to incorporate some sort of nostalgia in my cooking.”
This has also been reflective in the way he eats out too.
“I like Thai food, I like Malaysian food, a lot of Asian food, but I realise I’m going away from that fine dining. I just enjoy eating a little more authenticity in cooking. I’m getting older, and going back to my roots. It’s more nostalgic for me,” he said.
“The last fine dining for me was Paci. It’s very creative, but very paired down; there’s not too much going on but it’s still able to wow you.
“I think the level is so high even at casual dining, the cooking execution may be on par as fine dining as 10 years go. The cooking is very solid.”
While admitting his parents did not initially agree to the idea, Tan commends his success so far to his parents. “I owe all my success to them, I’ve come this far because of them.”