Get out of town:Wonderbao, Melbourne
For our first venture outside Wellington, what better place to start than Wellington’s unofficial sister city- Melbourne. I met with Andrew Wong, the brains behind Wonderbao, a casual Chinese-Taiwanese cafe in the central city that has Melbournites lining up out the door daily and clambering for their Chinese steamed buns and Taiwanese gua bao.
As a fan of yum cha and traditional char siu bao (steamed pork buns), I knew going to a shrine for these steamed delights was going to be good, but the revelation was the gua bao– buns that are filled with various hot and fresh ingredients after steaming, a Taiwanese taco if you will. For instance; roast pork belly, cucumber, mustard pickle, carrots, daikon and hoison sauce… Salivating yet?
How did you come to open up Wonderbao?
My parents have had a Chinese bun business since 1998, but I wanted to become a designer and did that for about a year and then got back into the family business making buns. Initially I thought I would spend a couple of years working there, but I started to see the potential and what it could become. We had a little shop out in the western suburbs and started selling to Asians and Asian grocery stores, but about six years ago I had an idea that I should bring that same product into the city. I realised that there wasn't anyone else doing anything similar. I thought a good business idea would be to do one product and do it really well. Its like the cafés in Melbourne that just do coffee and do it really well. I studied in Melbourne and I was very much influenced by the café culture, the Melbourne style, so I combined that with what I was doing with my parents and that's how Wonderbao came about.
What makes Wonderbao special?
I guess it's different from a Westerners point of view– but Asian's know the product so its not special, its just that I have presented it in a different way I guess. In some restaurants they have a very extensive menu and what I wanted to do was have a very simple menu, so you know what you have come for and the product is good.
What is your background?
I was born in Melbourne and I went to school in Melbourne. I love the bars, the cafés. Living in Melbourne gives you the hustle and bustle in the city and then you drive out and its nice and quiet. It's very multi-cultural so you can try a lot of different cuisines walking down the one street.
My Dad is Chinese, but born in Vietnam and my Mum is from China and they came out to Australia in the sixties. They met here in Melbourne. When they first started their business they found it quite difficult to get some authentic ingredients until slowly the Asian community built up and there was more demand for certain spices and ingredients. Then wholesalers started up who would import ingredients as well as Asian grocers. That was our first market, packaging up our buns and selling them to the various Asian grocers and to the Asian community.
What is your favourite dish on the menu?
The Braised Pork Belly Gua Bao is probably my favourite, although I don't eat too much of that because we always sell out! The sweet one, the Nai Wong Bao (a sweet egg custard bun) is really good too. At the start of every work day I have ‘Da Pork Bao’, it has egg, shitake mushrooms and Chinese sausage in it– I call it the Asian big breakfast!
Who do you admire in the food industry?
Can I say my parents?! They have taught me everything I know. Without them Wonderbao wouldn't have happened. The braised pork belly recipe is straight out of Mum's cookbook.
I think I am lucky in a sense, that I did have my parents to guide me through what works and what doesn't. My Mum is really good, she's really supportive, my Dad is one of those typical Asian fathers who says, when you come home with an 'A', why didn't you get an 'A+'!
How long have you worked as a cook?
I started delivering buns in high school as soon as I got my drivers license. Then I learnt little by little until I knew how to make the whole product. I've been doing it for six years now, since I was 19 (yes, Andrew is something of a bao business prodigy, not only that, but he is married with two children, making me wonder what I have been doing with my life!).
What is the secret of good bao?
I would usually say- keep it traditional and keep it simple, but there is always room to experiment, especially since we are in Melbourne and you get influenced by different cultures and you just want to mix it up a bit. Some people like to make it fancy, but at the end of the day, it's a street food. You don't walk into a place and eat a bun off a plate with a knife and fork, for me it was about taking the family business to a different level.
Do you change anything for Australian diners?
I have eliminated MSG. As soon as I stepped in, that was one thing I wanted to do. My father didn't think it was possible, but I proved him wrong!
We do have soy sauce and Sriracha hot chilli sauce which people use for dipping their steamed buns (not a normal Chinese practise).
What would you say is a food trend you have noticed in Melbourne at the moment?
There are few things. I think the food in Melbourne has been what it is for a long time and the way people sell it. You'd get the first people trying fried rice and think 'that is Chinese food', likewise for sushi. Then dumplings came in and that was a huge craze, then there has been a Mexican food and tapas from Spain. Really its just traditional food, and the more successful places are the ones that present it differently and make their product well.
Its that 'cool' thing, everyone wants to be first to try something new or to go to a new trendy restaurant. Food fashion keeps changing. Ultimately I think doing one thing and doing it well will always be popular.
What do you make for yourself on a day off?
I don’t cook, I love eating out, I'm just too busy. I almost do eight days a week, or it seems like it. I always like having a BBQ at home on a nice sunny day. I do like making breakfast– the classic big breakfast or eggs benedict.
Where do you eat out in Melbourne?
I like Asian food– traditional roast duck on rice, down in Chinatown, but once in a while I like to go to other places and pay little bit more for a very nice Asian dish and then I go home to Mum and say, 'hey, this guy did this, it was really good, can you do that?!'.
I like Chin Chin, Pacific Seafood and BBQ House in Richmond and Station Hotel in Footscray for steak. It's really good steak, and cheap.
Now I have discovered Gua Bao, my life might just be complete– anyone in New Zealand thinking about opening a Gua Bao joint? Yes? I'll be your first customer… In the meantime, look out for one of those cheap grabaseat flights to Melbourne, go and say ‘Hi’ to Andrew and his lovely staff and enjoy a cheap, authentic feed (a mere $3.80 AUD for each gua bao and as little as $1.70 AUD for steamed buns), washed down with their surprisingly refreshing chilled soy milk. WONDERbao indeed.