“It was always my ideal of what a restaurant was. Something to aspire to. Small and intimate and something I could make my own.”
- Chui Lee Luk, current and only the fourth owner of Claude’s since 1976
On my first visit to Claude’s many years ago, Tim Pak Poy was at the helm of the kitchen. The front door leading into the restaurant was locked and guests were expected to ring the door bell in order to be greeted by the Maitre’ d. The walls in the dining room were adorned with rare crockery and plates and the ambience transported guests to a restaurant somewhere in Europe. Dinner guests dined to an atmosphere of gentle whispers and the music of cutlery and dinner plates. I remember the food to be sublime and distinctively French.
Fast forward to more than a decade later, the current chef and owner Chui Lee Luk is charting a new direction for this iconic Sydney fine diner.
From its humble beginnings when Claude and Nicole Corne founded the restaurant in 1976, each subsequent owner made it their personal goal and ambition to take its menu to a higher level.
“It was the completion of my childhood dream to own a restaurant and the beginning of a quest to build one that would endure” says Damien Pignolet, the second owner of the restaurant who took over the reigns in 1981 with his wife Josephine.
His words were proven correct because he took Sydney diners on a gastronomic whirlwind with his creations in the 1980s that firmly stamped Claude’s as a restaurant that evolves with time. The restaurant consistently garnered its three-hat status with Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide during those years. The tragic car accident that took away the life of Josephine Pignolet in 1987 saw Damien appointing a young Tim Pak Poy as his head chef a year later.
Pak Poy bought the restaurant from Pignolet in 1993 and this was when Claude’s began another steep ascent up the dining stratosphere. His involvement with Perigord Truffles of Tasmania saw his menu embracing modern and contemporary flavours whilst always paying respect and homage to what was classically French.
Perhaps it was under Pak Poy that it can be argued the restaurant became a world-class dining institution. Three-hats status was mostly achieved through the years when he was leading the kitchen brigade.
(Black and white photos source: Sydney Morning Herald)
He saw Claude’s as the perfect blank canvass where he could finally create new dishes without having to play to someone else’s tune or duplicate dishes from cookbooks.
Chui Lee Luk’s progress into the ownership of Claude’s is a little different. Born in Singapore and growing up in Malaysia, she studied law, Chinese literature and art before practising as a solicitor. However, her passion was somewhere else. Following her heart, she began to learn from women chefs such as Christine Manfield at Paramount, Kylie Kwong at Wockpool and subsequently Dany Chouet at Cleopatra in Blackheath where she found her calling in French cuisine.
Her fascination with French cooking fuelled her strong desire to combine this love with her Chinese heritage.
Seeing how Tim Pak Poy successfully combined classical French cooking with his own Asian heritage, she saw Claude’s as a perfect setting and cajoled Pak Poy to take her under his wings and in 2000, Chui Lee Luk began her journey with Claude’s. Under Pak Poy’s encouragement and tutelage over the next four years, she aspired to one day become the conductor of her own kitchen brigade. She dreamed about orchestrating a cutting-edge menu that will showcase the essence of technique, flavour and elegance.
Tonight, Mysaucepan and I are here with seven other dining companions, eager to sample Chui’s Mighty Bouche # 11.
A four-course meal consisting two entrees, a main and dessert, this $75 menu (plus $45 with four accompanying wines) is her experiment in charting Claude’s towards a new direction.
The death knell of fine dining might have resonated among the upper echelons of Sydney’s fine dining with the recent closure of Bilson’s, one of Sydney’s most enduring fine diners.
As a keen observer of Sydney’s dining scene, I believe this might be a step towards the right direction. The front door is no longer locked and we casually stroll into the warm and friendly smile of the Maitre’ d. Gone are all the “old-world” feel of crockery and plates on the walls, replaced with the contemporary feel of modern art. The ambience is a little more casual although I suspect the legendary reputation of this restaurant is still restraining chatter noise from diners.
A warm salad of beans, broccolini and cashew spice is a classic combination of subtle flavours with textural contrast. Soy bean pods are delicately stringed and its husks removed.
Small broccolini florets which have been delicately separated from its shaved stems make me think about attempting this seemingly easy feat at home.
However, the subtle spice nuances that bring this dish together are perhaps something for me to ponder over and it may not be as simple as I first thought.
The wine list is short and succinct for a fine dining restaurant.
French champagne and a sprinkling of predominantly good French and Australian wines tempt our eyes.
However, we came equipped, determined to sample some of our own wines and pay the corkage charge of $25 per bottle.
A half-bottle of the 2006 Mount Mary Triolet is on the wine list for $135. We are instead drinking the 2004 Mount Mary Triolet and 1998 Cullen Sauvignon Blanc Semillon courtesy of Peter C.
Despite its age, the 2006 Mount Mary Triolet has a very light yellowish hue. Consisting the tri-varietals of sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle, I personally detected subtle lychee undertones. This wine is refreshing and could well be drunk on its own.
The 1998 Cullen Sauvignon Blanc Semillon shows a strong golden colour and more rounded in flavour. Typically Margaret River, this older wine is punctuated with grassy overtones, melon aromas and a suprisingly long finish. This wine paired particularly well with the mussels, kuzu and tofu starter. Void of its rubbery texture, the mussels were succulent and combined well the the zesty and lemony kuzu whilst the creamy tofu provided a silky texture on the palate.
I personally found the pork shoulder and loin to be just a tad dry and salty respectively although I believe this to be Chui’s intention.
Perhaps I’m just not a fan of a thicker cut of loin as I may be stuck in a comfort zone with thin slices of ham.
However, the gravy of this dish is what I remember Claude’s to be – buttery and silky with its rich flavours that is quintessentially French to marry two very different cuts of meat on the plate.
While we tuck into our mains, we have progressed onto the red wines that we have brought.
A 1990 Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon is true to its characteristics of ripe berries with a lingering finish.
The tannins are soft and although de-cantered, I felt the tiny sediments at the bottom of my glass totally unobtrusive as I took the last sip. A long lingering finish is coupled with subtle acidity and cassis flavours, this wine is subtle enough that I am happy to sip without any complementary food.
1990 being one of Australia’s strongest vintage years, this cabernet sauvignon did find its mark in the Barrosa where this varietal has never been known to thrive.
The second bottle, a 1996 Lake’s Folly Cabernets for the evening is a Hunter Valley classic. Lake’s Folly is a boutique wine which was founded by surgeon Dr. Max Lake upon his retirement from the medical profession. This small winery planted with only the cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay varietals might be the Hunter valley in New South Wales only answer to all the big guns from the great wine-producing regions of the Barossa valley and Western Australia’s Margaret River and the Great Southern wine region.
It might also have been befitting that Mr. T brought this wine to the restaurant tonight.
Dr. Max Lake, who died in 2009 at 85 after an accidental fall in his home in Longueville, was a regular diner at Claude’s.
He had immense respect for the restaurant and it’s predessosor where he once said: “There are a lot of finely tuned palates running restaurants in Australia. Tim Pak Poy, in my humble opinion, is among the finest of these and I am delighted at the recognition of his extraordinary talent”
(The preceding paragraph above is an excerpt from The Australian Gourmet Pages by Franz Scheurer).
This cabernet sauvignon is elegant with soft berries and plummy flavours. I found it to gradually open up as the evening progressed.
Would the founding father Claude Corne have even dreamt that more than thirty years after he first opened this restaurant that a dish of rice with pineapple and laksa leaf that is predominantly Asian in flavour has found its way into the menu which hitherto had all the hallmarks of classical French?
This dish is hauntingly familiar in taste and comfort. It might perhaps be what I would like to cook on a humid summer night to remind me of the tropical flavours of Asia.
I could not help but chuckle a little as I take each tasty mouthful with whimsical thoughts that I might be enjoying classic Asian in a French restaurant.
The dessert of coconut fritter, palm sugar and sweet potato is no less Asian either with its tropical flavours.
I believe the latest chapter in the rich history of this iconic restaurant is not just the changing of the guards but also the changing of the times.
Chui Lee Luk’s place in Sydney’s fine dining scene has already been clearly etched and I think it will pave the way for more women who aspire to take on the head chef reigns of Sydney restaurants. She has shown the talent, steely determination and hardwork that comes with running an iconic institution like Claude’s.
But the accolades and awards do come with the responsibility to perpetuate a rich history and tradition albeit in even more competitive times where diners have grown accustomed to quality and value. It is already difficult that so few women are at the helm of top Sydney restaurants, let alone marrying an Asian heritage into what has been a classical French menu.
“It was a lesson in building my strength and believe in myself”, says Chui upon taking over the reigns back in 2004. Seven years on, she is now embarking the restaurant on another exciting journey with more contemporary Asian flavours.
Chui, I think time has shown that Sydney’s dining audience believes in you.
Related posts by ChopinandMysaucepan:
- Interview: Hamish Ingham, Bar H, Surry Hills
- Interview: Terry Nishiura, Jurin & HaNa-JuRin, Crows Nest
- Interview: Simon Goh, Chinta Ria … Temple of Love, Cockle Bay Wharf
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Wines consumed during this dinner:
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