As a timid and naïve twenty-something, I had the good fortune of stumbling into a somewhat unusual job. I’d spent several years running a large roster of events for an industry association where I met some fascinating people who were generous in sharing their experience and knowledge. Working 70+ hours a week was part of the job, and in my narrow world, this was just what you did in order to have the opportunity to learn. I reached a point where I felt I’d done all there was to do in that role and began to realise that other people my age didn’t work as much as I did. Some quick sums showed my hourly rate to be about equivalent to a junior fast food worker. Time for a change. A few missteps, and next thing I’d taken this strange job hybrid – one employer, two jobs. Working for as a legal assistant for a lawyer providing tax and estate planning advice to wealthy Asian families as well as doing marketing, accounts, payroll, etc, etc, etc for a restaurant the lawyer, Bill, co-owned with chef Timmy Kemp. There were many ‘etc’s to the job, as anyone who has worked in a restaurant will understand.
Fast forward 10+ years and Timmy Kemp, Thai born, French trained, long time Brisbane resident is the Chef at Chow House. Previously the site of the unremarkable James Street Bistro, the space at the entry to the Palace Cinema has been reborn as a timber and plant enclosed oasis, a casual restaurant serving ‘street food’ inspired dishes and the aromatic slow braises and duck dishes that Timmy is known for.
While I worked with Timmy, I had the privilege of eating her cooking most days. Having never worked in a restaurant before, I was surprised when on my first day, our head waiter Graham phoned my desk to ask if I was ready for him to deliver my lunch. I nervously stuttered back with a positive reply, then my mind raced – I hadn’t expected this, what would they serve me? Should I tell them I was a vegetarian? No, that would be an insult – telling the chefs I didn’t want their food. Then – a decision. If one of the best chefs in town was going to cook my lunch and there would be meat in it, perhaps I should just eat it. I had no ethical reason for a meatless diet, simply a preference from childhood that had carried on over the years. A Thai quail salad was served, and as is the norm the small bird had been cut into pieces with a cleaver – sweet meat around what felt like knuckles of splintered bone. A somewhat brutal introduction to a more carnivorous way of eating, but just an entrée into the start of what remains an obsession. What I learnt from my time working with Timmy and Bill is the subject of a whole other discussion, suffice to say my time in their employ continues to be a big influence on my interest in food, wine and the business of restaurants.
I took my mum to lunch with me at Chow House. We were going to go somewhere else but they had just opened and weren’t ready to do a Saturday lunch service yet. So we agreed on Chow House. Mum would sometimes come and eat a late lunch with me at Brasserie Indochine, where I worked with Bill and Timmy, and still fondly recalls a dessert special of plums three ways prepared by pastry chef Amanda (surname escapes me) who had also worked at River Café, as had a number of chefs in Timmy’s brigade.
The kitchen is quite separate from the dining area at Chow House, so I was happy to eat there for the first time without any special treatment from Timmy. Mum zeroed in on a dish that featured Timmy’s trademark chilli peanut jam and chilli coriander bread, served to accompany grilled chicken on lemongrass skewers. The chilli peanut jam is here described as satay sauce, but it was reassuringly the same in flavour as the moreish version I’d first tasted all those years ago at Indochine. I may have closed my eyes and lent back in my chair a little as I tasted it, before quickly moving in to beat mum to eating the rest. I chose the prawn served on sugarcane skewers which are much chunkier than the usual mousse-y Vietnamese version that you sometimes find inside a rice paper roll or as part of a vermicelli noodle dish. There’s also a lot more coriander in these. They came with a little glass bearing a brightly coloured assortment of quick pickled vegetables and both entrees were polished takes on the sort of street food you might find in an Asian city.
I was so entranced by my main that I didn’t even ask to try mum’s salad of coconut poached chicken with green mango, pickled vegetables with a lime vinaigrette, but I’m not sure she would have shared. My first choice had been the slow braised beef brisket with aromatic spices. There are insufficient words to describe the heavenly scent and complex flavours of Timmy’s slow braised dishes, but on this occasion it wasn’t available. So I went with caramelised pork belly braised in star anise and served with a salad of lychee, orange segments and watercress with pig’s ear. To be honest, faced with needing to make a quick decision, I’d settled on this because I’m kind of addicted to the salty crispness of fried pig’s ears. Good choice. This dish offers the depth of flavour I’ve only ever experienced in Timmy’s slow braised dishes, cut through with the gentle tang and acid of the orange and lychee salad. The generous baton of pork belly had dense, thickly crisped crackling on top and sweet yielding meat below with the fat between rendered to melting. Sadly the wine list doesn’t scale the same heights as the food, and the accompanying glass of Leo Buring Riesling was flabby and bland. There are however better options by the bottle and a decent list of beers too.
Not everyone will love Chow House as much as I did, since for me it represents more than just ‘that new place on James Street’. I’ve always felt that Timmy’s food is a fantastic match for the climate and the way Brisbane diners like to eat. The menu descriptions of her food often underplay the detail and technique borne of her French training. With all dishes under $30 and many small dishes under $15, this is a great place for a snack and a drink or a casual dinner. There’s also a breakfast menu which offers both conventional egg plus protein plus toast options and Asian inspired dishes like black sticky rice pudding, a confit duck omelette and nasi goreng.
Aside from plotting a series of opportunities to reacquaint myself with Timmy’s cooking, I’m pleased to see a format and menu that gives her the opportunity to share her uniquely delicious food with a new audience.Chow House
39 James Street, Fortitude Valley (Outside Palace Cinema)
07 3852 5155
Open daily from 7am until late, Breakfast from 7am until noon. www.chowhouse.com.au
4 thoughts on “Chow House, Fortitude Valley”
I’ve heard so many good reports about Chow House that I really should go. But what I love about your post is how it evoked memories (food and otherwise) of your younger days. As food often does. I also love how your younger you had the sensitivity and class to eat the food provided by chef, despite your vegetarian preference. It says so much about who you are. Thanks K.
Thanks for your comment Mel. I wasn’t sure about including those recollections in the post, but accidently hit the publish button while I was editing and prevaricating and thought ‘screw it!’.
I’m going to add an image later from Vogue Living who ran a feature on Indochine when it opened – it includes some of Timmy’s recipes including one for an amazing beef shin curry, which I’ve never got around to recreating. Such a shame that Indochine failed to find an audience back in the mid 90′s – Brisbane has come a long way.
I have always said that having a little personal information in your posts often shows other dimensions to your readers. This was a great example of that. I want to eat that quail too, and experience that whole ‘first time’ experience again. Great post.
I’ve been curious about this place since you mentioned in passing it was in the works – sounds like a must visit.