Running Tiger, Hidden Dining Room: Dinner at Chez Fong

I think I hear sighs as the dumplings and potstickers arrive at the tables. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Chez Fong is the Forest Town home of weekly pan-far-eastern meals, made in Jozi by Su-yen Thornhill. It’s where this high energy hostess holds forth, cooking 10 courses of what she loves, to entertain guests’ palates.

When Su-yen Thornhill hasn’t been out ultra-trail running she’s been doing what were once popups but have since become fixtures on the Jozi dining landscape. 100 miles or 161 km for the trails, day through night, and 10 courses of dishes inspired by the far eastern people of the world.

Lately she’s moved her collection of running shoes and what she often calls the Tiger Kitchen from Houghton Estate to an extraordinary property in Forest Town.

“I like where I am now,” says Su-yen about more than just her new house, where she’s created a few dinner areas and kitchens inside and out. She thinks she might get back to doing better than “the six kays I’ve been limiting myself to for a while because at one time I’d thought I was really running away from things”. 

This is the first time I’ve been to one of her Chez Fong dinners at this address. Because of my friend David’s birthday being spent in South Africa this year before he leaves again in a few days, this dinner is a surprise gift from me. It became a surprise for me too, earlier, when we first arrived at the old Houghton Estate address and I realised something was wrong even as we were in the driveway. I hadn’t known they’d moved; hadn’t read the WhatsApp she’d sent.

Now we’re at the new address, slightly late for the dinner. To add to that, a group had arrived half an hour early and wanted their dinner to commence. So, in no time, we have a kind of poke bowl in front of each of us. 

I’ve always managed to get the Tiger Kitchen counter seats at Chez Fong dinners, instead of at the tables on the floor. I’d asked for two counter seats again when I booked a while back. I knew David would be interested in the food creation part and I knew it was the best spot, watching Su-yen finishing all the dishes right here, commenting on them and hearing the kitchen repartee. She’d said her new configuration didn’t have counter seating. I still wasn’t equating a new configuration with a new address. 

However, when we arrived, after wishing David a happy birthday, she led us to a little two-seater table just near the counter, “The closest thing to what you wanted! But look!” She indicates a beautifully long piece of pale wood that will be attached to the work counter tomorrow, for guests to sit at again. She’s already got bright and lovely chairs ready. 

The new Tiger Kitchen seating counter ready, after the birthday dinner. (Photo: Supplied)

David’s fascinated. “I’d never have thought anything like this existed here.” Chez Fong isn’t really advertised and is quite a lovely secret and a surprise but I’m not sure if “here” is Forest Town or Jozi. Is he comparing it with the east? Maybe with Scotland? Su-yen’s also from Scotland. David smiles delightedly at the roasted salmon in his bowl. “This might be Kewpie.” He taps a chopstick on a mayonnaise dab on the salmon. The tuna is fresh, raw, and purplish, a citrusy tartare really, on glossy sweet potato noodles. It’s all surprisingly ample for the foretaste of a long dinner. Kewpie is beloved of mostly Japanese eaters, a famously egg-yolky mayo.

While the kitchen catches up and guests bustle with the drinks they’ve brought, plates of Su-yen’s crisp Szechuan pepper-and-salt calamari snacks arrive on the tables They snap like crisps and David comments on the fine way the pieces have been cut before drying them out a second time in a fridge, a Su-yen trick with a few of her dishes, coating them in potato flour and deep-frying. Two small bowls of salty garlic sauce and a more soy one arrive too but turn out to be for forthcoming dumplings.

Szechuan pepper and salt calamari crisps. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I’ve brought green tea kombucha and hope David approves. I knew he likes to drink green tea with good Chinese food and this seemed a more festive version. The first time I had dinner at Chez Fong I’d drunk champagne, since I and others consider it a drink that goes with anything, though we might not have had Chinese flavours in mind. So the next time, I brought a single Chinese beer for myself. It wasn’t bad though I’m not a beer drinker. This kombucha seems more promising. 

There are lots of Chez Fong and Su-yen tales and the story of the Tiger Kitchen’s name is possibly because of her wonderful eccentric Chinese chef mum. I met this glamorous woman once when she’d been visiting her daughter in Africa. From her, Su-yen might well have had the idea of kitchens being closely guarded domains of growly protectrixes. Su-yen does think of hers as being her own eccentrically free space. Then, of course, she was born in the Year of the Tiger.

A kind of poke bowl of roasted salmon with tuna tartare on sweet potato noodles. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I think I hear sighs as the plates of dumplings and potstickers arrive at the tables. I do hear one opposite me at our table too. There are selections depending on who’s dietary considerations are what and so some are vegetables, some pork. This is where those little sauces come into their own, the salted garlic one depleted pretty fast.

I’m interested in how Su-yen chooses her menus each week. They are always different. People love the tuna tartare particularly and she features that quite a bit, as is the case with the crisp calamari. It’s also decided by what’s fresh and available, like dragon fruit I remember from one time a while back. This time she says she’d been watching something on TV about Korean broth but had to let go of the one we were going to get. The broth went to someone else’s party.

What truly gets her menu into shape is working out all the dietary considerations of all the guests and working with and around them. At one recent lunch she says she had two pescatarians, one person who ate no finned fish, just shellfish, three people who ate no carbs, one of whom also ate no fish of any kind either, just meat, and one who ate halaal. “Try that. Meat Man must have been the happiest. I fed him fillet, more than he’s ever had.” 

Another soup is coming up I see. It’s miso (yum) with a little tofu, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and daikon. We also receive a pair of spring rolls that no one else seems to have. “Try these. Perks of being up close here.” In very quick succession, here’s octopus in teriyaki sauce. Su-yen tells David that she pressure cooks it for a few minutes before roasting it for 20. I think if I had to pick favourites, this may be it. So far. 

Something I remember, possibly in a different sauce setting, these in black bean sauce, are the crab claws. At Chez Fong they’re like lollipops, crisply crumbed and easy to hold, for nibbling the sweet meat.

These similarly crisped crab claws on another night, with a dissimilar sauce. (Photo: Supplied)

Standing, I watch Su-yen at the counter, crisping the skins of two different kinds of duck, one Peking style and another halaal. Her drying in the fridge happens with her ducks as well and the skin is basted past gold and then glossily almost ruby. The skin is cut up with the relevant bits of duck flesh being readied on the counter for more than 20 servings with hoisin sauce and just-steamed bao buns.

David looks a little askance when I make mine into a bao duck sarmie with hoisin and julienned veg. I’ve also been losing my chopsticks indecorously and diving under the table all evening, though there is a choice of spoons and utensils on the top.

I realise I’m perhaps not spending enough table time with the birthday guest and, as is the case near the counter, we do get to taste a lot of extras. We have sticky beef and we have egg fried rice but we also have a Thai red prawn curry that may displace the octopus on my hit list. Oh there’s apple and cabbage kimchi too.

Su-yen discusses the red oniony versus the green citrusy, versus the massaman nutty curry variations. When the firm and tasty prawns in the red curry seem to be disappearing. Su-yen gives our little bowls a refreshing of some beef fillet discs, to mix into the rest of the same curry. The taste combination is surprisingly magical. David and I are both having a lot of fun with this.

A story about how the restaurant got its name is another that concerns Su-yen’s mother. She had, in Scotland, decreed that Su-yen’s father, her husband, should have a Chinese name. That way she could get bookings in restaurants and not be treated like a white person and still keep her Chinese madam status. The name she chose for him was “fong hony”, as Chinese phonetically close to “Thornhill” as possible, “fong” going to the end like a surname, Fong, in Western use.

Then when Su-yen’s husband was visiting her family at their home in Scotland one day, he jokingly claimed on social media he was at “Chez Fong”. Su-yen remembered that and used it as the name of her initial popups that have become pretty stable over the years.

Mochi, sliced and served with the mysterious coffee ice cream. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Su-yen usually has some additional fun with the desserts of her dinners and this evening’s is one more. She’s made, for the first time, a Japanese mochi, a pounded mochigamo sticky rice paste moulded and, in this case, rolled and filled with another paste of toasted sesame and peanuts. This long cigar shape is cut into rounds and Su-yen insists it be eaten at the same time as her coffee ice cream. For some funny reason, together they assist each other into elegance. 

“Remarkable,” as David says, beaming. Especially as the coffee ice cream has a distinctly “hot” aftertaste to it that we think might be ginger and then think is actually chilli powder. Neither of us asks Su-yen as, by now, she’s slowed down from her relentless tiger pacing to a sort of swanning. She’s going around with a glass of wine, visiting all the other guests who haven’t had the good fortune of sitting so near the kitchen of this relatively hidden restaurant and its astounding cook. DM/TGIFood

Chez Fong. You need to book way ahead: 074 361 9079. Facebook @Chezfong 

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding
schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.


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