Credit: O'Neal Perez
Photo credit: O’Neal Perez

There’s a lot to love about food; what I love most, is that it is able to do two things – first and foremost – food are memories waiting to be captured. Through this, food can bring people together in the name of sharing a meal. Whether it’s a particular sauce poured over a perfectly cooked cut of meat or a flavour of ice cream that livened up a dessert, it’s hard to deny the role that food plays to make you remember those good times.

If it isn’t clear already, my two passions in life are food and photography, and someone who is tremendously influential to me, is Regan Matthews a.k.a. Ta-ku.

Now I know what some of you may be thinking… Ta-ku who?

If you don’t know who he is, I suggest you check out his account right now because it will change your life. It changed mine. He’s someone who had inspired me to pick up the camera in the first place and to take my passion for photography to the next level.

A beatsmith by trade, over the past few years, Ta-ku has created waves in other fields that he’s dabbed in, capturing a global audience with his creativity. An artist in all regards, he has established himself as a pioneer and a major influence to the creative community in the realms of not only music but also photography and fashion. Living in the digital age, he has had a powerful impact online, from leading the sneaker focused collective of Team Cozy that boasts more than 120,000 followers on Instagram, to discovering the tightly-curated design community of Create Explore, not to mention his own account gaining over 236,000 loyal followers for his original content. As humble as he is, he still believes he’s learning and growing as a creative.

Credit: O'Neal Perez
Photo credit: O’Neal Perez

Shedding light on his photography for a moment, he began to take this art seriously just a few years ago. He describes his style as ‘moody’ almost depressing and emotive. What I find inspiring, is to learn that he is actually colour blind, but that didn’t stop him from creating and growing a passion for the visual medium.

What’s appealing about Ta-ku’s photography is that he’s able to take you into a dream-like state through the use of muted tones with a taste of minimalism, getting you to delve deeper into the story of each photo. In such a short time, he is pushing the boundaries of what is considered ‘traditional photography’ by creating such an individualistic and unique style that is surely inspiring the young creative of today. It just goes to show what hard work and a genuine passion can achieve despite all limitations.

Credit: O'Neal Perez
Photo credit: O’Neal Perez

At first glance, connecting Ta-ku and food may not be relatable but In Residence, a collaboration with Dropbox and Our Golden Age Cinema held from April 11 to 15 at the Golden Age Cinema and Bar in Surry Hills, revolved around the different facets that make up ‘Ta-ku’ as a creator. I guess he’s the only person who could bring together some of Sydney’s best creatives from different realms together under one roof to curate and collaborate through artistic conversation. The week consisted of talks discussing music, design, and photography and of course kick started with his love of food.

@takueats

For this talk, a trio of Sydney’s best young culinary minds, Dan Hong, Mitch Orr and Andrew Levins, joined him in an open discussion. These guests were able to provide a chef’s perspective on various topics that are affecting the way Australia’s food industry operates and creates.

Credit: O'Neal Perez
Credit: O’Neal Perez

Starting off with Dan Hong – whilst noting his ultimate comfort food is ramen with cheese (something I have enjoyed during my days of being obsessed with Korean pop culture) Hong grew up with traditional Vietnamese food and around restaurants, as his mother owned two Vietnamese restaurants in Cabramatta and Newtown. Despite being exposed to cooking at a young age, he never thought he would be a chef until his last year of high school. Fast-forward to today, he is now the executive chef of two of Sydney’s busiest restaurants — Mr. Wong and Ms. G’s — which coming from my own experience, both excel in serving up great traditional and Asian fusion dishes in a menu that boasts the idea of sharing.

Mitch Orr’s ultimate comfort food also takes the Asian turn with being a nice hot bowl of congee or pho, however he is more known for his modernisation of Italian classics that he showcases in his restaurant. Coming from a family who didn’t like to cook, Orr found his roots in cooking during his time in high school, taking classes like Food Technology and Hospitality. Today, he’s claimed to be the ‘Prince of Pasta’ being a chef and co-owner of the highly popular restaurant ACME in Rushcutters Bay, notably named Restaurant of the Year by Timeout Sydney 2015.

Last but not least, Andrew Levins is a DJ by trade, but got into the culinary world in a rather unorthodox manner. Having no cooking experience, he decided to open up a food spot a few years ago after gaining guidance from other chefs. You could say he pioneered the introduction of American style food in Sydney’s food scene as he owned the former iconic food spot in the Good God Small Club – The Dip. He was one of the first to offer Americanised food from pulled pork nachos, Hot dogs and burgers. Oh how times have changed, where this thirst for comforting dishes is at its peak in Sydney with new places opening around every corner.

What’s quite interesting about these particular creative thinkers is that though they started off in the culinary world, they have been able to cross over to other creative realms. As food can be viewed as art on the plate – it is an outlet that they each commonly use to express their creativity but have other passions in life that have allowed them to enter other creative mediums and meet other creative thinkers. It’s the mutual interests that intersect and have allowed them to build a growing community based on music, fashion, pop culture and food. As the community gets bigger, I believe that there own cultural influence grows, which have allowed them to “stand out from the rest” as Ta-ku would agree, especially in a competitive committee such as the culinary scene.

Credit: Christina Guo
Photo credit: Christina Guo

Continuing on with that point, when asked what makes them interesting and different, Mitch makes a great point by simply stating “we’re being ourselves”. They break the mold of what is expected from young chefs, and you can see that from face value based on what they were wearing for example. Taking the authenticity of being true to ones self, they translate this originality online through social media as well. If you ever get the chance to check out their Instagram accounts, you will see that they really are being themselves. From Dan Hong’s love for sneakers to Andrew Levin’s love of comic books – there are so many other facets to whom these people are that they share online, and that is something that really makes each of them so different.

Moving onto mentorship, all three guests would agree that mentorship in the culinary industry, which relies on guidance and teachings, is so important to shape the next generation of chefs. Mitch explains —

None of our success has come overnight, so there’s a real battle between TV and reality, and we have to make kids realise that nothing comes for free.

“Food is so big now. It’s all over the media and it’s important for us to show the young guys and girls that come up that nothing comes without hard work. None of our success has come overnight, so there’s a real battle between TV and reality, and we have to make kids realise that nothing comes for free.”

My take on this, is that in this fast paced media society where TV shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules are praised so highly, they create an illusion that amateur cooks are able to cook to the calibre of these experienced chefs who have gone through the industry in the traditional way. Don’t get me wrong, these shows have ignited a wave of passion and interest in the culinary world but what it does fail to show is the true hard work and sacrifices that chefs really have to go through to be where they are.  These shows are mere platforms for dramatisation.

In my opinion, the media is having a rather negative effect to some extent on the future of the food industry. Dan expands on Mitch’s point by stating that this is why he thinks the “apprenticeship system is failing, because less and less people don’t want to do the hard work”. This can be applied to any field and Ta-ku believes that kids these days are straying away from the perceived labour intensive roles and “choose a creative path because they feel like it’s less work” however he further explains that these roles have “the same if not more (work)”.

Mitch continues to say that he is “worried about the future of our industry. If you look at all the talent in Sydney now from our generation, they have hit a certain point in their career and started opening their own places and we all came up together and worked together when we were younger”. What’s noticeably different now, is that this presence of collaboration and collectivism is no longer present any more in the industry.

He further explains “It’s hard for us to find staff let alone passionate committed staff, so what’s going to happen when we become the ‘old guys’? Who’s going to want to push us out and change the game again?” I would have to agree; there is no push and creative drive in the younger generation to get into the culinary world, which in turn makes the future of the food industry quite unpredictable. Dan Hong quickly replies —

“Our job isn’t done unless someone tries to push us out”.

Take the world of photography for example, where there has been a recent surge in popularity. It has garnered a new breed of self-taught individuals that exuberate so much passion and emotion; however, they aren’t necessarily trying to ‘push out’ the traditional photographers who are classically trained but rather have attempted to co-exist in the industry and learn from each other; so the future of photography is only looking up.

Contrasting this to the food industry, it’s actually quite sad that an industry that was once full of passion, is losing its way. 

Social Media + Food

As we live in a society where the internet and social media is more and more prevalent, the last topic of the night looked at the online food space. Operating and creating in realms that are so overly saturated, Ta-ku reiterates that it takes much more work for anyone to stand out and break through the clutter online.

With consumers and the media constantly searching for something new, there has been a recent surge in new eateries opening up every week by people who may not have restaurant experience. What this really does is just over populate the food scene with quantity over quality, which creates a rather competitive landscape.

Credit: Christina Guo
Credit: Christina Guo

“There’s so much competition in Sydney right now, that the dining public is so fickle. If you’re not doing interesting stuff to keep your name out there, or not active on your social media, not showing people that you’re always creating” you can easily be forgotten, as Mitch explains.

And I agree, what makes these people pioneers in Sydney’s culinary scene is their ability to innovate and create. From Mitch Orr’s modern take on carbonara with pigs head to Dan Hong’s cheeseburger spring rolls, they are offering the dining public with new and exciting experiences that garner interest back to their restaurant.

Social media can play a big role in this instance but these chefs feel there has to be a balance. Traditionally, restaurateurs use to rely on reviews in traditional media to get their name out there. However social media has changed that, and with an influence between their passion for food and having loyal followers in other areas of interests – they are able to reach a wider audience and cross promote their restaurant every day. “A post about a dish from Ms. G’s on Instagram, can reach more people than a newspaper can” Mitch says.

Credit: Michael Salisbury (Create Explore)
Photo credit: Michael Salisbury, Create Explore

Up Close & Personal

Later on in the week, I was fortunate to have a one on one chat with Ta-ku to get his perspective on certain topics from the talk but in relation to his own field of work.  

A lover of Japanese cuisine for it’s “next level freshness” his ultimate comfort food is a Spanish influenced Filipino dish – Pork Adobo, which is simply meat browned to release the juices and simmered in a flavourful marinade of vinegar, soy and garlic notes that intensifies the longer it cooks. What are the odds, that’s my favourite too! What can I say… great minds think alike 😉 #modest.

Coming from a Filipino and Maori background, food is so central to the cultures, so when asked whether he had plans on taking his love of food any further he said he’s always “wanted to open a food spot or at least go partners in one, but I know there’s a lot involved and high investment involved”, however, he’s been talking about collaborating with a few different food spots here in Sydney, and a few in his hometown in Perth. He believes that music and food work pretty well together and I absolutely agree; I’ve been to Butter in Surry Hills countless times not only because the food is great but the vibe and music being played creates an ambiance that I enjoy.

Relating to the topic of mentorship in the Food Industry as discussed in the talk, Ta-ku believes that mentorship within the realms of photography for instance, is also just as important. He believes that “engaging with the younger generation and with people that are learning, it’s good to be able to connect with those people and learn things from them, and hopefully (they) learn things from me”. What I particularly enjoy about the photography community is that they collectively help each other to grow and become better artists, and it’s people like Ta-ku and the team behind Create Explore who promote this exchange of encouragement that I think definitely helps in shaping the next generation of young creatives. It’s refreshing to see this whereas in the food industry nowadays, we find that this collectivism and source of encouragement is not evident or promoted enough to bring in the new breed of chefs.

As I mentioned, there are so many facets to what makes ‘Ta-Ku’ as a person and as a brand, and what’s common is that each project or collaboration he takes on, they are all related and “all quite visually and sound driven”. Taking this into consideration, when asked about social and digital media – tools that are so strong in today’s online community, he believes that in his own areas of creativity, just like the culinary world, it’s also a powerful tool to help spread awareness of who you are and of your work. “Social media is good, you need a balanced view on how much you use it and what it means to you.”

On that point, it should be noted that Ta-ku has different accounts with a different concept for each allowing him to show different sides of who he is. This really makes using social media fun and wasn’t that the original intention of using social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram?

I would say that in relation to the food industry, it actually differs because what I have noticed on social media is that many influencers in the realm of food, not just necessarily chefs, are slowly using it as a strict marketing tool almost taking Instagram for instance too seriously. Don’t get me wrong; it may suit some people but definitely not for me. Ta-ku makes a good point as he says —

“It’s very rare that someone is exclusively passionate about one thing, so it’s important to share all the facets of what you’re into, because you’re showing you as a human”.

Just as the chefs from the talk mentioned, in order to stay relevant and noticed in such an overly saturated marketplace, Ta-ku also agrees that to be interesting and different online, you have to “be yourself”. He tells me —

“Everything I do is an embodiment of who I am and what I like to do, because we are so individual there’s no way anyone could be me”.

As cliché as it sounds, it is true. This is something that resonates with me personally and I can say for all of us here at I Ate My Way Through as well. Though we all have other passions in life, food is merely one aspect of who we are and we collectively unite to share pieces of our memories and experiences through our passion for food… some have that passion more than others, but let’s not be throwing shade now. Each writer has their own style and personality they want to share through their writing and though some may be similar, we all have individual aspects that allow us to create some individuality in each post.

Credit: O'Neal Perez
Photo credit: O’Neal Perez

Ta-ku is definitely one of the most down-to-Earth, incredibly humble individuals I have ever come across, and this ‘interview’ flowed like a casual, long needed chat with a friend.

Ta-ku along with the many guests he had brought in for the week including the three aforementioned chefs, are all creative pioneers in their own right, and this residency just goes to show that creativity and collaboration have no boundaries. Bringing together my two passions, the week made me realise that it’s the chefs like Dan Hong who create those good memories of enjoying food and the photographers like Ta-ku who capture those memories  — these are the people I consider my heroes.

Credit: Christina Guo
Photo credit: Christina Guo

You can check out the full talk here. From someone who rarely listens to podcasts, trust me when I say this was very enjoyable to listen to again… and again. You can also check out the other talks from throughout the week if fashion, music or photography is yet another interest of yours 🙂

Ta-ku In Residence ran from 11 to 15 April at Golden Age Cinema, for more information, go to: ourgoldenage.com.au/ta-ku

Photography by O’Neal Perez and I Ate My Way Through contributor Christina Guo.