Her mother is legendary chef Elizabeth Chong. Her grandfather invented the dim sim. Angie Chong, born into Chinese food royalty, herself has opened and her own restaurant in the 70's.
These days, you’ll find her running dumpling workshops in her Alphington (Melbourne) home, sharing the recipes she learnt as a kid.
I met Angie at an event months ago. Her tone was instantly warm but a little hesitant to talk about herself at first. She skimmed over major details like it was no biggie. I could tell she’d had one hell of a ride in her life, one like a cat that had seen nine lives and was accustomed to just getting on with things and wasn’t really sure why I was asking so many questions.
After experiencing Angie’s dumpling workshop for myself with the Concierge whanau, I asked Angie to share her story with my readers, in the hope someone else reading this would find solace in knowing there is always a fresh start available if you’re willing to grab it.
When we bumped into each other at the event where we met, you mentioned you’d grown up around food like an unshakable part of your upbringing. We chatted about how you found today’s focus around dieting and ‘clean eating’ kind of ridiculous. Can you explain that a little further?
Food is such a normal, natural thing, and of course food should be good for you.
For most Asian people, it is normal to appreciate and respect food. In a traditional Chinese family, from an early age, you start cooking with your family. At the age of three, I was placed on a stool over the sink and taught to wash the rice.
Growing up in a traditional Chinese household, one’s relationship with food is one of great respect. Food is to be shared. There was always one bowl of soup, one fish, one plate of vegies, in middle of the table.
Over dinner every night we shared food and stories and each other. With a true shared table, there needs to be an awareness of others at the table. You need to know who has eaten what, who hasn’t had enough, who is hogging the food, the conversation or the attention. You have to open yourself to everyone sitting at your table and be part of that shared experience.
What was it like growing up Chinese in Australia and eating at your friends houses?
I realised many people in Australia didn’t eat the same way my family ate. Eating in the western manner, it's more about, my plate, my food, my experience. I thought it was a bit lonely!
It’s harder to communicate openly I think when you’re focused on one plate.
When you sit down to eat in an Asian home, you start off sharing the same plate. So, from the very beginning it’s easier to be open and share with each other. Sharing food is just a way of saying let’s be together.
Food is the forum for developing important relationships. There’s also the lesson of respect. You learn your grandmother is the most important person at the table so you pick up the biggest, juiciest piece of chicken and put that onto her plate.
Australia is obsessed with food in a different way. Cooking shows, new restaurants and openings seem to be really popular. What’s your take on where the food industry is at now?
It’s wonderful that more and more people are really interested in food but I’m uncomfortable with the hype and sometimes the obsession with it.
Everyone needs to eat, and everyone should try to eat well. I would like to see more people finding more joy and less anxiety with their food.
I think there are a growing number of people who have an unhealthy mental attitude to food. There are many things in life that make people feel anxious and disconnected. Whether it’s their body shape, underachieving in their career, self esteem issues, it just seems that food is another reason for people to get hung up and anxious.There’s enough anxiety in the world already - don’t choose to add to it.
What major challenges have shaped you into the person you are now?
I’ve had experiences in my life which have really tested me. It’s made me resilient, but also forced me to dig deep to find my strength and my balance.
I’m not really a subscriber to the belief that we should always be happy. I’ve always aspired to be honest not happy. Sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I am sad and sometimes I’m insanely joyous. I aspire to live a full and honest life and experience as many human conditions as possible.
Are you resilient? Is it something you’ve grown up with or did you develop this skill over time?
Resilience is something you develop over time. Life is always a challenge and by choosing to accept and be open to all that life throws at you, you inevitably develop resilience.
You develop a much fuller, richer, complex and interesting life.
Ultimately, you can choose to be devastated by something like that or you can choose to see it as the beginning of something new. I think I must be an optimist, because when others said I was made redundant [after working as a teacher at TAFE for 20 years], I said ‘my job was made redundant, I’m not redundant, I’m far from redundant, I’ve now got time to discover lots of wonderful new things about me’.
Was this the first time you had to reinvent yourself?
[Laughs] It’s not really reinventing myself, just discovering more of myself.
Many years ago, my husband [of the time] came home and announced to myself and our two children we were moving to Africa. I was a landscape gardener at the time and I was beginning to make a name for myself. This wasn’t a conversation - this was happening whether i liked it or not.
I landed a contract designing the palace gardens for the King of Lesotho and the King of Swaziland. As part of that contract, the Government provided me with 20 hard core prisoners as my labour force.
So, there’s me, a small Chinese woman in Africa, leading this team of hardcore male prisoners. It was a huge shock at first, but I dug deep and found what I needed to get on with the job.
I’ve had lots of adventures and now I’m happy making dumplings.
What lessons have you learnt through your Humble Dumpling workshops?
I’ve learnt to not get hung up about the way things ‘should be’ or the way I want them to be.
I’ve always loved the symbolism of bamboo. It has its roots firmly in the ground and its branches are free and flexible. The wind will take, shake and bend those branches backwards and forwards, but at its core, its roots, it will remain strong.
The best learning environments are those that allow for opportunity, and new growth. When life doesn’t fit what you think it should, go with it - you might just find something wonderful.