At just 29, Oliver Hua has already achieved mentor status in the hospitality industry. In partnership with Merivale, we speak with the young head chef about his career so far, and what he looks for when hiring the next generation.
Oliver Hua never really considered cooking Southeast Asian cuisine early in his career. Following a high school job at KFC, Australian-Vietnamese Hua’s path to becoming a chef really began in 2011 in the kitchen at Circular Quay’s Royal Automobile Club of Australia. It did not go to plan.
“I actually got let go from that job for basically being very inconsistent,” says Hua. “I was 18, I was on the breakfast shift by myself and I kept coming in late. I think at one point the head chef there just got infuriated with me and let me go.”
Hua got lucky with a stint at hatted Italian restaurant Pendolino on George Street, before leaving in 2013 to join legendary chef Peter Doyle down the road at Merivale’s Est. “He’s someone still look up to,” says Hua. “He’s just so humble and caring. He does it in a way that’s not pretentious. He actually cares about your wellbeing, your progression and what you’re doing in life.”
Though his career was flourishing at Est, in 2014 the universe delivered other plans. “I had a really bad motorcycle accident,” says Hua. “One night I was heading home from work and got hit head on. I fractured my back and was out of work for six months. That kind of ended my career at Est. I stopped cooking for six months because I was recovering.”
Back on his feet, Hua started from scratch, rejoining Est as a casual. At the time, Mr Wong was opening downstairs. “I got curious - why is there a line outside this Chinese restaurant?” says Hua says. He left Est and joined the staff at Mr Wong in 2015, a move that marked a turning point. “I never thought of cooking Asian food, even though I’m Vietnamese myself,” says Hua. “Once I started at Mr Wong I got excited about it.”
In 2018 Hua shifted to Merivale’s Queen Chow in Enmore, where he was promoted to head chef. There he found his attitude was worth developing as much as his cooking skills. “Because I was old-school French fine dining trained [at Est], I was very aggressive,” he says. “I wasn’t very self-aware of my actions and how I trained the team.” When a few of his staff resigned, he realised he needed to get better at managing himself. “A light bulb in my head was like, maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s me.”
In 2019 he took a whirlwind overseas trip with chef and mentor Dan Hong and Merivale CEO Justin Hemmes, travelling through Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam. “We went to about five different countries in seven days,” says Hua. “We met these incredible chefs along the way, and they showed us the streets or where they grew up or where they get inspiration from. We brought all of that with us back to Sydney.”
The result is MuMu, Merivale’s ode to Southeast Asian street food. Since opening in 2021, it’s become a staple of Sydney’s late-night dining scene. It’s also there that Hua grew into his role as a mentor, trying to bring out the best in each individual. “What I look for in a trial [chef] now is just an eagerness to learn or a good attitude,” says Hua. “Eighty per cent of a good trial or interview is a good attitude. I can teach them skills, but I can’t teach them to be respectful [and] willing to learn or ask questions.”
Having spent a decade now thriving in Merivale restaurants, Hua encourages aspiring chefs to find the role that suits them. “There’s so much opportunity and we’re constantly looking out for talent,” says Hua. “Merivale is really good at creating development plans and succession plans, giving each other honest feedback and really bringing [people] up to their full potential.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Merivale. Merivale is currently recruiting for roles all across Australia. Visit the website to find your perfect hospitality career.
Photography: Courtesy of Merivale/Nikki To