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In-Between Service: District 8 Executive Chef Stevenson Su

We caught up with Su between lunch and dinner service at his Canley Vale restaurant for a quick chat on what motivates him in his career.

It feels as though Stevenson Su has been on the move for 34 years, both in his personal and professional life. Born in the Chinese province of Hunan in 1985, Su lived in an apartment with his family and moved to Guangzhou aged 12, where he would later become an apprentice chef.

Despite studying Cantonese cuisine for five years, Su landed his first kitchen job in 2000 at an Italian restaurant next to a Guangzhou train station. After a couple of years, he found himself in the kitchen at a four-star hotel, before moving to Shanghai to work in a Spanish restaurant where he met Australian chef Patrick Dang (Fratelli Paradiso and the now-closed Concrete Blonde and MG Garage).

The pair worked well together, so when Dang asked Su to come to the Caribbean with him to learn new cooking techniques, he accepted without hesitation. Dang moved back to Australia after a year, but he’d been impressed with Su’s skills, so in 2011 he sponsored Su to come work with him in Sydney.

Su worked at Concrete Blonde in Kings Cross before moving to a Chinatown restaurant for nearly four years. Now, he heads the kitchen at Cabra-Vale Diggers venue District 8, where we catch him for a chat about a career path he describes as “pretty complicated”.

This path started during Su’s childhood, when he picked up cooking skills from his grandfather, who also worked as a chef.

“Kids love to play with toys, to do things with their hands,” says Su. “My grandpa was always making handmade noodles, so I was playing with noodles growing up.”

This hands-on upbringing meant Su would always prefer practical, physical learning over reading textbooks.

“I used to get really bored in school,” says Su. “I didn’t want to study the theory behind anything, I wanted to learn something practical. So, I decided to become a chef.”

Su says that despite his grandfather being an accomplished chef, his family took a while to agree with his chosen career path.

“Initially, my family all disagreed. I was certain I wanted to become a chef though, so they learned to respect my decision,” he says. “Because my Dad is a doctor, my family wanted me to do the same – but I wasn’t interested. That being said, if I wasn’t a chef, I would probably be a doctor!”

Su says working as a chef has taught him to hold happiness as a core value in everything he does. This is reflected in his food and his cooking techniques.

“When I’m cooking something for a customer, the most important thing to me is seeing a smile on their face, seeing that satisfaction. If I’m able to make people happy with food, then I find the value in what I’m doing, the value in why I’m cooking,” he says. “What I’m really trying to do is satisfy people, serve people, encourage myself in my career and encourage my creativity with new ideas.”

Part of Su’s creative drive comes from his experiences with different countries and cuisines growing up. He says an important element of becoming a great chef is immersing yourself in other cultures.

“As a chef, we have to experience different cultures, cities, foods and different weather patterns, which produce certain ingredients, specific tastes,” he says. “You combine all these elements to create something new to serve customers.”

Su’s now settled in Sydney, where he lives with his wife and two children. Despite feeling comfortable and welcome in Australia, he says he still notices some stark differences in day-to-day life here.

“There’s more of a focus on family here. When you go to a park, there are fathers with their children, kids on their shoulders. In China, the father is always working. They don’t spend much time with their kids, and that changed me a lot,” he says. “Now that I’ve seen that side of life, I want to spend more time with my kids. Moving here changed my perspective, particularly with parenting and how I’d like to raise a family.”

In terms of his career, Su hopes to keep testing his skills and creating positive, memorable experiences for everyone he serves.

“I like to challenge myself to do something a little bit different to other people. If everyone can do it, it’s not really going to excite people,” he says. “I always try to do something different, something that really belongs to my soul.”

Photography: Courtesy of National Australia Day Council

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