Taking Root – Embassy XO Executive Chef
From his family’s vegetable farm in China to his own restaurant garden in Cootharaba, Executive Chef James Wu has been harvesting fresh produce for Asian cuisine his whole life. With his diverse team at Embassy XO, the 35-year-old chef tells Georgia Beard how he integrates flavours of East and Southeast Asia into Noosa’s ever-expanding palate.
How did you become a chef?
My family has always been very restaurant-orientated. Mum and dad are market growers, so I was born on a veggie farm. My family migrated from China and they fell into the restaurant scene – it was something that they could do, and they could make a living from.
Growing up, I went through a lot of my uncles’ restaurants from the age of six to ten, and watching them cook at the wok station was always an eye-opener. Asian parents can be strict but mine supported my dream to become a chef, which I am grateful for. I did my apprenticeship in Canberra and Sydney and then went into business myself for a few years. XO is the only restaurant I’ve worked in in Noosa. I’ve been here for five years and it’s been a life-changing experience.
I love cooking for people and introducing them to new flavours and different ingredients.
Most rewarding moment of your career?
I’ve been really blessed to have hired amazing locals who have a great passion for Asian cooking and a solid knowledge of Asian foods. My team lends itself to Thai influences with two Thai and a Japanese chef that helps balance my style, which is mainly Chinese. It’s good to have input from different cultures – they’ve influenced my food just as much as I’ve influenced them.
What do you love about being a chef?
Definitely the team environment and the team I’ve created here.
What do you love about local producers?
They’re always willing to help and are wonderfully supportive through all seasons. I can’t mention one because there’s just so many people I buy from. I’ve known them the entire time I’ve been here and I love watching their product and their business grow, this has been really rewarding for me.
A lot of things grow so well here, particularly fruit. I have set myself a goal for XO produce to be predominately 75% from my farm by the end of the year. It’s a very high goal and we’re not there yet but I’m confident the produce that comes from the farm will be as fresh and as good as it gets.
What is your approach to food?
Authentic. When I create a new dish or recreate an old dish, I always consider the methods and techniques that my predecessors showed me. I try to stay true to the origin of the dish, while still using modern equipment and ever-changing seasonal produce.
The clay pot that we do here at XO was one of my all-time favourite things growing up and we’d have it for lunch once or twice a week. It’s very simple, but the flavours are unlike any other.
It has been around for centuries and really is a forgotten artform.
What style of food do you showcase?
It’s not just Chinese heritage but also Asian as I’ve got a very broad team, we all want to showcase foods and flavours of China, Thailand and Southeast Asia that a lot of locals probably haven’t tasted or experienced before.
Highlights from the current menu?
A roast duck clay pot and I’ve got some lovely lamb racks that I’m working on.
I change my menu about twice a season to keep things interesting and to showcase the very best produce. Some of it only flourishes for four to six weeks, which is why the menu changes regularly. I want the XO experience to be like walking into a restaurant in China while also showcasing local produce and flavours from my childhood.
Who would you love to cook for?
My grandma. She was a very influential person in my life. Because mum and dad spent a lot of time in the fields, my sister and I were essentially raised by our grandma who cooked several meals a day for us. As you get older you appreciate that more.
Who is your culinary inspiration?
Grandma. She was the one who always encouraged me to try different things.
Do you cook at home? If so, what?
Yes. Dumplings are really easy and it’s something that my wife and I enjoy. You can make a week’s worth in advance. I have a very commercial-style kitchen at home so I get to test things out and then integrate it into work here.
Your favourite dish – to eat or cook?
Steamed whole fish with ginger, shallots and soy. Classic Chinese dish.
What do you love about being IN Noosa?
The weather. We live in one of the most unique places on Earth, everything grows extremely well, all year round.
Any advice for young chefs?
I think a lot of them underestimate the importance of good knife skills. It requires years, even decades, of learning and refining your skills to be proficient. You might be able to cook but if your knife skills are poor, you won’t get far.
What is your favourite kitchen tool?
The wok station. It was something I was really eager to get into and it’s something you can never really master. I’ve spent a good 10 years working on it and I still feel like I could be a lot better.
What is your favourite ingredient?
Definitely the Asian greens coming from my farm. I’m really in love with them because I know it’s the product that you honestly can’t buy.
Anything else to add?
My team has been committed not only to me but also to the restaurant for five years now. It’s testament to their perseverance and hard work.
Normally any team that sticks together for that time and moves forward together is going to create magic so over the next couple of years we’re looking forward to really creating some magic!