Travelling the vegan road is one filled with tasty twists and turns, though it’s not often when two vegan roads merge into one. This is true for vegan restaurateurs, Kat Wang and Mike Dodd of Woking Amazing.
As many vegans in Melbourne will attest, Woking Amazing is just that. Go to any Melbourne vegan festival, and you will see the endless queue in front of their stall. Visit their permanent location in Collingwood and you’ll experience the warm hospitality that only Kat and Mike can serve up.
Woking Amazing is known for its exceptional vegan spin on Asian/English fusion food creations with meticulously layered flavours, from Peking ‘duck’ pancakes to vegan ‘fish’ and chips with wasabi mushy peas, crystal dumplings and katsu curry. Such creations have only been possible through the couple’s culinary talents, shaped by their individual food journeys. Their dreams for Woking Amazing were realised once they moved to Melbourne after a lengthy stint overseas. “Mike and I moved to Melbourne from London around 2014,” Kat confirms. “We had planned to set up our life in London but I missed Melbourne and my family. We always had planned to settle back into Australia in the long run.”
Both Kat and Mike have worked in hospitality for the majority of their lives, and travel has been an influential part of their food journey, from London to New York, Copenhagen and Sydney to name a few. “Mike and I have collectively worked in hospitality for over 50 years now. My work and travel pursuits have been directed towards Latin, French and Asian roots – big on flavour, comfort and Umami. Mike’s time has been spent working within many cutting-edge restaurants and bars focusing on styling, pairing and texture with quality products. We love to fuse flavours, mixing together Asian street food and English comfort food. We prefer big bold flavours fused with different textures found more in Asian rather than western food; crunchy, chewy and even slippery. Travelling through these parts has allowed us to explore creative techniques, flavours and textures and our menu isn’t traditional anywhere.”
As you arrive for a comforting, flavoursome meal at Woking Amazing, you’re greeted by Kat’s warm, beaming smile before being led to a cosy table on the dining floor. Mike is almost always found out the back in their caravan kitchen. He wanders inside between orders to lean by the bar, wave and converse with customers. While inside is a dining space, there’s an adjoining outdoor set-up that replicates Woking Amazing’s mobile food stall.
You can’t help but feel like you’re part of the Woking Amazing family. It’s this genuine warmth Kat and Mike have woven into their business that stems from their own experiences growing up. Woking Amazing is as much about connection and forming lifelong bonds as it is about coming together for delicious, comforting, vegan food.
“Mike’s heritage is English/Welsh. He grew up with a family that had Fish and Chip Friday and other traditional English fare. He headed off to Nottingham to train to cook as he loved cooking and holding banquets for friends and family. Mike’s favourite food growing up was “Chinese chips” – a local in the Chinese takeaways shop which offered MSG covered chips. [It was] a delicacy at the time and acceptable in the 80’s. He also had a love of dumplings and Peking Duck and used to pick it up from the local M&S for work lunches.
“My heritage is Taiwanese/Chinese but fourth generation Australian born. I grew up on roast chicken, packet noodles, rice and tofu. One childhood memory my mum tells me is when we lived in Taipei, the ‘Dao Huey’ man would walk around screaming out the sale of his food. Dao Huey is a freshly made warm silken tofu with a sweet ginger syrup. Poor mum would have to run down six flights of stairs to purchase a bowl of this delicious dessert for 12-month-old me!
“We both have a love of tasty comfort food and our first ‘date’ consisted of Mike sharing his creative book of drawings and ideas about potatoes. At the time, I had considered a potato business too! Our plans were hatched on the same day we started seeing each other. After slowly working through thousands of creative food ideas, we settled on a mixture of Asian Fusion street food.”
Obviously, Kat and Mike didn’t start their lives as vegans and their direction to a vegan lifestyle was forged together. “We’ve been vegan collectively for 28 years now!” Kat reveals. “I went vegan after reading a book called The Livewire Guide to Going, Being and Staying Veggie. I related to the content, the suffering and pain caused by the slaughter of animals and changed from being a vegetarian to vegan overnight.
“Mike and I had a long distance relationship where he went from being an omnivore (who’s favourite food was and still is broccoli) to a vegetarian and then to a vegan when I moved to London to start a life with him. He then spent six months with our cat Snowy and realised that animals were sentient beings with personalities and deserved the right to life. Whilst he initially went vegan so we could share food and enjoy more things together, his values as a vegan and animal defender is due to Snowy. Snowy communicated with him in a completely different way from how he saw Snowy communicated with me. He realised the ‘a dog is a cat is a cow’ analogy.”
Starting a food business requires energy, innovation and resilience; qualities that Kat and Mike have developed through their years in hospitality. It’s these qualities that have helped shape Woking Amazing and its reputation in Melbourne as one of the city’s most unique casual vegan food dining experiences. Accurately recreating homely favourites as scrumptious vegan versions is Woking Amazing’s creative signature. “We felt we had something original to offer,” Kat details. “Mike had worked in restaurants that were meat-focused. I spent much of my working years behind the bar serving cocktails and alcohol. We thought it could be a fun way to work together, have time together, be creative and choose the direction we wanted our business to go in.”
So what does Kat and Mike’s creative process look like? “Mike and I operate differently. People that know us know that we are almost opposites! One of us has an idea, and together with our differences we’ll bring it to fruition. There are three dishes that best describe us. Our Peking Duck Pancake started in a wrap served in a cone. We put a spin on a traditional dish and served it folded in a warm and flaky Taiwanese spring onion pancake. Two, our Eggy Bacn Roll. I worked with the ‘egg” at home, cooking with it all the time and trying to feed Mike who refused! I cooked it smokey with soy, like vegan bacon. After discovering how to make it taste like egg, it was our plant-based take on a Taiwanese breakfast dish served everywhere. Three, Dim Sims. We made dimmies so many times, and over the years have sold literally thousands. Mike pushed for us to create these and my contribution was to get it to bind so we could make that many in one go. It takes up to three days to make this and hours of labour to stuff each dimmie. Flavours have varied from ‘Chickn’, ‘Peking Duck’ and ‘Kimchi Chickn’.”
With any creative process, creating a successful dish does come with its challenges. Kat and Mike meet their challenges with gusto and determination. “I think roasting ‘meat’ would be difficult to replicate. The moisture and the texture need to be spot on. It’s not something that would be easy. When we first started, we were at the Knox Festival serving BBQ ‘prawns’ in lemongrass. They were obviously plant-based and whilst they were delicious it was clearly obvious that they were not real. We focus on more realistic ‘meat’ options rather than ‘creative’, but not realistic dishes as the [majority of] our customers when we were in the food stall were omnis [omnivores].”
As Woking Amazing started in Melbourne as a mobile food stall (its debut was at World Vegan Day in 2015), it seemed to be the perfect fit for Kat and Mike’s penchant for being on the road. Plans can change, as Kat and Mike experienced before opening their permanent premises in Collingwood. “We both love to travel. We had actually planned to open a food stall to be open six to nine months of the year and be able to travel the other three months! Whilst it didn’t work out this way, we were also getting asked to open a restaurant and we felt we could offer something new to the restaurant scene.”
Kat and Mike have carved a niche for Woking Amazing, but not without a tremendous amount of hard work, raving fans and support from family. “Over the last four years, we’ve worked the longest hours we’ve ever worked in our lives. We are both in our 40’s now with a solid family support and regulars we know and have become good friends with. If it weren’t for these people, we would definitely have closed down.
“Running a hospitality business, whether it’s on the road or in a permanent location, is tough. Sometimes it’s the feedback we get from our customers that keep us motivated, other times is knowing how we are able to support our animal-defending friends in one way or the other. Acts of kindness are also a great motivation for us. At the end of the day, we believe that what you put out there is what you get back. We are always focused on pushing the boundaries, and through our experiences we become better at being efficient and effective with both the business and our time.”
Kat and Mike have had the opportunity to work closely with not-for-profit animal organisations such as The Orangutan Project and the Coalition Against Duck Shooting, whether its hosting for events or catering. “We wanted to use this platform to be able to show that plant-based still allows people to eat anything and positively encourages them to try meat-free for a meal. Additionally, this was another natural progression – to be able to show our support to NFPs that we firmly believe in. Whilst we are not animal activists, we consider ourselves to be food activists.”
Another priceless opportunity for Woking Amazing to showcase its food was being asked to cater for a recent wedding. Kat and Mike were both grateful and left blown away by the experience. “Georgie and Ward’s wedding was huge!” Kat exclaims. “We are honoured to have been a part of it and never expected to receive so much media attention for it. The wedding guests were amazed by the food and loved all of it. To be honest, we were very lucky to have been a part of their wedding and really didn’t expect the attention for it. For us, we were honestly touched by the photographs of the wedding through Be Here Now Photography which made it an incredibly memorable day for Mike and I.”
Kat and Mike have truly found the right home for Woking Amazing, here in Melbourne. With the city’s lust and admiration for food from myriad cultures, it seems that Woking Amazing couldn’t work anywhere else. “Melbourne is known to be the multicultural hub of Australia, Kat insists. “I think that whilst food can be known to originate from one place, [there are] ties to other countries. Consider spaghetti and noodles. They are one and same but also distinctly different. Food creation with Woking Amazing is really a mix of three things – Asian, western and familiar. Multicultural food is important for Woking Amazing in order for us to come up with unique dishes. Any dish we serve will have something Asian, western and familiar.” Does Woking Amazing believe an all-vegan world is possible? “I think it’s possible more now, with the changes in the last 12 to 24 months, than ever before. An all-vegan world would only be possible though it’s the large corporations that could benefit from a plant-based world. Without this, it will never go 100% vegan.
So, what does Kat and Mike have planned for Woking Amazing in the near future? “We are going to pop up a new food business in Woking Amazing starting in the next two weeks. It champions our favourite comfort foods (pre-vegan) and anyone would enjoy it!”
For everything Woking Amazing, from shop hours to upcoming events and announcements, check out the Woking Amazing Facebook and Instagram pages. Grab a meal at the permanent store during Woking Amazing’s opening hours as listed on their Facebook page.
Woking Amazing, 358 Smith Street Collingwood, Victoria Australia 3066. Phone: +61 (0) 481 861 642.