When Don Dunstan lost his fight against cancer in February 1999, tributes flowed in from all directions. Across the ages, across the political spectrum, high-profile Australians paused to acknowledge Dunstan’s Whitlam-esque contributions to Australian political and cultural life. From John Howard to John Olsen, the tributes volleyed in.
But amid the praise, there was a squirming sense of awkwardness. Eulogists and columnists alike acknowledged Dunstan’s children, but generally refrained from mentioning the man with whom Dunstan shared the last dozen years of his life, Steven Cheng.
Dunstan’s partner was a man, yet Dunstan himself was not publicly gay. People didn’t really know what to say about Cheng, so they said nothing.
Although Cheng believes the oversight was not intended out of malice, he says the lack of acknowledgment hurt him at a time when he was most heartbroken.
[Don] always tried to improve the quality of life of people, but he also created a lot of enemies, he says. If he came out as a gay person people would brand him as a gay politician, and that would enable his enemies on the other political side to attack him, so he would not be able to carry out his work in equality and democracy.
Dunstan may never have been a Peter Tatchell-style Gay Identity Politician, but he is fondly remembered by gay and gay-friendly people Australia-wide for the leadership his government took in decriminalising sex between men in South Australia in 1975.
Dunstan will be remembered and honoured at an event to be held during Adelaide’s upcoming Feast festival called Kitchen Wisdom, which celebrates his contributions to South Australian cuisine (he remains the only Australian premier ever to publish a cookbook). The Feast event will feature Cheng and other friends discussing Dunstan’s legacy while cooking up a Don-inspired dish.
As Cheng says, food brought him and Dunstan together.
We met at a private dinner party in 1986, he recalls. At that time he was the Commissioner for Tourism Victoria and I was doing my final year of a Bachelor of Science at university.
Shortly thereafter, Cheng returned to Hong Kong, but the couple kept up a correspondence, which started when Dunstan sent Cheng a Ken Hom cookbook.
The following year, Cheng accepted Dunstan’s invitation to come live with him in his Norwood home and applied for permanent residency.
With Dunstan’s encouragement, Cheng also decided to put his science degree on hold and pursue his passion for cooking, via a commercial cookery class.
When we first met, my cooking skills were -¦ limited, he says.
They didn’t stay that way for long. In 1994 Dunstan and Cheng went into business together (with some financial assistance from Cheng’s brother) to set up the restaurant Don’s Table. The business formula was simple: Cheng controlled the kitchen while Dunstan acted as host.
But it took a bit of convincing to get Dunstan into the food game, Cheng recalls.
Don used to say that running a restaurant was just a little bit up from being a dairy farmer, because it was all hard work, he says with a laugh.
The author of this story had the pleasure of eating at the restaurant in 1995. It was a memorable night: wineglass in hand, Dunstan did a circuit of the tables, greeting each guest in turn. Conversations with him flowed idiosyncratically: some groups were treated to anecdotes of South Australian political life; others were given the inside story on the preparation of the night’s meals -“ everything from the planting of the herbs to the sourcing of the fish. Dunstan spoke with his trademark gravitas, while the restaurant itself was refined without being stuffy or exclusive.
The business unravelled in 1998, however, after Steven’s brother withdrew his investment.
Things went from bad to worse at that point, with the deterioration of Don’s health and eventual death on 6 February 1999. While still grieving for his partner, Cheng became embroiled in legal action -“ and eventually mediation -“ with his brother. With a sense of understatement (which I think may be characteristic), Cheng says, This was emotionally very stressful for me.
But now he’s moving into a new phase in life. He turns 40 next month, a fact which he claims doesn’t worry him unduly.
Age is getting less and less important to me as I get older, he says. He has a new job (cooking in a nursing home), and has, he says, re-established contact among his circle of friends. He’s still single.
Asked whether he plans to stay in Adelaide, he says, At the moment, yes. Dunstan’s will stated that Cheng be left the Norwood house, on the proviso that it remain as his principal place of residence and be maintained in a manner and to the standard that it was maintained during my life.
The house and garden remain as lasting reminders of Dunstan the man. But events like Kitchen Wisdom allow Cheng and other friends to keep Dunstan’s cultural legacy alive: a cultural legacy that had food and dining at its very core.
Kitchen Wisdom takes place on Wednesday 20 November in Adelaide. For more details of the FEAST program, ring (08) 8231 2155 or log onto www.feast.org.au.