Despite being a successful restaurateur who has fronted TV series, cookbook jackets and even postage stamps, Kylie Kwong still dons an apron most Saturday mornings to sell fresh dumplings and pork buns to a long line of customers at a Sydney farmers’ market. A testament to the chef’s passion and work ethic, the stall also allows her to survey the season’s latest produce to inspire the menus of her long-running restaurant, Billy Kwong.
Located in the heart of Sydney’s upwardly bohemian Potts Point, the restaurant serves uniquely Cantonese-Australian fare that reflects Kylie’s heritage as a fifth-generation Aussie as well as the country’s increasingly broad palate. “Growing up my mum would cook really beautiful homestyle Cantonese cuisine,” Kylie recalls. “We were the only Asian children in our neighborhood, but we were very popular at school because the kids all wanted to come to our house to have Mrs Kwong’s cooking.”
While her mother’s prowess in the kitchen and the tutelage of fellow chef Neil Perry were early culinary influences, she had what she calls a “lightbulb moment” during a speech by Noma’s René Redzepi at the Sydney Opera House in 2010. “He started speaking about his philosophy of using native ingredients from the country in which you cook in order to express a certain time, place, history, flavor, culture and tradition. I sat there and thought, “Oh my goodness, Kylie, why aren’t you using Australian native ingredients?”
Eight years on, and her restaurant now plates up wonderfully ingenious dishes like crispy wallaby cakes with native Kakadu plum and chili that honor the wilderness of Australia as much as they do to the food stalls of Canton.
How did your mother influence your approach to food? Food was at the center of our lives and still is, because we’re Chinese and food and family’s what it’s all about. Mum taught my brothers and I how to cook from about the age of five. She was always really happy cooking and shopping for fresh produce and she would delight at beautiful quality chicken or an amazing sparkly eyed whole snapper from the fish markets from our Greek fisherman, Michael.
And you gained a certain popularity due to her cooking? Yes, I used to nag her every year, “Mum, mum, mum, can I please have a birthday party?” I used to drive her crazy! But she would always give in and put on this amazing spread of Hokkien noodles, Pauline Kwong’s fried rice, sweet and sour snapper, and soy-sauce chicken wings. She could make all those kind of classic Cantonese dishes but cooked really beautifully with fresh, local produce, without—she didn’t use MSG or preservatives. Of course, all of the neighborhood kids loved food that wasn’t chips out of the packet or reheated sausage rolls. I guess it really taught me how powerful food is. It connects people.
How did René Rezepi’s thinking around native ingredients change your cooking? The discovery of Australian native ingredients has completely transformed everything we do at my restaurant. My partner, Nell, is a contemporary painter and I said to her, “It would be like discovering a whole new color wheel at this stage in your career.” It was just extraordinary. You can hear how excited I get when I talk about it. It not only gave me a whole lot of new things to work with, it’s also a way of supporting and respecting Australia’s First Nations people.
What are some superstar native ingredients? I love the Davidson’s plum, which looks a lot like a European plum—a beautiful, deep burgundy color—and has a wonderful sourness and acidity. We do deep-fried duck with that and native rosella flowers and it works really well. I also love the beautiful coastal herbs. Instead of throwing in a handful of shallots (scallions) or coriander (cilantro) to my stir-fry yabbie dish with XO sauce, I now use native sea parsley, sea blite, and samphire and it gives it an immediate, distinct Australian taste.
Who are the most memorable guests you’ve cooked for? Lots of artists have come into Billy Kwong, like Marina Abramović and Grayson Perry. I loved cooking for René Redzepi when he was doing his Noma Sydney pop-up and came in for lunch. But I’ll never forget the time I had the great honor of cooking for the Dalai Lama. We did vegetable dumplings, because he loves dumplings, a green papaya salad, and organic Hokkien noodles. It was just amazing to be in his immediate surrounds.
What are your favorite travel destinations? I had two very memorable, life-changing trips to Tibet. It was the first time I had been inside a culture where spirituality was the number-one priority and that just blew me away. The Tibetan people had so little materialistically, yet as a community were so vibrant within their spirit. Of course, I love Barcelona, and the famous Pinotxo Bar in the Boqueria market. It’s this tiny, family-run place with fresh, simple seafood cooked quickly and deliciously. And I love traveling in my own country, whether it’s the Kimberley or the Margaret River in Western Australia, or Kangaroo Island or the Barossa Valley in South Australia.
Where was your last vacation? Copenhagen and London
Where will your next vacation be? Tokyo
The thing you can’t travel without? Notepad and pen to scribble down new ideas
Plane, train, or automobile? Plane! I can remain uncontactable for hours and hours!
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? Preferably no one if the truth be told, I relish the solitude and precious quality day-dreaming time on these long-haul flights.
What is your in-flight ritual? G&T, day-dream, eat, read, sleep, eat, read …
The language you wish you spoke? Both Italian and French
When were you happiest while traveling? My commitment to Buddhism was inspired by the first time I travelled to Tibet in 2005. A truly life-changing trip which caused a deep shift in my way of seeing things. I will never forget my first morning exploring Lhasa’s ancient sights. The old town sits east of the Potala Palace, focused on the Barkhor district, a maze of streets surrounding the Jokhang Temple, the holiest and busiest in all of Tibet. Back then, the old town remained a fascinating area, with ‘real’ Tibet easy to find in the rustic, characterful side streets and alleyways, with their teahouses, fabric shops and markets. Most of all, though, Tibet exists in its amazing people: living below the poverty line by Western standards, and with their national identity severely threatened, the Tibetan people are inspiringly charismatic and spirited. What holds them together is their shared spirituality, their devotion to Buddhism. I was struck by this strong sense of community and focus on what is ‘real’ and what ‘really’ matters in life.
Desert island or downtown? Downtown - love the energy and cultural stimulation of urban life and couldn’t live without being a part of a greater community of people.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? The Sanders Hotel, Copenhagen - small, specialized, impossibly aesthetically beautiful yet with such functionality and comfortability. Feels as warm and as safe as home to me.
What is your room service indulgence? Getting a massage in my Aman Kora room whilst staying in the Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? When I was filming my TV series, ‘My China’ - way out yonder in a tiny town of about 600 people somewhere in deep, dark Yunnan Province, south west China!
What is your favorite market? Le Boqueria, Barcelona / Mercato Centrale Firenze / Carriageworks Farmers Market, Sydney - sorry thats 3!
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? Australia before white-man settled
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Sydney Opera House / Heritage-listed Carriageworks Art + Cultural Precinct / Nielsen Park
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year?
Your biggest extravagance on the road? Upon my recent trip from Sydney en route for Copenhagen I was unexpectedly upgraded to Qantas First Class as I boarded! What a great way to begin a long journey, so much space, such a big bed and that wonderful down-to-earth Aussie service.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. Recently it was lunch at Lyles in London - ‘Grilled Dried Mackerel w Tomatoes’, ‘Smoked Eel, Beetroot & Horseradish’, ‘Oyster & Beefsteak Mushrooms’ - best quality local and seasonal ingredients, cooked skillfully, intuitively and simply. Delicious, down-to-earth cooking in a wonderful sun-lit industrial space in the artistic area of Shoreditch.
Travel hell is? Now? For me, it will be not to travel First Class every single trip!
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? India, India, India! Soon!
Three favorite stores on earth? Grandiflora Florist, Potts Point, Sydney / Le Photon (Vintage Spectacle Store), Place Des Vosges, Paris / P Franco Wine Bar + Shop, Lower Clapton Rd, London E5