Kylie Kwong

A beloved Sydney chef, restaurateur and pioneer of Cantonese-Australian cuisine, Kylie Kwong speaks with Adrian Potts about cooking for the Dalai Lama, exploring the deepest reaches of Yunnan, and the “lightbulb moment” that transformed her career.

Yabbies with XO Sauce and native Australian herbs at Billy Kwong.

In the heart of Sydney’s Potts Point, Kylie Kwong plates up Cantonese-Australian fare that’s entirely her own. If she isn’t traveling, without fail she can be seen on the pass of her restaurant, Billy Kwong, an establishment that is as close to a modern Australian institution that can be.

Yet the title “institution” implies a place that has seen its moment of innovation pass—somewhere looked upon with respect and affection but not necessarily excitement nor for the thrill of the new. At Billy Kwong this is not the case, and nor is it why it deserves the designation. Here, between the rust-red walls that seem to simultaneously evoke Australia’s Red Center and the inside of a Cantonese eating house, Kwong continues to crystallize the modern Australian identity on a plate.

While the restaurant is the wellspring of her success, the third-generation Chinese-Australian chef is familiar to many from having fronted television series, cookbook jackets and even postage stamps. Her popularity reflects the broadening palate of a country that, within the space of a few generations, has outgrown meat-and-two-veg-style British cooking thanks to waves of post-war immigration from the Mediterranean and, subsequently, Asia.

“Growing up my mum would cook really beautiful homestyle Cantonese cuisine,” Kwong recalls. “We were the only Asian children in our Sydney neighborhood, but we were very popular at school because the kids all wanted to come to our house to have Mrs Kwong’s cooking.”

Inheriting her mother’s prowess in the kitchen (Pauline is as handy with a pavlova as she is a pork bun) and benefiting from the tutelage of seminal Australian chef Neil Perry, she began reinventing Cantonese tradition early in her career. Gone were the gelatinous morsels popular in mainland China, so too the heavy-sauced dishes. Instead, the young Kwong favored a light, bright and punchy cuisine that embodied the rapidly evolving Australian palate and saw lines down the street clamoring to have a stool in her little “Chinese Eating House.” From that modest platform she sparked her first revolution, a style that made her a household name and further integrated East and West into the everyday. Yet her most important chapter was yet to come.

Quandong, a native fruit used at Kwong's restaurant.

During a speech by Noma’s René Redzepi at the Sydney Opera House in 2010, Kwong experienced what she calls a “lightbulb moment.” “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, ‘Kylie, why aren’t you using Australian native ingredients?‘”

From here she began connecting with Indigenous communities in earnest to unlock the long-held secrets of Australia’s natural abundance and its breathtaking array of beautiful, often bizarre ingredients. She began to incorporate flavors that the country’s cooks had turned a blind eye to, preferring instead to be masters of mimicry of the foods of elsewhere. Reading the current menu of Billy Kwong even ten years ago would have had the average Australian believe that Kwong was intent on poisoning them. Yet now, depending on the season, guests may be served sweet-and-sour pork belly with “bush tucker” like fresh muntries and pickled quandongs, or her signature crispy-skin duck with native Davidson’s plum and wild Rosella flowers.

Just don’t mention the f-word when it comes to her culinary style. Her food is not fusion. It is much less earnest and contrived than that. What Kwong and her cuisine do instead are hold a mirror up to the best aspects of modern Australia. One that is reconciled with its past, confident in its identity and excited about its future.

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 enjoyed a certain social cache thanks 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.

Yunnanese street food.

How have your trips to China influenced your cooking? I’ve been there about seventeen times and I particularly love the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in the southwest. I love all of the spices and wild weed dishes I had in Yunnan. The Yunnanese food is so aromatic and exotic, and I loved having lunch with the farmers. The Italians have cucina povera [peasant cooking] and in China we do that very well too—making beautiful dishes out of very ordinary, humble ingredients. My family is from Canton originally, so I’ve always been obsessed with seafood, steamed dishes, and silken tofu. Being able to make all of these dishes here in Australia with our fresh produce and native ingredients has been very exciting.

In what way did René Rezepi’s thinking around native ingredients changed 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.

"I love Barcelona, and the famous Pinotxo Bar in the Boqueria market," says Kwong.

What are some of the 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. 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? A 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, truth be told. I relish the solitude and precious, quality daydreaming time on long-haul flights.

What is your in-flight ritual? G&T, daydream, eat, read, sleep, eat, read…

The language you wish you spoke? Both Italian and French.

When were you happiest on the road? My commitment to Buddhism was inspired by the first time I traveled to Tibet in 2005. 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. It was a truly life-changing trip which caused a deep shift in my way of seeing things.

Desert island or downtown? Downtown. I love the energy and cultural stimulation of urban life and couldn’t live without being a part of a greater community.

If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? The Sanders Hotel in Copenhagen. It’s small, specialized, impossibly aesthetically beautiful yet with such functionality and comfortability. It feels as warm and safe as home to me.

What is your room service indulgence? Getting a massage in my Amankora hotel room while 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, southwest China!

What is your favorite market? It’s a tie between Le Boqueria in Barcelona, the Mercato Centrale in Firenze, and Carriageworks Farmers Market in Sydney.

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? The Sydney Opera House, Nielsen Park, and the heritage-listed Carriageworks cultural precinct.

Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year? Weekend: Tokyo.
Week: Paris.
Month: Copenhagen.
Year: London.

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. I had grilled dried mackerel with tomatoes, smoked eel, beetroot and horseradish, and oyster-and-beefsteak mushrooms with the best-quality local and seasonal ingredients, cooked skillfully, intuitively and simply. It’s 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, in Potts Point, Sydney. The vintage spectacle store Le Photon in Place Des Vosges, Paris. P Franco wine bar and shop in Clapton, London.

Most treasured travel memento? Wooden spiritual artefacts I collected in Lhasa, Tibet, whilst visiting the Potala Palace. It was during a 2005 trip when real Tibetan monks still resided within the Potala Palace.

Why do you travel? Apart from wanting to experience new cultures, cuisines, ways of being in the world, to expand my mind, to engage with different people, to open myself up to new opportunity. In a nutshell, to enhance not only my life but hopefully those around me as well. I see travel as a wonderful exchange on all levels.

Christine Muhlke has over two decades of experience and connections in the food, travel, fashion, culture, and design worlds. The founder of Bureau X food consultancy, she has been an editor at Bon Appétit, T Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine.

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