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Sydney-based chef and restaurateur, Kylie Kwong, opened her famed Billy Kwong restaurant in 2000. Since then, she’s appeared regularly on Australian and international cooking programmes and is well known for utilising sustainable, indigenous ingredients. Kwong says that her approach to cookery which combines Australian native ingredients and traditional Cantonese fare is a direct reflection of her roots as a third-generation Australian and 29th-generation Kwong. She credits her mother who instilled the value and importance of food producers in her from a young age.
Kwong adds that one of her “biggest light bulb moments” occurred during a seminal keynote address by René Redzepi in 2010 at the Sydney Opera House, where he covered the “importance of using native ingredients in cooking in order to express a certain time, place, history, culture and flavour of our country.”
What did you experience when you had just opened Billy Kwong?
For me it was a mix of emotions. I was absolutely thrilled to be bringing a dream of opening my own restaurant to life, but the whole concept was daunting also - going from being a chef to a restaurateur and dealing with the realities of running a business. The response from everyone around us at the time was overwhelmingly positive and contributed to making Billy Kwong Surry Hills the energetic and vibrant eating-house that it was. [ed’s note: Billy Kwong Surry Hill closed and re-opened in Potts Point in 2015].
How did your travels through Shanghai and China influence your approach?
My travels through China allowed me the opportunity to really explore my ancestral homeland and visit long-lost Kwong family spread across remote villages. Connecting with my relatives not only added context to my sense of identity, but also to my practice as chef through the swapping of stories, recipes and cooking techniques. It was fascinating to learn about their traditional cooking methods.
What are some of the lessons you learned from your mother while helping her to shop and cook for her weekly Saturday feasts?
Mum taught my two brothers and I, from a very early age, that food makes people happy and connects people. She instilled in us to always cook from your heart and always cook food that you love to eat. Mum always said to plan your menu in advance and be organised. She insisted we source the freshest and best quality ingredients possible and acknowledge and respect the food producers.
Tell us about the change in the general reception to Chinese cooking in Australia from when you were a child to the current day scene?
My brothers and I were very popular growing up in suburban Sydney because of my mother’s Chinese cooking. Mum would run Chinese cooking classes from our family home in the 70s a few nights a week. Working with handwritten recipe cards she took people through the family dishes and techniques she learnt from her parents. The classes were very popular, as it was very different cuisine to what our Western friends were used to eating at home. Australia has definitely evolved since those times, and there is a more voracious appetite for international cuisine for everyday dining, rather than just special occasions.
What makes the Kylie Kwong brand distinctive?
Everything that I undertake represents my beliefs, interests and passions. I believe it is important to offer something positive and to contribute to our global community in an enriching way. I am do that through collaborating with and celebrating the talents of others and through integrating our delicious and unique Australian native produce into my Cantonese-style fare.
In 2005 you introduced the full switch to organic and biodynamic produce to the restaurant. You're also known for using indigenous ingredients and supporting the growers. Why is this important to you?
For as far back as I can remember, my mother nurtured long-term friendships with Peter the butcher, Michael the Greek fisherman, and Joe and Sabrina, our Italian greengrocers. It’s exactly the same when you’re running a restaurant. I’ve had Billy Kwong for 16 years now, and I’ve always put a lot of emphasis on the quality of the produce we use, where it comes from and the people involved in raising and growing it. It’s important to look after these amazing producers, who are the caretakers of our land; everything starts with these relationships. I really love engaging with people socially as well, it’s very important to me. I maintain close relationships with all my suppliers.
Tell us about your experience of working with native ingredients...
For me, discovering Australian native ingredients was like discovering an entirely new ‘culinary alphabet’. It was like learning all over again; it was incredibly stimulating and exciting from a creative and culinary perspective. Simultaneously, I was learning about the unique and precious culture, heritage and tradition of our original Australians. During this period, I realised just how important a role we chefs and restaurateurs play, in our food-obsessed community. Offering Australian native produce in my business is the most powerful way my staff and I can support indigenous Australians. Across the board I do think Australian chefs are increasingly embracing native ingredients, and integrating them into their menus, which is great to see.
Every young chef must…
Be absolutely passionate about cooking and the food industry and be willing to work harder than you have ever worked before! The day-to-day life of being a chef and restaurateur is very, very demanding on all levels and as we all know, we chefs are only as good as our last meal. The constant demand for excellence is exhausting yet of course, extremely rewarding when everything goes really well.