Audi Ambassador, Kylie Kwong, brings her own special approach and philosophy to all she does.
Penny Lane and Luke Latty
24 October, 2017
Kylie Kwong stands by the wok station of her restaurant Billy Kwong in Sydney’s Potts Point with the calm authority of James T Kirk on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. It’s a vantage point that allows her eyes, framed by trademark black-rimmed glasses, to sweep the kitchen and dining room without needing to move a muscle. Like everyone on the kitchen team, Kwong wears a LED-lit headset that sits on her sleek black hair like a futurist Mary Jane headband, a blue light blinking by her temple.
The kitchen is alive. At times, bright orange metre-high flames shoot from the wok burner, steam wafts from the industrial-size steamer whenever the bamboo lid is lifted and the loud crack of Kwong’s mulga wood clapping sticks sounds out whenever an order is ready to be served.
Welcome to the world of one of our most popular female chefs and good friend to Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen and the latest recruit to his roving international chef brat pack.
A modern-day food crusader, Redzepi is the pin-up boy for the chef as explorer, disruptor, advocate and front-page news. Chefs the world over look to him for inspiration and ideas and plot ways to get hold of highly sought-after tickets to the annual MAD symposia (meaning ‘food’ in Danish), a food talkfest he has hosted in Copenhagen since 2011.
Kylie Kwong’s goal, from the moment she opened the doors to her restaurant in Surry Hills in 2000 and then Potts Point in 2015, has been, she says, “to offer my family and friends and anyone who wanted to come, simple Cantonese fare.”
"The kitchen is alive. At times, bright orange metre-high flames shoot from the wok burner, steam wafts from the industrial-size steamer whenever the bamboo lid is lifted."
"We had many overseas food writers, reviewers, journalists and chefs visit in that time. It was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking."
So how did this fifth-generation Australian from a large Chinese family, a chef who cooks simple and traditional Cantonese food, albeit using native Australian ingredients such as saltbush and wallaby tail, find herself addressing more than 400 international food industry delegates from the straw-strewn stage of a red circus tent in Copenhagen in August 2016 at MAD5?
The story starts with a sprig of lemon myrtle. “When Rene spoke at the Sydney Opera House back in 2010 about his philosophy of using native produce in order to express a certain time, place, history, sense, flavour, tradition, memory and feeling of a country, it was a lightbulb moment for me,” says Kwong. “It revolutionised the menu at Billy Kwong and the way I think about food and this country. Rene set off that spark.”
Kwong became a convert to putting place on the plate. “I am an Australian, I’m in Australia, I want to use Australian produce and I want to offer my customers the flavour of Australia,” she says.
When the Noma contingent arrived in Sydney in January 2016 for their 10-week residency at Barangaroo, Billy Kwong was one of their culinary pitstops. “About 100 Noma staff came through our doors during that time,” says Kwong. “Rene had told them to come to us to experience our version of Australian-Chinese food. His acknowledgement and support really put us on the international map and we had many overseas food writers, reviewers, journalists and chefs visit in that time. It was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking.”
The friendship opened new doors for Kwong and her participation in three Redzepi projects that year – MAD SYD, a talk event at the Sydney Opera House alongside Redzepi, Momofuku’s David Chang and Italian chef Massimo Bottura, the inaugural MAD Institute at Yale (a program held in conjunction with the university’s food studies program that’s designed to broaden chefs’ horizons) and MAD5 – has meant that many more people have heard from and about her.
Kwong appreciates that Redzepi is so inclusive. “He’s community oriented and views his staff as family, which I find lovely,” says Kwong, who has a suite of her own community collaborations at Billy Kwong. “He’s inclusive and understands the importance of sharing knowledge and discoveries. The nano second he and his team discover something new, it’s up on social media for the whole world to see and learn from.”
As a practising Buddhist, Kwong doesn’t look to the future so much as pay attention to what is happening in this moment. Even so, she was caught up in all the possibilities that the theme of Tomorrow’s Kitchen presented at the MAD Institute at Yale. The project brings together academics and chefs, creating an intellectual ferment designed to get chefs thinking creatively and critically about systemic issues to do with food. It was a life-changing experience for Kwong. Not only was it her first experience of a university environment, but she viewed the earliest cookbooks known to exist and got to hang out for four days with Redzepi and a bunch of other leading chefs.
When it came time to take the stage at MAD5, she was ready to talk about the kind of kitchen she’d like to see in the future. “I spoke about my dream of being able to offer my chefs and key floor staff a working week where they only spent four days in the restaurant with the fifth working day set aside for creativity, brainstorming, field excursions or get-togethers.
“It’s very much a dream, but if I’ve learned anything from Rene it’s to be curious, question everything and to not be afraid to let go of old ideas or old ways of doing things.”
"If I’ve learned anything from Rene it’s to be curious, question everything and to not be afraid to let go of old ideas or old ways of doing things."
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