Food News

Exclusive: Kylie Kwong’s exciting plans for the future

Kylie Kwong’s Sydney restaurant Billy Kwong has closed its doors after 19 years. It’s a time for reflection, but also a chance to look ahead to new beginnings.
Loading the player...

If Kylie Kwong bumped into her 31-year-old self, she’d have some advice: “You’re going a million miles an hour, KK, slow down.” Back then, in 2000, she says, she’d have been en route to the newly opened Billy Kwong on Crown Street in Sydney’s Surry Hills, running to handwrite the specials or to get the ducks on for roasting, no doubt via her van-turned-storeroom that was parked out the front of the compact restaurant. “We used to pull rabbits out of hats all the time,” she says. “But it was that absolute manic drive and passion that got those doors open and got me here now.”

“Here now” is some kind of endpoint. In January, in the lead up to her 50th birthday and after 19 years of operation, Kwong announced she was closing her restaurant. “A natural desire arose within me about a year-and-a-half ago,” she says. “It became stronger and stronger. I started to observe it deeply and say, ‘okay, what does this all mean?'” Kwong is sitting in her restaurant, which moved to a 140-seat space in Potts Point five years ago, days before its last service at the end of June. In the days and weeks that follow she’ll shut the doors and look forward to new projects and horizons. But now, there’s a chance to reflect, and to celebrate, with one last banquet.

The road to the next chapter, though, has been a long one. Before she established her own version of modern Chinese-Australian cuisine, she began her cooking career with another of the country’s best,

Neil Perry. As a third-generation Chinese woman, growing up in a Chinese household where her mother cooked Chinese food every night, organic, in-season tomatoes, quality salt flakes and different varieties of extra-virgin olive oil were far from Kwong’s larder and her palate. It was Perry who opened her eyes to Western-style cooking and the benefit of top-notch ingredients. He was also one of the first people to encourage her to be proud of her heritage. “He’d say, ‘Kwongy, you don’t know how lucky you are. Chinese is such a wonderful cuisine.'” The chef spent six years under his mentorship. Four of them as head chef at Perry’s modern-Asian Wokpool, a “400-seat IMAX” in comparison to the Crown Street hole-in-the-wall she’d go on to open with restaurateur Bill Granger.

The original Billy Kwong was the kind of place you’d go to share great food and great memories, before those things became hashtags. Diners sat on plastic stools and passed plates of whole steamed fish with ginger and spring onions to strangers on other tables. It was less about business goals or philosophies, “or any of that mantra that I go on about now,” says Kwong. “I just wanted to serve fresh and flavoursome Cantonese food from a little arty-farty hole in the wall.” Granger and Kwong worked together for about eight months before parting ways. “Billy Kwong was tiny, it couldn’t fit two big personalities in it,” she says.

When Kwong’s first cooking show, Heart and Soul, aired on the ABC, queues started to form around the block. “I’d watch the queues, and think, ‘Kylie, you need to put out the right messages,'” Kwong says. That translated to a focus on local and sustainable produce such as line-caught seafood from Mark Eather and free-range chickens from Saskia Beer. An early review in the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide teased that the front window resembled “a Kombi’s bumper” it was stuck with so many Fairtrade stickers. “But those relationships were the backbone of the business,” she says.

It attracted an ambitious band of young cooks, including Hamish Ingham (Banksii, Bar H), O Tama Carey (Lankan Filling Station) and Mat Lindsay (Ester, Poly). Lindsay met Kwong as an apprentice at Wokpool and later became head chef for at Billy Kwong. “It was just this perfect little thing,” he says. “You couldn’t find the same sort of team anywhere else.”

From left: Jon Owen, Kin Chen, Saskia Havekes, Mat Lindsay, Kylie Kwong, O Tama Carey and Jemma Whiteman.

(Photo: Alicia Taylor)

It was a keynote by Noma chef-owner René Redzepi at the Sydney Opera House in 2010 that became a major turning point for Kwong. “Australians have to learn from its original people,” said Redzepi. “Not only to understand what’s out there and how to use it, but also how to make it part of a cuisine that’s clever, that feels like it belongs here.” Kwong was put in touch with growers Mike and Gayle Quarmby of Outback Pride in South Australia, and immediately began introducing more native produce to her menu.

Cantonese-style water spinach or gai lan, stir-fried in shiro shoyu and ginger, was swapped-out for warrigal greens or saltbush. Where Kwong had once matched blood plums with crisp-skinned duck, she began using Davidson’s plum. And the acid-pop of finger lime and lilly pilly was used to cut through the richness of her red-braised pork belly. Creatively, it was a revelation. And one which only strengthened the chef’s connection to community and country. “I had never known any Indigenous people until I started using native ingredients,” says Kwong.

After the restaurant moved to Potts Point, she went even harder on the local angle: honey from nearby Wayside Chapel rooftop garden became the marinade for pork buns, for example, and wild greens and herbs from the kitchen garden at St Canice Parish in Elizabeth Bay became the fillings for dumplings.

Closing Billy Kwong isn’t her retirement. Kwong is not the type to step away from the kitchen entirely, and even less the type to keep it running with another chef in charge. She’s hands-on, she says. “That’s where the joy is for me.” For close to two decades, she’s written the specials menu every day, and could be seen behind the pass more often than not: the percussive thwack of her Aboriginal clapping sticks as much a part of the Billy Kwong soundtrack as the sizzle of woks.

Kwong’s intention now, she says, is to open a small eatery with a much simpler menu. The fried rice and saltbush cakes will likely appear, and native, local produce will continue to loom large. Her staff, which numbered 40, will become four, and she’ll only open during the day. Does that mean Sydney might finally get to eat her fried eggs at breakfast? “Maybe,” she says. “I haven’t decided yet, but it won’t be a restaurant. Restaurants mean wine list, maître d’ – the emphasis is going to be on small, bespoke and intense cooking. It’s what I really love.”

Looking back, Kwong’s most important memories are simple ones – welcoming regulars like Tom and Anne, for example, who came to eat every Thursday since she opened. “It’s like when I go to Sean’s and all I want is the roast chicken and his garden salad,” she says. “Those kind of rhythms, rituals and traditions are really beautiful to me.”

Kwong has been generous in sharing personal highs and lows as much as professional ones. In 2011, she and her partner, Nell, were pregnant with a son, Lucky, but in April the next year he was stillborn. “How many times have I dreamt of the time before the tragedy, and how we felt?,” she says. “Now I can happily say I’m making this change and I’m making it now. Life is precious.”

It’s been a time to take stock. Along with turning 50 and closing her restaurant, Kwong recently married Nell, after more than 12 years together.

Kwong now hopes to play more of a part in affecting change globally. And she’s already started. In November, she spoke at the women-led Parabere Forum in Oslo. In April, she turned surplus food into Chinese-style coleslaw and fried rice at Massimo Bottura’s community kitchen Refettorio Paris. “That’s where my work is headed, far beyond the commercial kitchen.”

Kwong has relished her role curating Night Markets for Carriageworks over the past three years, and hopes to take the concept further. She’s also the co-director of MAD Mondays, an offshoot of René Redzepi’s

MAD Symposium, and will participate in the Biennale of Sydney next year. “I love spotting talent and bringing people together,” she says. “And this critical thinking? I’m a cook. I didn’t go to university. But I’m in deep.”

She’s certainly not winding down. The drive Kwong recalls is still there. And in the same way a painter has a studio, she’ll always have a space to receive, prepare and offer food. “It’s my base,” she says.

For Kylie Kwong’s all-time best recipes from Billy Kwong (including O Tama Carey’s favourite, those fried eggs in XO sauce), pick up a copy of our August issue, on sale now. Or subscribe to Gourmet Traveller and you’ll go in the draw to win $10,000.

Related stories