Food & Culture

''The drug use was consistent and it just kept going'': Chefs on grief, addiction and new beginnings

Spurred by a life-changing event or an inner voice, three hospitality insiders share their stories of challenge, adversity and renewal.

KYLIE KWONG | Lucky Kwong

Billy Kwong was at the height of its popularity when Kylie Kwong decided to close the restaurant. Australian diners were bereft but for Kwong, it came as a relief. Here, she reflects on how she came to the decision – and how it led to her new venture, Lucky Kwong, which defies the rules of a traditional restaurant model.
Interview by Joanna Hunkin.
About a year and a half before I closed Billy Kwong, I started feeling disgruntled and restless. I'd had the restaurant since 2000 and for those 17 years, I'd always been a person who loved going to work. It was my own place; it was everything I loved doing. I was obsessed with it.
To start feeling disgruntled and restless with my business was a big deal for me – I know myself very well. I thought, "Oh, this is interesting." I noticed myself having less energy when I thought about work and I started to feel like everything was a challenge.
My attitude started changing. The most telling piece, for about three months, I felt this inner restlessness and it was waking me up in the night. There was literally a lot of tossing and turning. I said to [my wife] Nell one night over dinner, "I think there's a major shift happening inside." And she said, "I know… why don't you go and speak to Subhana about it."
Subhana Barzaghi is my wonderful Buddhist teacher and has been a mentor to me for more than 20 years. She's the wise person in my life that I seek counsel from. For big things like this, and when we lost [our son] Lucky, I turn to Subhana for guidance and support.
In 2017, I was 47. I went and spoke to Subhana and said, "do you think I'm having a bit of a mid-life moment. Is this what happens?" And she said, "I like to call it a mid-life opportunity. Let's take a look at what's happening here."
She said, "You've been a restaurateur for the last 17 years. It's okay to want to shift or change." It sounds simple but that was very helpful to me. It put a positive light on the situation and made me feel open and curious about what was happening, rather than feeling down and depressed and anxious about it.
I continued to see her for about four months – she held my hand through all of these changes and gave me reason to feel excited about the future. As time went on, I did feel more and more restless and I listened to that. I listened to my inner voice. It became more and more apparent that it was time for change.
I said to Nell: "I don't want to do these hours anymore. I don't want to work on weekends anymore. I don't want to worry about the business every night. And I don't want to manage a large staff anymore. There are so many other things I want to fill my week with, I just want to live more holistically."
Chef-restaurateur Kylie Kwong: "There had also been so many things that I'd missed out on. Every chef and restaurateur will tell you that." Photo: Alan Benson
For the last 17 years, yes there had been lots of highs running the restaurant, incredible opportunities, but there had also been so many things that I'd missed out on. Every chef and restaurateur will tell you that. The amount of things we miss is just embarrassing. I decided that for the second stage of my career, I wanted to do things differently.
I spoke to my business partner and, as always, he was very supportive. He said: "Great, let's go on another adventure." He is incredible. I could not have done it without him. So that was the beginning of the end of Billy Kwong. It took a year and a half to plan, reflect and articulate what the next move would be.
What I did know was I wanted a much more holistic experience. I wanted my next place to be tiny. I knew very clearly that I didn't want to spend my whole life managing people. I wanted to be more creative than that. I love creating a culture of family and I wanted to go back to a really small business model.
In order to get to that place, there were a lot of sleepless nights. A lot of anxiety. But in the same part of my belly, there was a lot of excitement about the possibilities of what could be. I thought to myself, "If I don't do it now, I'll never do it – I'll miss the opportunity." I am so glad that we went through that and we are where we are.
I'm just so elated and happy with Lucky Kwong. It's the place of my dreams. It's small, it's intimate, it's family-like. I can stand in my open kitchen, do a 360 of the room in one gaze, and see every single person in the room. I can wave to people coming through the door. I can smile at all the tables. I can have that warmth and connection with the customers that I love.
I'm really pleased we went through this big move. Yes, it took a year and a half to turn things around and make this massive shift. Deep in my heart, once I gave myself permission, that was it, I was off and running.
There was definitely a lot of soul-searching but that's okay. What's important is recognising that there is a shift that's happening and then addressing it.

WAL FOSTER | Natural Ice-cream Australia

After beginning his career at Aria, chef Wal Foster cemented his fine-dining credentials in Sweden, where he successfully ran his own restaurant for four years, before the siren call of family and friends beckoned him home. But it was a devastating phone call that altered the course of his journey, sending him on an experimental new path.
Interview by Grace Mackenzie.
Part of the reason I was so excited about returning to Australia was I saw the native food scene booming. Native tamarind, native ginger, that I had been walking past my entire life but didn't know we could eat. Byron was the perfect stepping stone for me; to start at Harvest, a well-established restaurant, I was just really lucky.
I was there for about eight months, when I received a phone call that my mum was sick. She had lung cancer, diagnosed with two weeks to live.
I literally put down the pans, in the middle of a busy lunch service, and walked out. The world sort of crumbled around me and a whole other journey started. It was tough to switch my brain from full-time cheffing to full-time caring, but it was autopilot. I didn't really think of myself. It was the best thing I've ever done, for someone I cared about so much – we had such a good relationship. Mum was amazing, she never complained once.
We both refused to believe it was two weeks. I changed my whole philosophy on food, I started focusing on gut health. I did courses on fermentation, probiotics and prebiotics; started fermenting sauerkrauts and kimchis and yoghurts. Mum was receiving chemotherapy, we just focused on putting as much nutrition in the body as possible. It's all led towards the food that I'm producing now.
Mum got a sweet tooth from chemo. I'd cut sugar out of her diet, so I started making treats for her that were cultured – ice-cream. Where we were living in Nymboida, there was beautiful Indigenous produce, I could really start using the stuff around me. I was smoking ice-cream with paperbark and just had a bit of fun. Out fishing with Rio Grieves, one of my oldest friends, I dropped the idea that I was thinking of starting a food truck. Two weeks later he came back to me, "I'd be interested in coming in as a partner." He designed the whole trailer and way we produce the ice-cream. Mum was my number one taste tester; it was really special.
It wasn't long after our soft opening that Mum passed away. Just a couple of weeks. Five days after Mum's funeral, we had fires come through Nymboida, taking out 101 houses and the state forest. Myself and one other guy were cooking for the whole community. It was hectic, I'm getting goosebumps bringing it all back up.
Wal Foster, chef and co-founder of Natural Ice-cream Australia: "I've always drawn inspiration from my time with Mum, she's been a big part of making it happen." Photo: Sabine Bannard
There were times I was sure Natural Ice-cream Australia would never get off the ground. It has been a rollercoaster. But I've always drawn inspiration from my time with Mum, she's been a big part of making it happen. There was so much intensity at the time that a business just didn't seem achievable or viable. Being part of such an amazing community, I used everything, absolutely everything from that time, to just catapult the business.
I only open four hours a day – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – making a product that I really believe in and is unique… it feels so good. I'm surfing in the mornings, having time for friends and my partner; through that I feel like I can be more creative. My health is so much better now, just having balance, having time to eat, sleep and exercise. I could open five days, but I'm really trying to focus on creating a lifestyle that I can develop as the company grows.
It's been difficult, there's been so much interest in the business, I've had to say no a lot. I definitely haven't done that in my life. I've always taken it as a challenge to do those extra hours, just saying "yes chef". I want to show people that there's an option outside of that. It's funny, there's the chef inside me that misses the stress and the hours, it's like an addiction. But the future of the industry is not sustainable the way it's been done.


To the outside world, Joel Bennetts was a successful chef, leading a popular Bondi restaurant and firing on all cylinders. He worked hard and played hard. Few people realised Bennetts was in the grips of a vicious addiction and spiralling out of control. Now, nearly a year sober, Bennetts shares how he turned his life around.
Interview by Jordan Kretchmer.
The reality was, I was bending two or three days a week; sometimes I was snorting cocaine until 10am. I'd put my head down on my pillow for 20 minutes, I'd have an ice-cold shower to try to wake up, I'd smother my eyes in Clear Eyes, and then I'd walk up Bondi Road with big black sunnies and go into a 10-hour shift, serving hundreds of people. I was still performing – every plate was close to perfect.
Now that I think about it, I probably gained that not-so-admirable skill of working under the influence, or performing under the influence, when I was a young chef. There's no blame here – I knew I could do it or not, and I chose to do it. I was plating award-winning food, stoned off my head, to perfection. I guess I've carried that confidence in the kitchen. It just got too much.
In March last year we were meant to fly to India for a gap year. I had handed in my notice at Peppe's, we'd given our lease up, put our stuff in storage and had our bags packed. So instead, we went down to South Australia and made wine. The drug use was consistent and it just kept going. It's very damaging for the soul – damaging for your self-confidence. There's nothing good that comes out of it. You boost your ego momentarily, and then for the next three days you're coming down but you're also like, "let's do it again". You're putting yourself back into that little box of pain.
Coming back to Sydney after having three or four months off work, I jumped straight back into the partying. I was cancelling meetings, it was really ruling my life and it was devastating to everyone around me. Not a lot of people knew that or will know that. But it was so savage. The bank account, the stupid texts to people, the dangerous behaviour.
Chef Joel Bennetts: "Now, I lead a kitchen with a sober mind, and a sober head, and I'm more inspired than ever." Photo: Kitti Gould
It was my birthday last year – late October – when I made the decision. We were in the trial phase for Fish Shop. It was a Wednesday, I had a four-day weekend and called a mate and said, "I've got a long weekend, let's celebrate." So we went to Tamarama rocks, got a bottle of riesling and a bag. People are walking around and we're bumping cocaine on the rocks in broad daylight.
Being under the influence since I was 17 – whether that's a beer, a Negroni, an energy drink, cocaine, ketamine, MDMA, acid, whatever it is – there has been something in my system that has stopped me from knowing who I am and getting down to the deep grief. I lost my mum when I was 18, and she was the biggest influence on my career. I grew up from the age of 10 cooking dinner with my mum, that's the only reason I became a chef, because she shared that gift with me.
That Wednesday afternoon I had a phone call from an amazing friend of mine. She said: "Maybe it's time to pull back and check yourself, and really think about what it's doing for you." I will never forget that phone call.
It wasn't immediate that I put it into action, but I wrote a letter to myself, stuck it on my wall and started tallying some days. I got two weeks sober and it was really amazing, then I relapsed. But I'd started going to Narcotics Anonymous – that was the start of my journey to NA, and it's been amazing. So I made the decision – this is the life I have to live for now.
Positive things started happening and changing. I'll never know what my journey at Fish Shop would have been like if I continued using drugs. The journey to six months was challenging. It's still very, very early days, and I still get moments where I want to use – but for now it's good.
Now, I lead a kitchen with a sober mind, and a sober head, and I'm more inspired than ever. I've got an amazing team around me, that can confide in me, and I'm creating an environment in the kitchen – or I hope I am – that is nurturing and open and I talk to every single one of my staff. I think it's so important that my chefs are aware of the journey that I've been on.
I feel so blessed that I've made this decision. The most important thing was to learn what I wanted and who I really was, and learn my faults – why I was embarrassed, why I didn't have confidence in certain aspects, why I thought this substance would give me that. To make a stand was one of the hardest things, but I am very grateful that I am on this journey, and for now it's one day at a time.