Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia
Cloudy, humid, a chance of rain
It was hard deciding on a single noun to describe Kylie Kwong, because she has so many feathers in her cap. If we’re being really specific we’d have to say, sure, Kylie Kwong is a chef, but she is also: a restaurant owner, an author, a TV presenter, a passionate advocate of organic and sustainable produce, a Buddhist, the NSW patron of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, a market stallholder, and a soon-to-be mum. Kylie called me with this last piece of news in late February, two months after our interview, and I squealed and screamed my congratulations down the phone so excitedly that it must have sounded to anyone within earshot that I was the one with the happy news. From her ‘work desk’ in the gardens of Centennial Park, Kylie was, appropriately, even more exuberant than I was, as she explained the holistic pre-conception program her partner Nell had undertaken and the careful organisation she was now in the midst of as they prepared for the baby’s birth. She has a natural, chatty phone manner which is the same friendly tone you hear in her TV series, which is also the same I heard when I met with her in person for this interview. It might be most accurate to say that while Kylie Kwong is many things, she is always, unwaveringly, herself.
I met her on a Friday afternoon at Billy Kwong, the restaurant she opened in Surry Hills in 2000. It recently became the first climate-friendly restaurant in NSW, meaning that all the restaurant’s electricity and gas is offset. Customers are offered the opportunity to help too, by donating $1 to offset the carbon emissions produced in the making of their meal.
I’d read that the space was intimate, but I was astonished at how tiny it actually is. Shiny green vegetables and vases of cut flowers seem to spontaneously bloom out of every corner. It was 2 p.m. and her staff were smiling and bustling around, preparing for the evening’s customers. Kwong pulled out a block of chocolate from inside a magical cupboard I hadn’t even noticed, and whisked me away down the street to a much quieter setting, the offices of her publisher Penguin.
There, sitting against a backdrop of books—including her latest one, It Tastes Better—we shared the block of organic fair-trade chocolate which she sells at her restaurant. Reader, I devoured it, and it tasted… well, better than any other chocolate I’d ever eaten in my entire life. I was momentarily transported to sunny days and holidays, and we started talking about the weekend.
“The first day I said, ‘Mum, Mum I know what I wanna do!’ It was an epiphany.”
DUMBO FEATHER: You usually start your weekend at the Eveleigh market. Can you tell me a bit about what happens there?
KYLIE KWONG: Eveleigh markets is a beautiful farmers’ market in Sydney, and it’s been going for about three years. I started going each Saturday there just to get my produce for home, and I just loved going there. I love getting up early, and I used to walk around there thinking, I’d love to have a stall here, what could I sell? I just loved the whole environment. So I’ve got the Billy Kwong stall there now, and it’s been a hit ever since we opened. So tomorrow morning I will be up at 4.30am, which I love.
Woah! You love that?
Yeah. I’ll get in my 4WD. And I’ll drive to Billy Kwong, get there at 5am, fill up the car with all the produce, meet my brother there, who is a graphic designer by day and a cook on the weekend. He helps me do the market.
It sounds fabulous, a change from working in the restaurant most other days.
Well I love it because I’m in the outdoors, I’m surrounded by like-minded people, all these amazing organic farmers and provedores for example, several of whom I get my produce from for the restaurant. I know exactly what’s in season every Saturday when I go to that market. I can see what they’re selling straight out of their garden, I know what’s in season, so it’s amazing for me.
I read that, like your brother, you also started out in graphic design. What happened to that?
Unfortunately, I’m a very bad graphic designer! When I was in year 12, Mum and Dad asked, ‘What do you want to do?’. And I said ‘I want to be an artist.’ Because I always loved art, and I guess what I meant was that I want to be in a profession where I can be creative. So we all agreed that graphic design was the thing. And at that time for some reason we were all doing graphic design and commercial art. So I did my HSC then did a graphic design degree here in Crown Street, Darlinghurst.
Following that, I worked in advertising for several years and I guess through that experience I discovered I’m not into measurements and millimetres and special pens. It’s just not me.
And I didn’t enjoy the environment either, the cutthroat environment of advertising at the time. It just wasn’t me.
I’m much happier going to a market, filling up my beautiful French cane basket with gorgeous produce and being creative and making something out of it, that’s the creativity.
And at that time too, I mean I was nineteen and I was doing a lot of soul-searching. I used to get the bus from North Epping to St Leonards to my advertising agency, and in my handbag I’d have Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. And I’ve always been into this metaphysical stuff, you know Mum used to say to me, ‘You think too much,’ but I was just born like that.
So you were in a very soul-searching headspace and going in to work at a cutthroat advertising company every day—is that what made you make the jump across over to cooking?
I did a few things in between. I worked in an antique shop down in the south coast, I worked in a friend’s delicatessen, then I went back into advertising for about a year. Got my fingers burnt again, really hated it, really disliked the place I was at, and was totally stressed out.
What made you go back into advertising? Weren’t you older, wiser?!
Well, I thought it would be better, but I don’t know why I went back. Stupid, stupid.
Then I thought: Right, what am I going to do in terms of my next career move? I rang up a friend who was a contract caterer, and said, ‘Do you have some work for me while I’m going through this transitional period?’. So he said, ‘C’mon, come and work with me. Be my assistant Monday to Friday.’
So I walked in there that first Monday into this very corporate setting. There was this domestic-style kitchen, and he cooked lunch for 25 treasurers each day. So I’m walking in there, and he said to me, ‘Can you please go into the cool room and get out the basil?’. And I’m 23, and I didn’t know what it was! I knew it was a green herb but I didn’t know which one it was. Because I was brought up on Chinese food, and all I knew was shallots and ginger and coriander. I didn’t know the difference between basil, tarragon, rosemary, everything.
I probably wouldn’t have at 23 either!
So I went in there and I brought all the green bunches out, and I said, ‘I know it’s one of these—which one is it?’. So he told me every one and you know I’ve never forgotten that to this day.
I loved going into the cool room, loved cooking all day, loved going down to the shops to get the food, loved presenting food—
it felt really natural to me. And suddenly the penny dropped. That first day I said, ‘Mum, Mum I know what I wanna do!’ It was an epiphany.
So you always knew you wanted to be doing something creative, and it was just being channelled wrong.
I’ve been cooking ever since I was five, so it was in me. Mum’s a cook, so I never even thought about it consciously. We just did it. And I never consciously thought how much I loved doing it. I never had articulated why I loved cooking. But when I was in that setting and probably a little bit older—it was a total moment, and I’ve never looked back.
I find that really interesting because it’s sort of expected in our society that we’ll know what we want to do with our lives when we’re seventeen. So I like the idea that you didn’t know what you were doing during your twenties, that you had to go looking for it.
Absolutely! And you do not need to be strung out at the age of 17 or 18 when you’re finishing your HSC and you don’t know what you want to do yet. When young people ask me, I always say: Listen, just go out into the world and try everything. You’ve got to fall over; you’ve got to go down all these paths in order to know that you don’t want to go down that path. I mean, just be open to it. Your whole life is ahead of you.
And of course at the time when I did have that moment with that caterer, I was at a mature age. I mean I wasn’t seventeen, I was about twenty-three. I knew. I felt focused. I’d done a whole string of mad things and I knew. And when I know something, when I’m sure of something, I just take it by the horns, if you haven’t noticed!
I’ve noticed! So how did you end up working with Neil Perry?
I wanted to expand my horizons and cooking skills because, you know, it’s really serious, it’s a profession. So I went and worked with Greg Doyle, who currently owns the Pier restaurant in Rose Bay. And at the time he’d just opened a sort of gourmet fish and chip shop, so I took that job because I knew he was a pretty special chef on the Sydney restaurant scene. And I wanted to work with quality. I thought, I want to learn from the best of the best of the best.
So it was always there for you, this focus on quality.
Yeah, that was sort of ingrained into us by our parents, you know: excellence, and standards and trying your best. So I worked with him for several months and he said,
‘I want you to go and speak to my friend Neil Perry at Rockpool.’ And I’m like, ‘Who’s Neil Perry?’. No idea!
So he set up an interview with Neil, and at that time Rockpool was indeed the best restaurant in Australia. So I ran down there. I was so excited! I want to learn from the top. That’s what I knew. So I said, ‘I want to work here. I’ll work here for free—I’ll even clean the bathrooms.’ I said that to him!
I had the most successful working relationship with Neil. Altogether six years with him. And in fact he came in for dinner last night [to Billy Kwong] and I was so thrilled. Nothing like having your mentor come into your own place; I mean, it’s lovely having his approval. So it was a very, very, very successful working relationship. And a very wonderful mentor–disciple relationship which was so special. He’s very good at pushing you off the cliff and empowering you. He and Mum are my two main mentors.
Your book It Tastes Better is dedicated to your mum, and you thank her for ‘teaching you how to eat properly’. That intrigued me. What is eating properly? It makes me think of the healthy food pyramid we were taught at school …
It’s so much more than that. We grew up in North Sydney and we’re three generations Australian but 29th-generation Kwong. I actually come from the largest Chinese family in Australia’s immigration history. Mum and Dad were born in Australia. We are very Australian, before Chinese. My brothers and I were the only Asian children in our neighbourhood and at the school for the first thirteen years, so we were quite different in that respect. Never a problem from a racial discrimination point of view, we all seemed to get on well with all the kids at school, and I always say the reason I think everyone loved the Kwong kids was because of mum’s cooking. There’s no doubt about it.
Mum cooked Chinese food six nights a week, Cantonese food. Really fresh. In other words she didn’t go to the supermarket and buy the stuff off the shelf. She had a dedicated butcher, Peter, who got to know all the weird and wonderful cuts that Chinese people ask for. We had dedicated Italian fruit and vegetable people, that we grew to know and love over all those years, an Italian family, and I have always said that Italian people and Chinese people are very similar in that we consider food and family are sort of the centre of everything. So subconsciously taking all this in, learning all these lessons about looking after the food producers, knowing where the food comes from, freshness. We went to the Sydney fish market to pick the best snapper, as well as having the Greek fisherman—pretty advanced, sophisticated lessons, thirty, forty years ago!
So there’s that aspect. She loves cooking. She loved to do it. She actually loves the practice of cooking, it makes her happy, so you can taste the happiness in the food. There’s the smile on the face when she’s presenting it to us every night around our funny little kitchen table.
And you had to eat together as a family?
Yeah, every night. And we always used to sit in the same place. There was Dad and then Mum and then me. I’m very close to my mother, I used to have my leg wrapped around hers, when I was … actually up until the age of about fourteen. I’m a bit of a sook like that.
She used to try to get up but she couldn’t get up because I’d be stuck to her. But Mum and Dad used to have dinner parties—this is really important I think, this is where we learnt so much. They used to have dinner parties, big dinner parties for about fifteen people. Because they had a lot of friends, they’re very gregarious. Dad is no longer unfortunately, he passed away five-and-a-half years ago. But totally extroverted, both of them—they’re full on.
Anyway, they used to have these amazing dinner parties and every Saturday fortnight Mum and I would spend all day and all night cooking. And then we’d put it on the table and we’d see the glee on people’s faces, and the look on her face of that total gratification, and she just loved giving.
So! The message in my head from that age of five was: food makes people happy; food connects people. You know, is it any wonder as an adult that I’m into food?
So in terms of the energy of my childhood, the dynamics, the positive stuff, it’s the food and the family and the people and the gatherings. And also because we have such a huge family, like Christmas day, for example there will be seventy of us and half of those people will be children.
And will you be cooking?
We all cook. It’s Mum and I and her sisters—it’s sort of like The Joy Luck Club. It’s very cute, because Mum’s got ten brothers and sisters. And so has Dad.
How do you juggle it all? You have this close family life and your work life is completely jam-packed.
I always come back to this template that I have in my mind, which is a series of questions: Is this sustainable? How is this going to benefit others? Kylie, are you doing this just because it’s about your ego or your pride? Or it’s just about money? If it’s any of those, then I think, No, don’t do it. If it’s about sustainability, if it’s about helping others, if it’s about organic, beautiful produce, if the intention and the motivation behind the person, the thing, the opportunity, is pure, then that’s what attracts me. That is why I wanted to do this interview. There is an integrity to this magazine. But on a deeper level it’s much more satisfying—I can go to bed and feel good about things.
It reminds me of that note Benjamin Franklin had by his desk—his morning question was, ‘What good shall I do today?’. And in the evening he asked himself, ‘What good have I done today?’.
Yeah! For me I want depth and meaning and substance: I want a meaningful life. It’s not money driven; it’s not driven by bright lights, fame and fortune—it’s a deep and meaningful life. And what gives me depth and meaning is helping others in the community. It’s about offering you the most beautiful, life-giving vibrant food I possibly can in my restaurant so we feel good about it. My chefs love cooking it; my waiters are proud to offer it to you; you feel great when you’re eating it; you wake up the next day feeling good… I mean this is a beautiful thing!
But don’t you get the feeling that most people—and this is a huge generalisation—but a lot of people are just shoving hamburgers into their mouth without thinking about it? Is humanity really smart enough to digest, excuse the pun, what you’re trying to teach them?
The message I’m saying in that book is whatever you do when you are buying food for your family, just please do it with awareness and mindfulness. That’s all I’m saying. I’m certainly not trying to take on the world with that concept, because it’s a very big concept. It’s a real headspace thing, because the whole thing about eating properly, for me, is when you feed your family properly, i.e. with naturally grown food, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.
It can be carrots out of your garden, that’s what I mean. It’s an act of love! It’s an act of love and respect.
So it’s a very deep thing. But getting back to the message of that book, it’s simply: please when you are buying produce or shopping in the supermarket, please can you start to do so with awareness. Even if it’s Joe Bloggs out in the western suburbs who’s got 4 kids and is on a very ordinary wage, I don’t expect them to fill their whole trolley up with organics—that’s out of the question. But perhaps instead of having the battery-hen chicken three times a week that costs $6 and is full of all the rubbish, perhaps, Joe, you might consider having a good-quality chicken once a fortnight.
It’s a real shift in mindset isn’t it?
So this is why I think this whole sustainability movement, certainly within Australia, is happening really slowly. It’s a really deep head shift.
How difficult is it to change people’s perceptions in your restaurant? I guess I’m thinking here about your position on bottled water, which I admire so much. [Billy Kwong’s doesn’t offer any bottled water, only Sydney filtered tap water.]
Totally, I think that makes such a difference.
Are people fine with that?
Totally fine with it! And if they’re not dealing with it then they don’t belong there! I mean this is… we’re not in the dark ages!
It’s such a simple thing! It seems outrageous that everyone isn’t doing it.
It is outrageous! And the fact of the matter is that Sydney filtered tap water is delicious. It’s completely fine. And that was such a great revelation when I decided to do that at the restaurant and I don’t know why I didn’t do it earlier! What was I thinking?
You said it’s important for you to get your message out to as many people as possible, but how easy was it for you to start making your television series? I don’t think everyone whose passion is food then expects to end up on telly. I mean, how do you learn how to do that?
Well, I just learnt on the job. And what took a long time to get used to was the timing of TV, you know how things take ages. I mean you’re ready, all set up. the camera’s rolling, you’ve got your make-up on, you’re ready to go, and then the camera guy goes, ‘Hang on, something’s happened’, and then it takes half an hour…
And cooking is so time-dependent …
That took me months to get used to because I’m naturally impetuous anyway, and also, being a chef you do everything yesterday, you know. You have to do things very quickly.
Had you ever done any performance before?
What do you mean?
Like at school?
Oh no! No!
Because you were always so creative—so that wasn’t an area you explored?
Nah, I’m not interested in that.
Did you learn an instrument?
Yeah, but I was really bad at it. The piano and organ. No, not very good at that. But I love music. In fact my favourite music is classical music in terms of what do I listen to.
Do you listen to music when you’re cooking?
Because when I’m cooking I always seem to need music or have my laptop out and be watching a TV show, but now after talking to you about mindfulness I feel bad because that distracts me from the food!
No, I either cook at home in silence, or it’s classical music. And I love jazz music too, like Ella Fitzgerald and all of that, but what I listen to the most is classical music. But certainly if it’s not classical it’s dead silence, because as you can see the movement and the dynamic in the restaurant is great, but it’s quite a lot, so when I go home it’s just like [gesture of silence].
I’m interested in how you discovered Buddhism. Because you said before your family weren’t so spiritual…
Mum and Dad weren’t religious people. We just didn’t practice anything really. When I was 19 and I started to do all that soul-searching, it was the time I was starting to realise I was gay, so I was coming to terms with that personally: the only girl, the youngest girl in the family, lots of pressure, all of that. Anyway, I finally told my parents, which didn’t go down too well, and it really took about—look I won’t fill you in on all the gory details—it took about six years for them to come around. And now it’s been wonderful. I came out to my father when I was nineteen, which is about 100 years ago now, and they’re just amazing. Dad was amazing and that’s not a problem.
But that’s where the soul-searching began because I was feeling lonely, I was feeling confused, I was feeling so different,
and what have you. Mixed in with my already hypersensitive personality—I mean I love poetry and music and Picasso and Brian Eno music—because I’m like that! There’s a part of me that’s like that, I’m not a sporty person, that’s just me.
People are drawn to that.
So I took myself off to some of these courses to try to answer some of these big questions I had. So I had the leaning towards spiritual and metaphysical way back then. But the Buddhist interest really came to me when I hired my beautiful maître d' Kin Chen, who is Chinese–Malaysian. He’s a lovely man, and he has been with me now for about eight years. We’ve had the restaurant for eleven. And Kin is a practicing Buddhist of over twenty-five years, and I just used to watch this incredible energy just glide around the floor and I used to think, He’s amazing! He’s so calm and kind and gentle and strong and focused, and I really loved that. So he was the one who really inspired me to take that up, just because of the way he was. He never approached me and said, ‘You should do this.’ You know, because the most inspiring you can be is to just be yourself.
It’s the classic artistic temperament!
Yeah. So that was that. Several years later I got to go to Tibet, which was life-changing. The year I went to Tibet was the same year we found out that Dad was dying of prostate cancer. So I went to Lhasa for five days, and what I saw and what I felt was life-changing. These beautiful people who have nothing materially, and I mean nothing—
but their spirit and their inner vibrancy was palpable. Just their devotion to spirituality is amazing.
Totally opposite to the western world, you know, what are we interested in, material things, and then we all have a nervous breakdown and fall apart and then find God. You know, they’re doing it all around the right way. It resonates with me. I think it’s amazing.
So you got to talk to a lot of these people?
Yeah, and that trip there also helped me accept my father’s impending death, and to really look at it in a really sort of healthy balanced way. So I really took to Buddhism very strongly after that.
I’ve also read that when you were younger you wanted to be a homeopath?
Yeah. When I was a young cook, I was studying fulltime homeopathy. And at the same time I’m cooking at night because I also love cooking, I love them both. This is a three-year diploma, and one-and-a-half years into it it’s requiring more clinical time, more hours, and I had to choose between the two. I couldn’t do both. But what’s interesting about the homeopathy passion, the passion for natural remedies and herbal things, is that my great grandfather, Kwong Sue Duk, who brought our family name to Australia, he was a Chinese herbalist and medicine man.
I’m so glad you’ve mentioned him! Because I’ve been hoping to talk about him.
I’ve always felt an affinity with his spirit, so to speak. I’ve never met him of course, because he was born 150 years ago, but he was an extraordinary person, a pioneer.,He housed his whole family which was four wives and twenty-four children, and they all lived together. It was a very harmonious family.
This is the late 1800s?
In the late 1850s he brought the family name to Australia. He was about 30.
So he came here for the gold rush?
He came here for the new opportunity. It was either here or America, and he chose Australia, as they did. So that’s where I come from.
He sounds like a bit of a searcher too.
I can’t believe that he was into the herbal stuff too—it all comes together.
Well this is the interconnectivity that you were speaking of.
So much of your work is so personal. You give a lot publicly and it seems that your work is life is art is work. I guess I’m interested in how you decide how much you give and how much keep for yourself? Like, how do you not go home and have a breakdown!
That’s a very good question because I have in the past been a total workaholic, hyper-manic, can’t say no, felt like I’ve done five years’ worth of work in one year type of thing. And that didn’t do me any favours. So the way I manage that, I manage myself, my life, extremely well. I know myself very well, I am so good at saying no. And if I’m not going to be with you 150 per cent body, mind and spirit then I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to say yes to you because it’s not fair to you.
Were you always able to say no?
No, I wasn’t. I’ve learnt that the hard way, because there was a point there when I was just working too much, going out too much, not getting enough sleep, saying yes to everything, all of that, and I just got physically exhausted and I was really unhappy and I didn’t feel inspired and I couldn’t get out of bed. You know I’ve got all these kids at work who I need to inspire every day in order to make the business successful and I didn’t have that, you know, to feel inspired, to feel as if I want to jump out of bed every morning. I know that sensation very well, I’ve had it several times in my life, and I thought No. Your life is very imbalanced.
Now, every morning, well I like getting up early, 7 a.m., I go down to Rushcutters Bay Park and do my walk or I go to Centennial Park, and I spend several hours every morning in that park. So I do my walk, I sit there, I ring my fisherman, I ring my fruit and vegetable man, I think about the specials today.
So making sure I go out into nature every morning is so important and just the quietude of that. At dinnertime I always eat well and I go to bed early. And I’m in a very happy relationship with Nell, my partner, who’s amazing. She makes me incredibly happy.
What does Nell do?
She’s a contemporary artist and she’s a devout Zen Buddhist practitioner, just in her own practice. Don’t get the wrong idea, we don’t go around… it’s just within ourselves. Our inner belief. It’s really important to me. Because even though we say goodbye to each other in the morning—
—we go climb our separate mountains and come back together at night.
Like, we’ll have dinner tonight and talk about the day and that’s wonderful. But the strength of our relationship is that we share the same fundamental values, core values, about trust, integrity, spirituality, things like that, that’s really important to us. And that’s the core.
I’ve had several long-term relationships, but she’s really the first one I’ve met where it’s all so easy. It’s not a struggle. We agree on all the big subjects. We have the same passion and interest for Buddhism. And she has her own gig, I’ve got mine; she’s not at home waiting for me, I’m not at home waiting for her, she doesn’t get jealous of me, she’s not intimated by my success, I am not intimidated by her success, it’s just this wonderful meeting.
How did you meet?
We met at an art exhibition opening six years ago. But we didn’t get together straight away, it was several years later when the time was right but she’s fantastic. My mum adores her, and in fact I met her in September 2005, and my father passed away in July that year. So she was like this ray of sunshine to us. It was amazing. You lose one person and another person… you know, life’s interesting like that.
I’m really happy with her. We bring out the best in each other. And there’s a lot of freedom within that relationship and spaciousness and that’s important.
And it requires both people to be switched on.
Yeah, and it makes me happy to begin with, you know—I wake up and I’m happy.
We nearly have to finish up, but we’re sitting here surrounded by all these books and I have to ask what you’re reading at the moment.
Well, I’m really enjoying—because one of the great food gurus is Alice Waters, who owned Chez Panisse—and I’m reading her Chez Panisse, 40 years of Chez Panisse.
She’s written it?
Yeah. Chez Pannise have just celebrated their 40th anniversary. So I’m reading that. It’s not a recipe book, it’s a beautiful book about her whole journey, her philosophy, walking into sustainability, this whole culture she has created there.
And this whole time you’ve been sitting there in front of that striking artwork used for the Stephanie Alexander cookbook. Can you tell me about your relationship with Stephanie? Because you’re the NSW patron for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.
I was so honoured to be asked by her to take that role, I mean it’s something I take very seriously, and she’s a great friend, and she has set me up in my career. I mean she and Maggie [Beer] are my two favourites, and Neil, my three favourite chefs in Australia …
And your mum!
And my mum. I mean Maggie and Stephanie are in that older stage of their lives and they are still pioneering, and they are still helping, and they are still creating new recipes and they are putting so much back into the community. So that’s a real inspiration for me.
It’s not just all about them and how many restaurants they can open and everything. It’s about what they can give back to the community
and that’s so important, and that all comes from my mother as well.
Did your brothers get the same sort of thing from your mum? The love of food, the cooking?
Yes, they did—they’re great cooks. One of them’s a graphic designer and the other one is also in advertising. He has his own company just around the corner and he’s the creative director, and he employs my other brother, the graphic designer.
And then the graphic designer also helps you out at the market.
Yeah, and he also does all my design stuff for Billy Kwong.
I love it!
And mum used to be an accountant so she does my accounts. Because I’m hopeless at accounts! So that all works.
It’s the interconnectivity again.