It's rare to meet someone who is able to cook so intentionally with their hands, mind and soul.
For Chef Kylie Kwong, the meal seems intended as a journey, taking the diner from hungry to inspired, showcasing the food she learnt to cook while loitering in her uncle’s noodle shop. She recently put on a dinner for women in the F&B and media realms in Sydney, simultaneously celebrating collective achievement and introducing international media to her food. It’s also where we met, and I hunted down the aspirational chef for an interview after tasting Kylie’s distinctly contemporary Cantonese-meets-Australian cooking. The banquet consisted of dishes containing the skilled use of ingredients like muntrie berries with char sui and saltbush leaves used in the place of scallions for Chinese pancakes.
Though entirely a modern day career woman, with cook books, TV shows and much more to boast, she holds dearly to traditions which uphold family and associated conventions. In the same manner, she’s the epitome of ‘fusion’ cooking, creating award-winning Chinese-style fare that appeals to the sophisticated and contemporary Australian dining scene, and has inspired many the world over.
What’s your take on the current gender conversations in the male-dominated cooking industry?
My influences within the kitchen have always stemmed from both male and female mentors; my Mum, Neil Perry, Maggie Beer, Stephanie Alexander and most recently, Rene Redzepi. Even though this was the case for me personally, I do believe it is a very positive thing that the conversation regarding achieving more gender equality within a typically male dominated profession is happening.
What’s going on in the world of Australian food?
Native ingredients are becoming more and more known of and subsequently utilised on restaurant menus. I focus on using as many native ingredients as I possibly can in my restaurant and on spreading the word about our incredible Australian history, our original Australians, their precious, precious culture and traditions, in addition to our unique and delicious native produce. I am very positive about the future of Australian food which will see us using more of our country’s native flora and fauna in a variety of ways; from restaurants and, more and more, within our homes.
How do you ensure your restaurant stays relevant in this rapidly iterative industry?
My business model has developed and deepened a lot over the last 15 or so years, as I have grown as a person and as my values and priorities have changed and shifted. For me, what is important in my daily practice as a chef and restaurateur is to be able to do and offer something meaningful and positive out there in the world. This is only achieved through collaborating with, and celebrating, the talents of others and through integrating our delicious and amazing Australian native produce into my Cantonese-style fare, in order to express the traditional culture and heritage, smell, flavour and ‘sense’ of this country, this place, this time.
How important is reputation?
In my industry, we chefs/restaurateurs are basically only as good as our last meal, so reputation is absolutely paramount. My staff and I all work very, very hard each day to maintain the reputation we have built up for these last almost 16 years – we are also very aware of how quickly a good reputation can be lost. I think that’s important, to never become complacent.
What daily habit has been effective in your life?
I try to practice mindfulness in everything–to be exactly where we are in each moment. I think when we give our complete attention to the moment, that is when we can be at our best and happiest.
What’s something you’re unwilling to compromise on?
For me, everything must make ‘sense’. Whether it’s an ingredient we use in the kitchen, part of the fit-out at Billy Kwong, a collaboration we take part in, media we participate in etc., everything must have a purpose, a meaning and must fit within our overall philosophy and message. I do not see the value in doing things just for the sake of doing it, or because it’s the latest trend.
How are you so authentically caring amid all the busyness of being as high profile as you are?
Being interested and engaged with other individuals is for me, the most important aspect in life. Doing things which not only benefit ourselves, but also, which greatly benefit and enhance another’s ‘life condition’ is very, very important. I am not interested in ‘personal gain’; I am more interested in sharing with others.
How do you achieve balance in this hugely demanding industry?
Yes, I am a very busy person, yet I am very clear and firm about my personal down-time and family time, which is the way I am able to maintain that balance between being overworked and thus unable to think or see clearly, versus, working really, really hard but still being able to maintain a clear, balanced view on the world, and thus, others. I also think it is also very important to keep things in perspective. To understand and know what is the most important aspects and qualities in life. I feel it is very, very important to have one’s values and priorities in order, as this directly influences one’s daily decision-making.