Feature

Kylie Kwong: philosophical foodie

G Magazine

The renowned Sydney-based chef shares her recipe for success.

Kylie Kwong

Credit: Petrina Hicks

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Kylie Kwong is where most of us would be ecstatic to be: entirely at ease with who she is and blissfully enthused about what she's doing.

"I finally feel comfortable within my own skin," explains the energetic Sydney-based chef renowned for her approach to modern Chinese cuisine.

Kwong still radiates the unpretentious edge that is the hallmark of her TV cooking shows. But these days she also exudes the contented, confident aura that comes with completing a comprehensive journey of self-discovery.

And as the way forward rolls out, a new role for Kwong is emerging as a spokesperson on matters environmental.

In particular, she's becoming known as an advocate for organic food and the sustainable use of natural resources.

Rite of passage

This is no bandwagon upon which Kwong has suddenly jumped as the nation turns green in the shadow of climate change and dwindling water resources - more the culmination of a lifetime of learning and searching.

While her public metamorphosis is relatively recent, it follows a lengthy rite of passage that began in the late 1980s when, as a 19-year-old just out of an all-girl's high school, Kwong realised she was looking for more from life than many of her peers.

"[My girlfriends] were always reading fashion magazine and talking about fashion...really superficial things," she recalls.

"It's what girls do at that age and I enjoyed it for a while but quickly got over it and was bored. Although I couldn't articulate it then, I realise now I needed to express my artistic side and wasn't doing that."

She waves vaguely at the dining room and kitchen of her Sydney eatery Billy Kwong, renown for its menu, friendly tea-house atmosphere and queues of diners who accept the no-reservations policy to wait on the footpath for a table.

She now understands, her gesturing implies, this is what she needed to indulge her creativity.

Focus found

Kwong embarked on a working life in graphic design and advertising. But she continued to be achingly unsettled and, with her mind bursting with questions, began pursuing a string of personal development courses.

"I loved it," she explains. "It was the first time I'd heard anyone talk about why you are the way you are and how your parents and [grandparents] and childhood have a big influence on who you are. It made so much sense and [gave me] a much broader view on everything."

She left the "too soulless and cut-throat" world of advertising after two years and, while contemplating her next career move, worked increasingly in delis and cafes.

Life developed a focus when, at the age of 26, she landed her first professional cooking job at Neil Perry's legendary Rockpool restaurant.

It propelled her along what, in hindsight, was a perfectly natural route.

Family matters

While the education Kwong received from Perry turned out to be a significant influence, food has always been central to her life.

She and her brothers had begun cooking with their mum as preschoolers and Kwong remembers the chaotic joy of large extended family mealtime gatherings. Each parent had 10 brothers and sisters and, as Kwong proudly acknowledges, she's part of Australia's "largest Chinese family in immigration history."

While Kwong's connection with her Eastern ancestry now seamlessly pervades most aspects of her life, her many visits to the most populated continent on the planet have also highlighted her appreciation for the raw resources in Australia that fuel her passion for cooking.

"It makes me realise how lucky we are with our produce. It really is second to none. The seafood here, in particular, is amazing," says Kwong.

She also concedes she sometimes finds the pollution problems and apparent lack of environmental constraints and regulations in China personally challenging.

Spiritual ties

The biggest shift in Kwong's environmental outlook came with the arrival in 2003 of Billy Kwong's current matre'de, Kin Chen.

Chen, a Chinese Malaysian and practicing Buddhist who has lived in Australia for 20 years, quickly impressed Kwong with the gentle, respectful confidence his spirituality gives him.

She now embraces Buddhism as her "preferred life philosophy". Again in hindsight, it's apparent many aspects of Buddhism - particularly her compassion, relentlessly positive outlook and need to nurture - have been a fundamental part of who she is for some time.

Chen's arrival coincided with the return of Billy Kwong's head chef, Hamish Ingham, from work experience at one of America's most influential restaurants, California's Chez Panisse, famed since the 1970s for its accent on fresh, locally grown organic produce.

Hands of inspiration

Kwong nominates Alice Waters, one of the restaurant's founders, among those who have inspired her. Also high on that list, of course, are her mum (a retired accountant who still does Kwong's books) and Neil Perry.

Others she holds in high esteem include: Australian cooks Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer; ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer; environmentalist Patrice Newell, a founder of the Climate Change Coalition and co-owner of a large biodynamic farm in the Upper Hunter Valley in NSW; and spiritual mentor Subhana Barzaghi, Australia's first female Zen Buddhist master.

In her daily professional life, however, Kwong's biggest influences are undoubtedly Chen and Ingham. "My hands", she calls them.

So when Ingham returned from the US fired up about organic produce and it fitted with Chen's spiritual philosophies and Kwong's emerging views, the trio decided to transform the Billy Kwong menu and use only organic and biodynamic produce.

"It took a while because we had to restructure everything because of the expense," explains Kylie. "But it was in line with our life philosophy and we all know the benefits for the planet. [Plus] the people I get [into the restaurant] were so open to it. We've never looked back."

Biodynamic business

That was four years ago and although Kwong's desire to support local producers means a note is sometimes required on the menu to explain that one or two items may not be strictly organic, she feels her diners understand.

"Shifting the menu has transformed the whole business," enthuses Kwong. "It's taken it to another level because I said to the chefs [this produce] is so precious, we've got to really make sure we treat it with respect."

"[Cooking with] organic and biodynamic produce, for me, is about helping its natural character come out and so you've got to restrain and resist and discipline your cooking skills...it's really refined the way we cook."

Where to now for Kwong? She will undoubtedly grow as an advocate for environmental and social change.

As well as her restaurant's menu shift, Kwong has become a spokesperson for the Australian Marine Conservation Society and endorses the organisation's sustainable seafood booklet, a responsible consumer guide to buying seafood.

She's also becoming recognised more and more as a spokesperson and advocate for the fair trade movement.

"The fact of the matter is I'm a celebrity [just] because my face is in the public [so] why not use it positively?" she says.

Full circle

Family continues to be hugely important.

Sadly, Kwong lost her dad recently to cancer, but her mum, brothers, niece Indiana, 12, and nephews Jye, 10, and Fin, 4, remain pivotal to her life.

She has a particularly close relationship with 12-year-old Indy and the little girl and her aunt share much in common, from looks to tenacious personality.

The book and television work will continue but there will be no second restaurant. Billy Kwong has been working well for seven years and although she no longer actually cooks there, its philosophy and staff continue to be central to who she is and what she does.

"So, I've got the restaurant, TV, books...," Kwong checks off the list, "and I'm really loving being a spokesperson [for environmental issues] and I also enjoy being a sort of link for Australian-born Chinese, helping to [connect] them back to their culture in China."

"But you know what I'd really love," she lowers her voice, almost in reverence, "is to have a family and just cook for them every night and I'd have a big long wooden table and we'd have all the rellies over."

In the most fundamental of Buddhist ways, life would then have come full circle for Kylie Kwong.