Here, she shows how to deliver her simple home-style dishes. I feel privileged to have a foot in two worlds – the wonderful traditions and food heritage of China, and the beautiful high-quality produce of this country. Having a mother who is a great home-style Cantonese cook is another privilege of mine. My mother loves cooking; it was never a chore to her. She loves buying fresh produce and providing for her family. Growing up, I saw food in a positive light – food made people happy, and, of course, food connected people.
As a child and an adolescent, I never consciously thought, "When I grow up, I would like to be a chef". I’ve been cooking since I was five, as have my brothers. Being from a Chinese family, you just cook, it’s just part of your life. It wasn’t until my early 20s when I had been working as a graphic designer in advertising for a few years, that I realised the industry was not for me.
My first good cooking job was with chef Neil Perry at Rockpool restaurant. I was about 25 or 26. I ended up working with Neil for six years, and it was a very inspiring, successful business relationship. He taught me so much and he was a great mentor, and still is. I then went to work for Bill Granger as his head chef. Bill and I became good friends and we decided to open a little Chinese spot, and that’s how Billy Kwong came about. About nine months after that, we went our separate ways, and I’ve been the sole owner ever since; it’s been 11 years now.
The food I cook is Australian–Chinese. I am third-generation Australian, but 29th-generation Kwong, so it is a direct reflection of my upbringing. Over the past six months, it has become Australian–Chinese food in the truest sense because I’ve started to use a lot of native Australian bush tucker, which I’m really passionate about. I source organic warrigal greens, saltbush, Davidson’s plums, lemon aspen, lillypillys and wild rosella flowers through a wonderful South Australian company called Outback Pride. I have come to realise that Australian native bush food is very simpatico with Asian flavours; the Davidson’s plums, for example, are very sour and go perfectly with my crispy-skin duck. This discovery has made me reassess what Australian–Chinese food really is. I say to my chefs, there is no other restaurant in the world serving this type of Chinese food, and that is very exciting.
Thankfully, I think people’s expectations of Chinese food in this country have raised considerably and we are now seeing a wave of wonderful regional Chinese restaurants. Chinese food is so accessible with all the available produce and is actually very simple to cook. On Saturdays, I go to Eveleigh Farmers’ Markets to sell my dumplings, pancakes and free-range pork buns. So many people say to me, 'What are you doing here?" and I look at them just as puzzled and think, "Why not?".
I like getting up in the mornings, and being at the market keeps me in touch with my producers and my customers. I love seeing the look of glee on their faces when they eat my food; it takes me back to what it’s all about.
As a business owner, I’m constantly asking myself how we can keep one step ahead and it always comes back to the quality of the raw ingredients. No longer am I obsessed with finding exotic ingredients – I’m looking literally out my back door. I’m never happier than when I’m surrounded by fresh produce.