My quirky, dysfunctional Aussie family was a mixture of Chinese, Italian and English, and all these cuisines appeared on our dining table. My paternal great grandparents came from Guanzhong, China, to the gold rush in Cooktown in the 1870s. My maternal grandfather came from Lombardy in Italy, near the Swiss Alps. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer, so he ran away to Paris to study to be a chef and then moved to The Savoy in London, but still sketched mountains in the front of his Escoffier cookbook.
As a head chef with the P&O Shipping Lines, he arrived in Sydney in the early 1900s and was offered a job at the legendary Hotel Australia where he worked as head chef for 25 years. While at the Australia, he cooked peach Melba for Dame Nellie, poached snapper for Robert Menzies, and made paupiettes de merlans Grand Duc (rolled whiting) for the Prince of Wales. Then he moved to the posh Princes Restaurant at Martin Place.
My dad Billy Kee was born in the goldfields of North Queensland, which back then was as crazy as the American Wild West. When he was 12, he ran away and became a drover’s cook. Even as a kid he was a brilliant cook, and the drovers loved him. He was known for his kangaroo tail soup and pigeon pie. When we were kids, he told us stories of sitting around Aboriginal camps. The indigenous people impressed him he said, because they knew how to share.
He moved to Sydney and became successful as a produce agent at the markets. Like many Chinese, he was also an obsessive gambler. By the time he met Mum at a mahjong den, he was a dashing Chinese Edward G Robinson [1930s Hollywood actor]. He wore sharp suits and Rolex watches. Mum was a party girl who was beautifully dressed by her couture-sewing sister. They loved to go to Romano’s in his Pontiac. But by the time my brother and sister and I were born, Dad’s secretary had become his lifelong mistress, and the only happy times when we were all together was when we were sitting around the table eating.
At home, dinner was always a culinary adventure. Mum’s food was carefully prepared and presented, refined and perfect, whether it was a trifle, crumbed cutlets, cauliflower cheese, butter sauce or classic roasts and other Aussie staples. Then there were Dad’s Chinese banquets.
Sometimes on Sundays, Dad took us to the Chinatown grocers on Dixon Street to buy food such as Calmex abalone in pink tins. The shops had stone floors and containers full of potent-smelling Chinese herbs and foods, including ginger and star anise, preserved duck eggs and pickles. I can still smell it now when I think of it. I’d stand uneasily behind Dad, who would be speaking to shopkeepers in his broken Cantonese.
When they spoke to me, I cried because I had no idea what they were saying.
I knew that the kids where I lived in Bondi didn’t go to Chinatown to get their food. Bondi was such a sunny straightforward place. The shops in Chinatown were dark and smelly. The produce market was darker still, to stop food spoiling in the height of summer. In that darkness were baskets where pythons were kept to hunt the rats; they’ve cleaned up Chinatown now. Men in leather aprons bustled between rows of mangoes, tomatoes and beans that stretched as far as the eye could see.
The offices were built on stilts, high above the trading floor. Dad’s office was near the clock tower at the Harris Street end of the building. We walked up a long flight of rickety stairs and opened a rough door that looked as if it had been made from a packing crate. Everything was old and wooden and work-worn. Three or four ladies sat inside, fingers moving like lightning over adding machines and abacuses. Dad’s gas cooker and wok stood in one corner, always ready for him to whip up a quick feed. There were stacks of money on the tables. Dad didn’t trust banks so he left money everywhere. Mum didn’t like us going to the market; she probably felt uneasy about us being around Dad’s secretary, and she was worried we might dirty our patent leather shoes.
On the way home, we always stopped by the Lin Sun Low Café to have our billycans filled with a savoury rice porridge called juk.
Dad took bets from the Dixon Street chefs, and he often spent time in the kitchens comparing recipes and techniques. Every Thursday he cooked for his mates at the Tai Ping opposite the Haymarket corner of Dixon Street. Years later, the Tai Ping named a dish in his honour – Billy Kee Chicken.
The thing that kept our family together, however tenuously, was food. Dad cooked brunch every Saturday, and there could be anything from five to 10 dishes. That’s how he showed us his love. He and my younger sister Lizzie particularly bonded because she was always at his elbow, watching him cook. Dad would go into the kitchen on a Saturday morning and make a hell of a mess, which Mum had to clean up, but she didn’t mind. Dad was forgiven everything when he made brunch.
Each of us had our favourite dish. Lizzie’s was pork and potatoes – nice floury potatoes were cut into chunks and cooked with red beancurd, garlic, onion, mint, char siu (Chinese roast pork) and always a dash of whisky. We all loved Dad’s lightly steamed crabs. He killed them beforehand by poking them in the eye with a chopstick, which went straight to the brain. He bashed three huge knobs of ginger, stuck the bits in a bowl with white sugar and malt vinegar, and stirred the mixture around to make a divine sauce. Everyone just grabbed a crab leg and dipped it in the sauce.
Dad’s pigs’ trotters were wonderful masses of aniseedy sweet-but-tangy jelly, slow-cooked so that the meat was falling off the bone. His crab omelettes were also famous, and so moist they came out in folds. Even his steamed rice was special. We would fight over the crispy bits on the bottom because you could dunk them in the sauces – delicious.
His chicken with almonds was also unforgettable. He’d heat up good-quality peanut oil, throw in the almonds and leave them until they blistered. Then he’d whip them out and add just a pinch of salt. He never skimped on the cooking. Even an almond was done to a turn. Finally, he would toss the almonds with sliced chicken breast, celery, mushrooms and bamboo shoots.
I loved Dad’s zucchini stuffed with pork, prawns, water chestnuts and Chinese mushrooms. He’d have two choppers going, one in each hand, to mince the ingredients. I adored “shoe laces” (lotus shoots) lily root soup, which was lotus root with pork, and his fu gwa (bitter melon) soup. But the most exotic of all the dishes was his steamed winter melon, containing cubed bêche de mer (sea cucumber), duck breast, the flesh of a melon, ginkgo nuts and chicken stock.
We’d put a plastic tablecloth over the Laminex table and Dad would serve the brunch on tin plates, something Mum would never have dreamed of using on any other day. These were joyful times: the only ones when the family came together and we felt comfortable inviting our friends around. We’d smell the preparations all morning, and by the time the food hit the table, we were ready to pounce.
Cooking skipped a generation with me; although I’m famous for cleaning up in the kitchen after my friends’ dinner parties, but my daughter Grace has the magic touch. Right now, she and her friend are working on the Bondi Public School Cookbook. She’s always baking... sourdough breads, glorious cakes. Her black bean soup is exquisite; she makes the best Mexican barbacoa and I love her grilled lamb cutlets marinated in Dijon mustard, olive oil, soy and parsley. Her cooking reaches the same level of perfection as my mum and dad combined.
When she married Danny Heifetz, who is American Jewish of Russian and Polish descent, our family’s ethnic melting pot became even richer. Grace excels in a chocolate Passover treat called matzo crunch. So I guess my little granddaughter Estella will always have a recipe up her sleeve. Even if it skips a generation again, it seems our family will always celebrate good food.
Photography Lyn Balzer & Tony Perkins