Glenda Lau is the queen of comfort. From a leafy corner at the edge of Sydney's Rushcutters Bay, Lau serves the kind of Italian home cooking that soothes your system like the first sip of wine at the end of a bumpy day.
The Italian lineage at her restaurant Bayswater Kitchenette comes from co-owner Alessia Bottini, a former Fratelli Paradiso chef who worked at nearby cafe Jeremy & Sons, where the pair met. “Alessia knows everyone [in the neighbourhood] by their coffee orders. I was the soy flat white girl. We used to see each other every day.”
At the time, Lau was working at Clayton Wells' Automata, which meant living on restaurant food five nights a week. “As luxurious as it was – and as grateful as I am to eat food that other people paid for, for free – on my days off, I needed to eat home cooking. And that’s how it all began,” she says.
Nine months ago, Lau and Bottini joined forces to create a miniature diner that would be an extension of their homes. Dishes are inspired by favourite food memories and traditions: sticky braised ragu and crumbed cutlets, home-baked desserts, plus a signature lasagna based on a recipe passed down from Bottini’s mother.
Pre-lockdown, the Kitchenette brought together hungry, solo-living regulars the way a good pub might do. It grew a loyal community – one that gravitated towards comfort food.
While Bottini’s food heritage might be obvious on the menu, Lau’s own Cantonese upbringing also plays a subtle, but no less influential role.
At home, Lau craves Asian flavours. It’s not unusual to find a giant vat of congee with a slow-cooked ham hock in her modest studio fridge, which she would prep in her free time and eat for days.
“My dad’s from Hong Kong, so that style of food is my thing,” says Lau. “Whenever we go over to my parents’ house, mum’s always got pots on the stove. So the first thing you do as you walk into the kitchen is lift the lids off every pot.”
Simmering on the stove might be hearty bone broths, gingery steamed fish, or chicken wings with lap cheong.
It’s that heady, anticipatory feeling of coming home to a warm meal that Lau tries to recreate, especially for people who live alone. This is why the restaurant sells daily ‘Take-Me-Home’ dinner boxes. Pictures of each evening’s meals are posted on Instagram – a virtual lifting of the lids on what locals get to order at the end of a long workday.
Ironically, the popular dinner boxes paved the way for the Kitchenette’s transition into the quarantine era, where Lau and Bottini continue to serve stomach-hugging takeaway meals. Often, the origin story of each dish is inspired by interactions with locals: a lemon and herb-crusted fish might be dedicated to retired engineer Steve; a teriyaki pork stir-fry for Oma Maja (a local German grandmother), who is self-isolating and missing Japan where she fell in love with the taste of soy sauce on her first trip.
"Whenever we go over to my parents’ house, mum’s always got pots on the stove. So the first thing you do as you walk into the kitchen is lift the lids off every pot.”
Food borders are blurred in these take-home dinners because according to the pair, “family favourites are about food memories and things that make us happy”. For Lau, one of her trusty cross-cultural repertoires which made it on the menu is roasted Hainanese chicken rice.
Created originally for her partner, who grew up around English home-cooking and lost his parents at a young age, Lau tweaked the poached chicken to a marinated version which she roasts with aromatics and serves with chicken rice and various sauces.
“What surprised me was that my partner actually loved all the condiments. Especially the ginger shallot sauce. That’s comfort food for both of us — where it crosses over.”
These days, Lau is committed to learning traditional Cantonese dishes to preserve her family recipes. “I’m getting my mum to teach me things like zongzi (glutinous rice parcels). My grandfather opened one of the first Chinese restaurants in Ashfield, on Liverpool Road. It was one of the [festive] dishes he used to make for us at home.”
And how is the cooking project tracking? “I can wing it. Though I haven’t done them on my own yet,” she says and laughs. “But it’s one of those things where if I don’t learn it, my generation won’t know it."
Here’s to seeing the fruits of her labour on the Kitchenette menu one day.
Roasted Hainanese chicken rice
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2 green shallots, cut to 5cm batons
- Salt and white pepper
- 1 whole chicken
- Rice to serve (Glenda buys a jar of Hainanese chicken rice sauce, available from any Asian grocer, to season the rice, but you can add few slices of fresh ginger when cooking the rice, as an alternative)
1. To create the marinade, combine the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and sesame oil.
2. Rub the marinade in the cavity and skin of the chicken. Stuff the ginger, garlic and shallots into the chicken. (If using a boneless chicken, just marinate the chicken.)
3. Set the oven to 180˚C and roast the chicken for 20 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken (for every 500g, roast for 20 minutes). Rest chicken and serve with rice. Add ginger and shallot oil, brown sauce and red sauce to taste (see recipes below).
Ginger and shallot oil
- 125ml vegetable oil or other neutral-flavoured oil
- 200g ginger, peeled and chopped roughly
- 3 green shallots
- 1 tsp white sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp white pepper
1. Heat the oil in a small saucepan on high heat until the oil starts to smoke. Add the ginger and shallots to the pan until aromatic. Adjust the seasoning to taste and take off the heat.
- 250ml vegetable oil
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
- 200ml oyster sauce
- 200ml abalone sauce
- 50ml soy sauce
- 50ml thick soy paste
- 50ml sesame oil
- 50ml water
- 1½ tsp white pepper
1. Heat vegetable oil in a saucepan until the oil gets hot. Add garlic and let it sizzle to flavour the oil. Strain and discard garlic.
2. Mix the remaining ingredients. Add the garlic oil and return the pan over low heat. Using a whisk, emulsify the ingredients until well combined.
- 3-4 long red chillies (Glenda removes some of the chilli seeds, but leave them in if you prefer your sauce spicy)
- 3 garlic cloves
- 80g white sugar
- 80ml white vinegar
- ½ tsp salt
1. Blend ingredients in a processor until smooth.
• You can also serve roasted Hainanese chicken rice with steamed gai lan or choy sum dressed with brown sauce, sliced cucumber and chopped coriander.