There's a several decade-old restaurant on Clarence Street in Sydney's CBD called Fortune Village Chinese Restaurant. It's an old-fashioned Chinese-Australian experience: sang choi bow, chow mein and sweet and sour pork. But it also has a mysteriously named yet rather popular dish called Billy Kee chicken.
It's a simple deep-fried chicken dish that's refried in tomato and Worcestershire sauces to give it a saucy, red-brown glaze and a sweet and sour flavour like so many recipes in the Australian-Chinese style. Google it and you'll find a suite of fairly similar recipes but very few Sydney restaurants serving it — just New Tai Yuen in Chinatown (the dish is spelt 'Beleekee' there) and a scattering of restaurants in southern Sydney, notably King Wan, the restaurant in the Cronulla Sutherland Leagues Club.
Not all Chinese food comes from China. Billy Kee chicken is a dish that hails from Sydney's Chinatown in the 1950s. Named after local identity, Billy Kee, the Aussie influence of red wine and tomato sauce is plain to see. I also add five spice and garlic, and replace the chicken with pork belly, but you could easily use chicken if you wanted.
All are similar to Fortune Village in their aim, appeal and audience. Outside of Sydney, it's extremely rare — the restaurant in the Gunnedah Golf Club is a curious exception. And outside Australia, it barely exists (bizarrely, a restaurant in Essex and another in Delhi have had it on their menus in recent years).
The name, the western ingredients but distinct Chinese cooking method and the geographic spread of restaurants serving it makes for quite a puzzle that we've luckily been able to solve.
It all began with Billy Kee, a Chinese-Australian man who ran away from his Queensland home at 13 to become a drover's chef. His daughter, renowned Australian fashion designer Jenny Kee, detailed this in an SBS Food essay about her family, "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," writes Kee.
Billy Kee moved to Sydney in the late 1920s and by the 1950s he had become a produce agent at the Haymarket markets, which was, compared to the rest of Sydney at the time, a very multicultural place.
Every Thursday, Billy would take his friends, the produce stallholders, to a nearby restaurant named Tai Ping.
Jenny says, "He had been going to Tai Ping since it started. He would host these lunches for the market men, and when I say host them, he would go into the kitchen and cook all his special dishes with the chefs. It became a thing, all the market men waiting for an invitation for my dad's special lunches."
He would cook specialities from Guangzhou, a province that that his and so many other Chinese-Australian families have migrated from. Over those many Thursdays, he introduced many, many people to the restaurant, most of them non-Chinese people who hadn't yet experienced Chinese food.
"Tai Ping fell in love with my father's cooking, and they always had a great deal of respect for him," Jenny says. It was from that love and respect that Tai Ping created and named a dish in his honour: Billy Kee chicken. Oddly, the dish wasn't anything from or close to his repertoire of Cantonese dishes, but something saucy, tomatoey and sweet to appeal to white Australian palates.
"It became a thing, all the market men waiting for an invitation for my dad's special lunches."
The recipe goes like this: mix chicken (boneless and cut into roughly fig-sized bits) with cornstarch and/or eggs, deep-fry until lightly brown, then shallow fry those crisp chicken bits with a pre-reduced mix of tomato sauce and Worcestershire sauce and maybe red wine, soy, Tabasco or vinegar.
Jenny says, "Why, I'll never know, why they named a very ordinary dish, to my father? I think they just wanted to dedicate a dish to my dad. My mum always used to say, 'why didn't they do his crab omelette or something that was fabulous, not some ordinary dish with tomato sauce'.
"Aunty Mark and uncle Vic always ordered it [at Tai Ping] but mum and dad didn't go for it as it lacked dad's finesse."
At Tai Ping, Billy Kee chicken was a hit. When the restaurant moved premises to the former Four Seas Hotel on Elizabeth Street, the dish made the same journey. Simon Chan, Fortune Village owner and whose dad worked at the restaurant, tells SBS Food, "That was a schmick restaurant. There were tablecloths and waiters with bow ties but it was affordable.
"It was really famous, I remember as a little boy, people lining up down the street to go there. My father says it was a meeting place for the Labor party, the unions, the police, the criminals, they all went there in the crazy 70s."
However, when the hotel and restaurant closed in the late 70s, and some of the chefs who had worked there went to open their own ventures, the dish slowly spread. "A few restaurants popped up in the 70s and 80s, ours started in 81. At the time, a lot of clubs took Chinese restaurants as well, one of them was the Leagues' Club in Cronulla. [All the chefs] were disciples of Tai Ping who took versions of Billy Kee Chicken with them," Chan explains.
It gained a lot of popularity, particularly in Sutherland Shire, with many old Tai Ping customers seeking out these new restaurants, and it gained national attention in the 90s when the Women's Weekly published a Chinese cookbook that included the recipe. However, at some point, likely with the coming of a new generation, the spread petered out.
It gained national attention in the 90s when the Women's Weekly published a Chinese cookbook that included the recipe.
Chan says, "It was a famous dish but there's not many restaurants that still sell it, we're one of the last."
He says most of the people who order it are either visiting from the Shire or families who've frequented the restaurant for ages. "We had a massive cull of bookings because of COVID, and I've been calling all our reservations saying 'listen, I understand if you don't want to come blah blah blah'. One of them, he is in and out of Sydney and I haven't seen him for a year and a half but his mum has been coming in for over 25 years. When I called him, he said 'no virus is going to stop me from eating Billy Kee'," says Chan.
"It may have been a wow dish in the day, but try it today, it's just a nice dish. That's it. You know, what's food about? Memories."