Kylie Kwong: making it sustainable
Kylie Kwong: making it sustainable
She’s one of Sydney’s most successful restaurateurs, but Kylie Kwong doesn’t want to see her name up in lights. Her message is more down to earth: look after our food and its producers and reap bountiful rewards in body, mind and spirit.
Published Selector Spring 2010
When you take a packet off the supermarket shelf, how much thought do you give to its origins? Do you question how far it has travelled, how it was produced and by whom?
These are the questions restaurateur, TV presenter and cookbook author Kylie Kwong wants to encourage all shoppers to ask. She believes, “we the consumers are the most powerful in terms of changing the habits of the way we eat and the way we produce things.”
While many of us give little thought to what we’re throwing in the supermarket trolley, Kylie grew up thinking that getting to know your food providores was a regular shopping experience.
This was thanks to her parents, especially her Mum who is, Kylie says, “a great home-style Cantonese cook and absolutely loves cooking.” As a child, Kylie would join her Mum on shopping trips to Sydney’s Chinatown and the fresh food markets where, she remembers, “Mum was very good friends with the Italian grocer, the butcher, the Greek fisherman.” On these trips her Mum taught her how to source and choose the best produce, from roots of ginger to roast duck.
Kylie’s childhood of “getting together in the kitchen, bantering, preparing and cooking” was the perfect preparation for life as a chef. However, her initial ambition was to study graphic arts, which she went on to do after leaving school. It wasn’t until she got a temporary job with a catering company after working in the advertising industry for several years that Kylie reconnected with her love of food.
From there she went on to hold positions in iconic Sydney restaurants, The Restaurant Manfredi, Rockpool and Wockpool, where she was Head Chef for four years. Then in 1998 she moved to Bill Granger’s bills and bills2.
Two years later, Kylie achieved her dream of opening her own restaurant, Billy Kwong. Initially a partnership with Bill Granger, hence the name, the restaurant has been solely owned by Kylie since she and Bill went their separate ways nine months after it opened.
Given the food lessons Kylie learnt as a child, it was only natural that she sourced the produce for Billy Kwong locally. Serving “fresh, flavoursome Chinese food” was her goal in the early days of the restaurant and as Kylie says, “people obviously enjoyed it as they kept coming back.”
By 2004 however, Kylie decided to take her sustainable approach to food one step further by sourcing locally grown, organic and biodynamic produce, despite the financial risk. Like any business owner, Kylie was concerned her customers wouldn’t accept the price rise, but in the end she had to follow her conscience.
The decision to be led by her principles rather than her purse came after a fundamental change in Kylie’s personal philosophy. This transformation began after Kylie found fame thanks to her first ABC TV series, Kylie Kwong: Heart and Soul. At this time, Billy Kwong was only known in its home city and by a few followers in Melbourne. But once awareness of Kylie grew, so did the crowds at her restaurant.
With this surge in popularity Kylie suddenly felt, she explains, “a deep sense of responsibility for what I was putting on the plate. I thought, Kylie, so many people are lining up to come to your restaurant, best you send out the right message.” At around the same time a new maître d’, Kin Chen, started at Billy Kwong. Kylie was immediately struck by Kin’s “beautiful energy” and she’d “watch him glide around the room and think, what is that magic he has?”
The secret to Kin’s serenity was Buddhism and he opened Kylie’s eyes to its life-changing potential. Amongst the many teachings of this ancient practice, Kylie learnt that Buddhism, simply put, “is about understanding that everything and everyone is interconnected and interdependent and so it is in our best interest to respect the earth and soil because in fact it’s about respecting yourself.”
She also realised that you can’t be a part-time Buddhist. “It’s not enough”, she explains, “to go to meditation on a Monday night and get into the zone but then come out of it and be this mad, manic thing.” She needed to make it part of “every single moment.”
By shifting Billy Kwong’s menu from conventional to locally grown, organic and biodynamic produce Kylie was able to bring her business practice in line with her spiritual philosophy.
And the gamble paid off. Since the change, Billy Kwong has never been busier. What’s more, Kylie believes the benefits of embracing sustainable produce flow through from the kitchen to the dining room.
“It’s a privilege to get to know the farmers, the fishermen, the breadmakers, the winemakers behind this amazing produce. Our role as cook is to honour this mindfully grown produce because we are honouring them and honouring the earth from where it’s come.
“We’re preparing it, cooking it and serving it with that attitude. Then that gets handed on to the waiters who feel very proud to serve this beautiful produce because it’s the best quality. Then of course the customers can taste it because not only are there no chemicals or preservatives, but you can actually see its vitality. You feel good when you go home; it’s not full of MSG so you have a good night’s sleep. Everybody wins.”
Having achieved such great success, the next step for many chefs would be to open another restaurant. Kylie, however, doesn’t want to take what she sees as a sideways step; her desired direction is deeper. “How can I make the food and service even better?”
Away from the restaurant, Kylie is also promoting the sustainable message through her latest book, It Tastes Better, which she describes as “a celebration of about 30 Australian heroes.” The idea came on a visit to her local organic store. Looking at the shelves, she thought, “I want to meet the Murray River Salt people, I want to meet the Meredith’s Goat Cheese lady, I want to meet the organic tamari people.” So that’s exactly what she did; travelling around the country interviewing small, independent producers.
Through asking them about their product and sustainable practices, Kylie unearthed what she describes as “wonderful stories because they’re deeply interesting people who are connected to the earth and totally respectful of soil and water. That is what I love about them and this is why their produce tastes better.”
Alongside these stories, Kylie has written 100 new recipes based on their ingredients. There’s also a section called “Food and sustainability and what it’s all about” which includes a brief definition of organics, biodynamics, the slow food movement and free range.
Through the book, Kylie has showcased the producers who she feels “re-humanise the food chain.” In her words, “for far too long food in our society has not been sacred, it’s just this commodity and what we’re trying to do is put that value back into food. To think, this is not just a carrot, this is Rob Bauer’s carrot, these are not just biodynamic eggs, these are Paul and Virginia’s biodynamic eggs. That’s what makes it so beautiful and gives it the depth.”
Despite her despondency about where we’ve come to with food, Kylie is optimistic about where we’re going. “I think the more people who take up the cause, the better and small steps lead to great things. ”
That’s not to say Kylie expects everyone to spend a fortune on biodynamic and organic food, she is just urging people to “shop with more thoughtfulness and awareness.” Or, as the Zen Buddhist saying goes, “Treat food as if it were your eyesight.”
Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.