MAD SYD: Kylie Kwong

As Australia’s own, Kylie Kwong, stepped onto the MAD SYD stage, she quickly announced that her passion of food stemmed from her Mother. From shopping at the fresh food markets and cooking using the best quality produce, food was all about sharing with friends and family. Kwong learnt 2 things from her Mother: food makes people happy and food connects people. 6/7 nights a week the Kwong household would eat Cantonese food; on the 7th Kylie’s Mother would excitedly announce to her family “we’re having western food tonight!” Tracing her family tree back, Kwong proudly boasted that she is 29th generation Kwong and 3rd generation Australian.

Prior to the MAD SYD I didn’t know much about the chef, cookbook author and restaurateur. Unexpectedly, Kwong had a background in graphic art and design and worked in the advertising industry before kitchen life set in with Neil Perry’s Rockpool. Chills travelled down my body – I too come from a marketing and advertising background, only stumbling upon the restaurant industry. As I slid to the front of my seat, I found myself clinging to every word. It wasn’t the first time Kwong had me in tears during the next 20 minutes of her talk.

Change of Direction

After the passing of her Father in 2006, Kwong channelled her grief by helping others and reaching out to her community. By 2010, Kwong sat in the audience at the Sydney Opera House listening to René Redzepi speak about his philosophy.

“It highlighted the importance of using native produce in our cooking in order to express a certain time and place and history and memory and scent and flavour and culture – an overall sense of a country” recalled Kwong.

This talk would change Kwong’s creative process and culinary direction forever.

Outback Pride

Immediately after the talk Kwong contacted Mike and Gayle Quarmby of Outback Pride – a project celebrating the native produce of Australia’s bush, which started in memory of their son, who tragically passed away after a car accident. Raised in Central Australia, Gayle noticed how conditions for her indigenous childhood friends had actually worsened since the 1950s. When Kwong received this ‘new’ produce, it seemed as though Christmas had come early.

“I can’t describe how excited it was to come across all of this new produce. It was like, for me, discovering a whole new culinary alphabet. If I were a painter it would have been like discovering a whole new colour wheel”, explained Kwong.

It was an extremely motivating and invigorating time for Billy Kwong. Australian produce from the bush offered her guests true flavours from this land.

Talking us through her creative and thought process, Kwong would first examine and observe the native food – its colour shape, botanicals, the science, history, researched it on the internet, and looked at what other chefs have done with it.

For the Warrigal Greens, which only has a 6-week lifespan, Kwong steamed, stir-fried, blanched and even served it raw. It reminded Kwong of Malaysian spinach, so she substituted regular spinach for the Warrigal Greens in her steamed vegetable dumpling.

Up next was Kwong’s favourite native ingredient, Salt Bush, which lives for 150 years and is also high in calcium and zinc. In the words of Gayle, “a bloody good food!” Tasting this ingredient made Kwong think of a crispy Chinese street food cake. Substituting the scallions for salt bush, which had a natural creaminess and saltiness, this dish is paired with a chilli sauce to cut the sodium and has been on the menu for 5 years or so. It was another example of what Kwong calls her Australian-Chinese street food (I also ordered this straight after the talk and it was delicious – light, crispy, full of flavour, with the chilli cutting through the naturally savoury tones of the salt bush).

Other dishes may switch out Asian greens for native greens, or use indigenous meat like wallaby tail in a black bean and chilli sauce. Edible ants were added to the menu start a conversation about Australia’s indigenous past and culture, and in Kwong’s words because they are ‘delicious’. For the first time, Kwong was able to “offer food that was a direct representation of who I am and where I come from”. But everything had to make sense. Although only a small glimpse into the brilliance of Kylie Kwong’s mind, I felt exactly how she was sitting at the Sydney Opera House when Redzepi spoke all those years ago. My whole perspective on how I view food changed with that very moment.

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Celebration, Collaboration and Community

A vulnerable Kwong takes a moment to pause before speaking about her “black period” – losing her stillborn child.

“It was, I cannot describe the internal sense of restlessness, on an emotional, intellectual and spiritual level. It was as if someone had packed away the sun, and everywhere I looked, in my dreams, in my sleep, when I was awake, internally, spiritually, mentally, everywhere I looked there was complete darkness and blackness”. Without getting too deep, I’ve felt that feeling, just in a different way. As Kwong learnt how to function again, she sought comfort in food and her new friend, Gayle Quarmby, and tried to turn this grief into something positive, just like Outback Pride. Once she did this Kwong experienced a creative surge like never before.

You “must absolutely give your grief an expression – this is the only way to heal, and is very, very powerful and actually invigorating”.

Tomorrow’s Meal

So what about tomorrow’s meal? Kwong left us with this:

“Tomorrow’s meal, I believe, will always be found in celebration, collaboration and community”.

Celebration: when we wake up and we’re alive, that’s reason to celebrate

Collaborate: every person has something to offer. Draw upon raw talents and share with others

Community: go out and directly engage everyday

Even though I didn’t want this talk to end, the much needed break gave me time to process, reflect, and, with a beer in hand, start jotting down ideas for my own journey. The message was clear – everything would be ok, just take some time. And time is what I have.

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