Kylie Kwong: Star of Sustainability

G Magazine

With a new cookbook championing local and organic producers, Kylie Kwong is encouraging us to get back to the roots of where our food comes from.

Kylie Kwong at Bruny Island

Kylie Kwong spends the day fishing with one of her sustainable suppliers.

Credit: Simon Griffiths

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Effervescent, strong-willed and taking everything in her stride, Kylie Kwong is a woman who firmly knows her place in the world. Living with her extended Chinese family in Eastern Sydney, the 41 year-old chef is a passionate advocate and pioneer for sustainable food. Kwong opened her restaurant, Billy Kwong, in 2000 in inner Sydney, and five years later made the switch to local, organic and biodynamic produce. In 2007 Billy Kwong then became the first restaurant in NSW to become 100 per cent climate neutral. Stop by the restaurant any night of the week in inner Sydney and you'll notice the lines of patrons snaking out the door and along the pavement.

Recently Kwong spent 18 months on a journey around Australia, visiting the growers, farmers, fisherman and providores of the produce she uses in her home and restaurant, spending time with each of them, discovering their stories and their love for the land and the food they produce. The result is her new book It Tastes Better - an exploration of naturally and sustainably grown food. We caught up with Kwong to discuss all things ethical eating.

Kwong grew up living with her extended Chinese family, resulting in a strong background and understanding of the connection of nature and food.

"Mum was always a very great Cantonese cook and taught my brothers and I how to cook from the age of five. Through her actions she taught us how important it was to always have fresh produce in the kitchen, and to look after the people who grew our food. She taught us how to share food with people, so when I think back to all of my experiences with food they were always happy positive ones - she made me aware of how food can connect people and make them happy. One of my favourite memories is Nanna babysitting me while Mum and Dad went to work and the boys went to school. I used to sit on her lap and watch Days of our Lives and we'd eat her beautiful steamed ginger and egg custard that she would religiously make every single lunch time by whisking up a couple of eggs in a bowl, adding a tiny bit of sugar and some really nice fresh slithers of ginger and some water. Then she'd put it in the Chinese steamer basket and steam it… very comforting."

Five years after opening her restaurant Billy Kwong, in 2005 Kwong made the transition to using local, organic and biodynamic produce in her menu.

"All roads lead back to the produce and it didn't take long to figure out that naturally grown produce is indeed so much more superior, not just in the flavour but in the whole sense: all the stories behind the food that we eat and the way these producers rehumanise the food chain. So that's really what made me take that leap to shift the menu. It's also my response to climate change. How can I as an individual of this global family help combat climate change? I can do that by offering sustainably grown produce in my restaurant for a start."

Switching to local organic produce has put Kwong in tune with seasonal food, encouraging her and her staff to maintain constant creativity in the kitchen.

"Just within my menu I've got about 35 dishes, and I've got around 30 small scale producers who supply me with all of that food. It's about supporting all these small producers - it makes life so much more interesting and meaningful because we have these amazing relationships and connections with all these weird and wonderful people along the way. You get a whole lot of different flavours and tastes and dynamics within the restaurant because of this lovely mix of people and energy. If one of them cannot supply me with something, like the bass grouper one day, because they can't catch it or its not around at the moment, then we just simply say 'no problem, we'll go with what you've got', and it might be the snapper. The reason why I love it is because its naturally grown and nature, being nature, you've just got to go with it. You've got to go with the flow of nature."

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