It takes a family: Kylie Kwong reveals her secret ingredients

Kylie Kwong and members of her extended family: Bryan Yee (step father), Fin Kwong (nephew and son of Ingrid and Jamie), ...
Kylie Kwong and members of her extended family: Bryan Yee (step father), Fin Kwong (nephew and son of Ingrid and Jamie), Ingrid Kwong (sister-in-law and wife of Jamie), Paul Kwong (brother), Pauline Kwong (mum), Indiana Kwong (niece and daughter of Jamie and Ingrid), Nell (life partner), Jye Kwong (nephew and son of Jamie and Ingrid), Kylie and Jamie Kwong (brother). The dog’s name is Lunar. Photo: Nic Walker

How many Kwongs does it take to make a Kylie? Kwong Sue Duk, who landed in Australia in 1875 with four wives and 26 children between them, would be a pretty good place to start crunching those numbers.142 years and a long and many-boughed family tree later, and here's one of the country's most respected chefs - starting conversations, changing the game.

Third generation Chinese Australian Kylie Kwong is, for want of a better word, a force. The chef, orator, cookbook author and television star might command big numbers at her Potts Point restaurant Billy Kwong now, but once upon a time she was a teenager living in the suburbs, jobbing as a junior graphic designer in the city, wondering how she was going to tell her dad she was gay.

Raised in Epping along with her two brothers, they were, at the time, the only Chinese kids at the local primary school. "But being Asian never got in the way for me in terms of racial discrimination for me because of my mother's cooking," says Kwong. "We always had lots of friends at the house and mum would always feed our friends. I think she secretly loved cooking for all of us. So I guess there was no time for [racism] because we were too busy enjoying the food."

Chef Kylie Kwong is launching Carriageworks Night Market.
Chef Kylie Kwong is launching Carriageworks Night Market. Photo: Nic Walker

So how does a kid from the 'burbs become one of the most important Australian chefs of the past decade? A chef US food magazine Food + Wine named one of the world's most innovative women? A chef who headed up restaurants for Neil Perry before opening her own immensely popular restaurant Billy Kwong on Crown Street in Surry Hills in 2000, before moving to Potts Point in 2015, gaining hats and awards along the way? A chef who didn't just introduce the Dalai Lama, but also cooked for him on his 2009 visit, and subsequently managed to get him to appear on Masterchef a few years later? Grit, fortitude and a very brave conversation with her father.

Kwong told her father she was gay when she was 19, and still living at home. "He just asked me point blank," says Kwong. "He said 'darling, are you gay?' I looked him in the eye and I said 'dad, yes I am.' And he said, 'Right. It's Wednesday, I want you out of the house by the weekend. I disown you as my daughter.' I was like 'OK dad, I'm really sorry to disappoint you, but this is who I am.' I said, 'This makes me the happiest.' He said 'I understand that darling. I really respect you for telling me the truth. But I don't understand and I don't accept it.' And it was all very calm and civilised."

So, the house turned upside down, Kwong began to pack her things and arranged to stay with friends. But then something very unexpected happened.

"Come Saturday morning at 5am, I've got my whole room packed up near the door in boxes ready to go. Everyone's asleep but I suddenly wake up because suddenly these footsteps are quickly coming down the hallway and into my room. It's my father. This grown man, sobbing like a little baby. Now, my father up until that point didn't really cry. He was 52, and a great provider with lots of good points but he was a real macho bloke. And it was actually quite funny because even though dad's full Chinese he spoke like Paul Hogan."

Kwong says she's never seen anything like it. "He said "hun, I can't do it. You're my baby. You're my only daughter. I want you to stay. I don't understand what you're doing, I don't understand your life, but I accept it now. I can't do this.'

"The other option, of course, would have been to say nothing." says Kwong. "But that would have been living a lie. And how could you suppress this from your parents who you're very close to? It just wasn't an option for me. I had to tell them. It was who I was. So, we had a big hug, he picked himself up off the bed, and took himself off to golf."

Advertisement

It turned out to be the turning point for Kwong and her father, who enjoyed an entirely different and very close relationship until he died of prostate cancer in 2006. Further, it was the defining moment that spurred her on to great things. "Even though at the time I thought I'd destroyed the whole family, it set me in good stead for the rest of my life. Because no matter how scary you think it is to tell the truth, you never know - look at the way this turned out. From that moment onwards, I thought, I'm just going for gold."

The same year Kwong lost her father, she met her current partner of 10 years, Nell. An artist and devout Buddhist who goes by her first name only, she and Kwong met at Roslyn Oxley Gallery back in 2004. "The place was wall to wall with people but she came straight up to introduce herself to me," says Kwong. "She was like 'Hi, my name's Nell.' That's what I love about her - she's so upfront, she's the girl from Maitland. And I was like 'oh, hi. Hi Nell.' And that was that."

But it wasn't until 2006 that they became a couple. "I invited her into Billy Kwong, and we just chatted for the whole night. Non stop. We just didn't draw breath. And then the following week I invited her over for dinner to my apartment. And she's never left."

Buddhism opened a lot of doors for Kwong, and as a practice, helped her through the hardest moments she's faced as an adult. In 2012, she and Nell lost their baby Lucky, who came into the world stillborn. "I don't know what else would have got us through that," she says. "I don't know what would have happened - how else you get through those tragic things. To me, when nothing can console you because the worst thing that can happen has happened, we draw on our deep inner spiritual practice."

Five years on after the tragedy of losing Lucky, Nell and Kwong are healing. "Nell has been completely amazing," says Kwong. "She's extraordinary. Incredibly strong, and incredibly wise. And so brave. And I'm very happy to report - and she only said this to me the other day - she said, 'do you know what hun? I really feel really, really happy now.'"

The couple have learned to integrate Lucky into their daily lives. But she says the key is keep breathing and keep talking. "If we ever meet anyone who has been through such a tragedy or something of a similar intensity, that would be my first recommendation. So we're very, very close. We got through the tragedy together. We communicated a lot about that. And to others, we put our hand up for support because we needed it. And we're here to tell the tale."


Kylie Kwong is now a regular contributor to Good Food in print and online. Her original recipes will run every second Tuesday, starting February 2.

Carriageworks Night Market, curated by Kylie Kwong, is on 5pm-10pm Saturday 28. Tickets are $10 + booking fee. 

The Sydney Morning Herald Lunar Markets presented by Citi launch Friday January 27 and run until Monday Feb 5. Entry is free.