Nurturing and collaboration is at the heart of everything Kylie Kwong does, and her new venture, Lucky Kwong, is no exception.
"Have you ever tried fresh bush mint?" asks Kylie Kwong, surrounded by thousands of native plants at the South Eveleigh redevelopment near Redfern station. "It has the most wonderful eucalyptus aroma. I can't wait to harvest it every day for new dishes."
The aromatic shrub will bolster steamed prawn dumplings with Sichuan chilli dressing when the Australian-Chinese chef opens her new eatery, Lucky Kwong, at South Eveleigh on Tuesday, May 25. Australia has been waiting to see what Kwong, renowned for her use of native ingredients in her Chinese cuisine, and her nurturing collaborations with producers, Aboriginal leaders and community pioneers, would do next.
"After closing Billy Kwong in Potts Point two years ago, I can't wait to have a space where I can cook for people again and tell the stories of the amazing collaborators I work with," Kwong says. "Just look for the big yellow doors on Locomotive Street."
Lucky Kwong (or LK) is not a restaurant. It's a cafeteria open for lunch Monday to Friday with order-at-the-counter service and a no-bookings policy. Housed in the heritage annex of an old locomotive workshop, LK can seat up to 38 diners at plywood tables while sustainable cork surfaces absorb lunch-crowd chatter and the clang of an open kitchen.
I was determined not to waste one moment doing something I did not feel obsessed with anymore.Kylie Kwong
Takeaway is very much an option, and Kwong has partnered with online ordering platform Mr Yum for time-poor staff at Commonwealth Bank (the anchor tenant of Mirvac property group's $1 billion South Eveleigh redevelopment), Channel 7 and other companies in Redfern's new Silicon Valley-style hub.
"I wanted to do something that was reflective of what I used to do at Carriageworks Farmers Market," says Kwong, referring to her Saturday morning stall much loved for egg fried rice, steamed prawn dumplings and nourishing pork buns. "LK is similar to the market stand in its simplicity, just with bricks and mortar."
Lucky Kwong is also an eatery that proves it's possible for a takeaway store to serve "al desko" lunch dishes with compassion and integrity. A $14 bowl of noodles doesn't have to be a low-quality, eat-and-forget experience; it can tell a story and be a force for good.
"For me, LK is all about true nourishment," says Kwong. "It's named after the angel baby son my wife Nell and I sadly lost in 2012 and I want it to be a celebration of everything I love. Community, collaboration and life-giving food are at its heart.
"We didn't get the opportunity to live with Lucky in a way we would have liked to, but this is a way we can. It's a way to integrate him into our life. That's why every person and producer involved, and every detail of the design, has to be about goodness, because that's what Lucky Kwong means to me."
The menu is full of food that makes you feel cared-for and healthy just by reading the dish description. Steamed savoury pancakes are a daily special, topped with fried egg, Thai basil and red-braised beef brisket perhaps, or raw yellowfin tuna with XO sauce.
White-cooked chicken from Saskia Beer Farm Produce is served with ginger, sea parsley and shallot dipping sauce, while a vegetarian plate brimming with rice, tofu, tamari and ginger stars stir-fried organic goodness from Palisa Anderson's Boon Luck Farm in the Northern Rivers.
"We'll also have a plate for meat-eaters, perhaps featuring pork belly from [regenerative Taralga farm] Tathra Place, black bean, greens and chilli," says Kwong.
Saint Peter chef Josh Niland is supplying tuna, ocean trout, Murray cod and kingfish from his Paddington seafood butchery. Honey is harvested from Kwong's beehive at the Wayside Chapel garden in Kings Cross; biodynamic beef and lamb is provided by Paul and Tammy Kurtz, a father-and-daughter team pasture-raising livestock near Oberon.
"We first met Kylie 15 years ago when she was buying our meat from TJ's butchery in Balmain," says Tammy Kurtz, founder of Lynden Lamb (Paul Kurtz farms red Angus cattle on the same property under his Cowobbee Beef brand).
"We now sell to Emilio's butchery in Rozelle, which specialises in breaking down whole animals from sustainable and regenerative farms. It's amazing to see Kylie showcasing our biodynamic meat on her menu in such a high-profile spot."
Kurtz hopes more people enjoying chemical-free meat at casual eateries such as Lucky Kwong could lead to increased demand for biodynamic produce.
"Australia has a lot of biodynamic farms, but there's definitely room for more for growers and producers to go chemical-free and focus on soil health," she says. "It just takes drive and a change in mindset, because so much conventional farming is what has been passed down from previous generations."
Kwong came on board the South Eveleigh project in 2019 after almost 20 years as a restaurateur.
"I felt an inner restlessness for some months in 2018 and thus decided to make significant changes," she says. "The experience with Lucky really drove this decision. I was determined not to waste one moment doing something I did not feel obsessed with anymore."
Kwong wears two hats at South Eveleigh: one as a tenant at LK, the other as ambassador for culture, food and community.
"The ambassador role allows me to meet new people and develop relationships, which in turn lead to new ideas, activations and events," says the 51-year-old. "In order to collaborate and engage, you just need to be open to people's stories and have that desire to celebrate others."
Cudgenburra and Bundjalung man Clarence Slockee is a frequent collaborator with Kwong at South Eveleigh. Slockee is the director of Jiwah, an Indigenous company specialising in cultural landscape and design.
With a crew of young Aboriginal horticulturists, Jiwah grows more than 60 species of native plants around South Eveleigh. Many of these will be harvested from a rooftop garden to feature in Lucky Kwong dishes.
"I first met Clarence 10 years ago when I started really exploring the use of Australian native ingredients in my cooking," says Kwong.
"I wanted to learn more about bush foods and speak to the Indigenous community about how they were traditionally used. All roads led me to Clarence, who was the Aboriginal educator and environmentalist at Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens at the time.
"The man is just so incredible, generous and passionate. Watching him mentor young Indigenous horticulturalists is inspiring. It's incredible to have that expertise and knowledge on the ground here every day."
Slockee is also helping establish an organic garden to grow herbs and vegetables for Lucky Kwong close to the cafeteria.
"The beauty of what Kylie does, not just with native ingredients but everything she cooks, is the way she educates people around food security, where the produce comes from and how it's sourced or grown," says Slockee.
"All the while, she is also making sure everyone is properly compensated for their efforts. That's the sort of thing that we're into at Jiwah too."
Slockee hopes the large number of people eating urban-grown natives at Lucky Kwong will inspire more people to plant bush food at home.
"Growing your own is the best way to experience native flavours without spending a massive amount of money at the supermarket, going to a high-end restaurant, or heading bush and taking wild food from spaces it shouldn't be taken from."
Redfern has been an important locality for First Nations Australians since the 1800s, says Slockee.
"There was lots of work here, so you had people moving to the area from all over the country. It became an enclave in some respects, because you had factory work and a massive industrial hub because of the railway.
"Redfern was the birthplace of the Aboriginal Legal Service and medical service, and out of that you end up with different social enterprises such as Tribal Warrior, which is leading the way in mentoring young people."
Shane Phillips is a respected member of the Redfern Aboriginal community and Tribal Warrior's chief executive. The not-for-profit organisation empowers local Indigenous young people by providing specialised training and mentoring programs leading to employment opportunities.
Mirvac has created a corporate office hub to house more than 18,000 workers, which could have lead to gentrification and displacement. Yet Phillips is excited for the future of Redfern and that his community has a chance to amplify its culture by "having a seat at the table".
"I've lived here all my life," he says. "I've seen Redfern grow and change and fall many times. Right now, it's rising out of the ashes again, but this time we're part of it.
"At the South Eveleigh precinct we're pushing our own narrative. The rooftop garden, for example, is a place of strength to learn about the science of native plants from people connected to them. At the same time, we're rebuilding a knowledge of language and First Nations culture, which my generation almost thought was lost."
Growing up in Redfern, Phillips says his and other families lived on lots of takeaway food from long-gone diners such as the Palms Milk Bar and Snowy's Hamburger Shop.
"Snowy's was the best. They would let us kids behind the counter to help cook and treated blackfellas like their own family."
The downside to all those deep-fried good times, says Phillips, is that many families inherited the same high-sugar, high-fat diet with lots of carbohydrates. "But when there are 10 mouths to feed, mum and dad have to make sure everyone is good and full at the end of the day."
Redfern still has its fair share of not-too-healthy takeaway, but the suburb is also alive with artisan bakeries, vegan cafes, grocers, dumpling shops, Thai restaurants and a new taqueria.
At South Eveleigh, RaRa Chan specialises in tsukemen dipping ramen, while Egg of the Universe brews kombucha and Eat Fuh serves Vietnamese noodle soup – not to mention Lucky Kwong, of course, with bush mint prawn dumplings and native sea parsley.
Kwong says speaking about the First Nations community and highlighting bush foods is "very, very important" to her. "Being at South Eveleigh has allowed me to go deeper into that," says the third-generation Australian (and 29th generation Kwong).
"I feel very comfortable and at home with First Nations people because they're incredibly spiritual. I love the connection with land and country.
"[Respected elder] Aunty Beryl recently invited me to cook with her at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence annual Twilight Blak Markets and that was a great honour. We've been friends for 10 years and Aunty Beryl is one of my mentors. She's like my other mother."
With seven days until her new cafeteria launches, Kwong is now working around the clock to open Lucky Kwong's big yellow doors. Once the new venue is settled, she is looking forward to more community engagement and time with family and friends.
"I'll be cooking at LK from Monday to Friday, but outside of lunch hours I'll be able to drive around meeting with producers and collaborating with all the special people in my life. It will be so different to my restaurant life, which was all-encompassing and overwhelming for 20 years.
"Lucky Kwong is a space where everything that I love has come together under one roof. I feel really happy and fulfilled … I've landed in the best place."
Lucky Kwong opens at South Eveleigh, 2 Locomotive Street, Eveleigh on Tuesday, May 25. Monday-Friday, 11am-2:30pm
Re bar at the South Eveleigh redevelopment near Redfern is aiming to become a zero-waste venue. Photo: Tom Ferguson
Eating and drinking at South Eveleigh
Lucky Kwong will join 15 other eateries and food retailers when it opens at South Eveleigh on May 25. Many are only open for daytime service in working hours, however a small number have started trading in the evening and on weekends as the precinct expands.
"It's an incredibly multicultural workforce and community here," says Kwong. "You can tell by the queues that there are a lot of big foodies. They love their spice, and their Vietnamese, Egyptian and Middle Eastern food."
The Grounds of Alexandria team is working on a mega-eatery and events space to launch at the hub before the end of the year, while a super pub with more than 200 seats is scheduled to open in 2022. In the meantime, here's the pick of South Eveleigh's current food and drink offerings.
Egyptian street-food with no shortage of falafel, shawarma and vibrant salad options on the menu. Monday-Friday 7am-8pm; Saturday 8am-4pm
A friendly family-run pho store that has a line-up every lunchtime. Order umami-packed vegan pho to slurp, or a lemongrass pork banh mi to enjoy in nearby Eveleigh Green park. Monday-Friday 9am-8.30pm; Saturday-Sunday 11.30am-8.30pm
Egg of the Universe
Tucked under Jiwah's rooftop garden, this wholefoods cafe is the precinct's best spot to take a load off with Allpress coffee, herbal tea or avocado on sourdough topped with sauerkraut and goat's curd. Tuesday-Friday 8am-2.30pm; Saturday 9am-2pm
Warming noodles and katsu brought to you by Sydney's fastest growing ramen business. Pork and prawn tsukemen is the go-to, with fat chewy noodles designed to be dipped in thick, rich broth. Monday-Thursday 11am-3pm; Friday-Sunday 11am-9pm
Bar industry trailblazer Matt Whiley has crafted Australia's first permanent bar aiming to be 100 per cent waste-free. Try the Autumn Americano featuring vermouth, spent coffee grounds and Saint Felix bitter citrus aperitivo, plus soda made from rescued beetroot and cherry tomatoes. Tuesday-Saturday 4pm-midnight
Pictured in main photo at top:
Standing from left to right (back row): Tammy Kurtz, Paul Kurtz, Matt McKay, Josh Niland, Caroline Baum, Saskia Havekes, Lisa Havilah, Jon Owen, Sam Mostyn, Uncle Shane Phillips, Matt Mewburn.
Middle row: Julie Gibbs (seated), Tracey Deep (seated), Petrina Baker, Ronni Kahn, Gloria Gonzales, Subhana Barzaghi, Aunty Beryl, Pauline Kwong, Nell, Kylie Kwong, Lille Madden, Vince Frost, Arielle Axle (standing), Jon Kingston, Jim Wilson, Barbara Moore, David King, Rob Caslick, Sam Payne, Alexie Glass-Kantor standing in front of Rob.
Front row (right to left): Raphaelle Wilson (seated), Kate Mills (seated), Barbara Flynn (seated).
Crouching: Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Jeanine Bribosia, Aunty Ali, Clarence Slockee, Peter Kambos.