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Interview in Sydney with one of Australia's Most Beloved Chefs, Kylie Kwong

Aired March 2, 2011 - 23:30:00   ET



ANNA COREN, ANCHOR: For seven years, she's been making mouths water across Australia, cooking up her tantalizing recipes on TV.

KYLIE KWONG, CHEF: So it's chewy and it's sweet and it's a little bit salty.

COREN: But well before Kylie Kwong's get in front of the camera, the third generation of Chinese-Australian was already bridging a culinary divide.

KWONG: Fresh chili -

COREN: Educating Australians about authentic Chinese food and its origins through the cookbooks and her popular TV restaurants. This week on TALK ASIA, we're in Sydney with one of the country's most loved chef to find out about growing up as a minority. Her passion with attainable living -

KWONG: It's just so fresh and delicious.

COREN: Plus, we even get our own private cooking lesson.


COREN: Kylie Kwong, welcome to TALK ASIA.

KWONG: Thank you.

COREN: You are one of the most well-known chef here in Australia. Tell me what ignited your passion for cooking?

KWONG: Well, I guess it all began, you know, with my mother and her amazing kitchen laws. I mean, we're three generations of Australian, but you know, very, very Chinese inside.

Mom is a great Cantonese style cook and right from the word go, she taught my two brothers and I how to cook beautiful fresh produce and food, and to appreciate it and to share it with people. So it's very much from her lesson just from being Chinese.

You know, we Chinese are obsessed with food and family and I guess, it's just going from there.

COREN: Your mother, Pauline, had a huge impact on you as a kid and obviously growing kid and that whole world of cooking up meaning you're (INAUDIBLE) that.

Are the particular dishes that you remember and loved, and to think that - that's mom?

KWONG: She does a very good butterfly cake. Now I know that stuff particularly Chinese, but that's a very good reflection about family. We are Chinese looking, but very Australian.

Mom does an amazing fried rice and in fact that was the first dish I actually cooked by myself when I was about seven and I cooked it for my popo, my Chinese grandmother. She lived with us at that time.

And mom also taught us how to do a really good, you know, stir fried Hokkien noodle with chicken when we were very young as well.

COREN: You mentioned that you were third generation Australian-Chinese. You come from one of the largest Chinese families here in Australia. What was it like growing up in the Kwong family?

KWONG: So we grew up in the north western suburbs of Sydney. My two brothers and I were the only Asian at our school and in our neighborhood for the first 13 or 14 years of our lives.

In terms of being - feeling different, it was never really an issue. In fact, I think we're popular because of mom's amazing cooking and every year, I used to nag my mother. You know, can I please have a birthday party?

And all my friends used to come immediately because they knew that the food would be incredible and mom would do this amazing banquet, you know, fried rice, soy sauce chicken, Hokkien noodles, amazing, you know, amazing produce.

And also back then 30 years ago, mom used to teach Chinese cooking classes, three nights a week to 10 of the local maids. And she would do this from our home, from our kitchen and again, that's where I learn a lot of cooking techniques and lessons from the way mom taught.

COREN: But as the only Asian family in your neighborhood, was it all tough? Did you feel different?

KWONG: I certainly felt different when I go to school and I have a lunch box and there I had, you know, last night's rice and soy sauce chicken wings and my friend had the veggie sandwiches.

At that point, it was very good to be different because, you know - it was so much more interesting. Yes, I felt different. Yes, my brothers felt different, but really it didn't really affect us negatively at all. As I said, we just all, you know, we were just playing with the kids and it was all very sort of (INAUDIBLE) carefree.

COREN: Did you ever experience any racism as a kid growing up?

KWONG: Very rarely, nothing to talk about. Again, I think we were just accepted into that community very well and I've really think my mother's cooking had a lot to do with it.

COREN: Your great grandfather, Kwong Sudak, he came out to Australia in the early 1850s as part of the gold rush. He traveled on a boat from China to - to Darwin and made his home there. Tell us a little bit about him.

KWONG: Well, he - he chose between Australia and America. He was in search of new opportunity. He must have been an amazing adventuring, spirited, entrepreneurial type to, you know, being in his tiny little village, he must have been about 28, and he must have been sitting there thinking there's more to life than this.

And so on the boat he came and he set up four gold mining places in the 1850s in Darwin and he also ran a general store there, a very successful general store. Over the following 10 years, he traveled between Australia and China.

And each time he went back to China, he would acquire Chinese wife and ultimately he had four Chinese wives and together they produced 24 children and they all lived harmoniously in Darwin under the same roof. I often say that those kids were the luckiest kids because they had four mothers.

You know, one could teach them how to cook, one could teach them Chinese, one taught them how to sew and they had another mother, you know, for something else. He was also a Chinese herbalist and medicine man, and towards the end of his life, he took all the family down to Melbourne. And he used to treat patients out of some small practicing in Rouson's Straight.

But now an extraordinary figure that I have always felt a real affinity with although I never met him I do feel his spirit is very much within me and this place, and all of those things. And I find myself interested in a lot of subjects that he was interested in, which is interesting.

COREN: I guess, with four wives hence the huge family. What's the family reunion like in the Kwong household?

KWONG: Well, I mean, we're talking about my father side. Of course, now my dad also had 10 brothers and sisters himself and my mother also has 10 brothers and sisters. So, you know, they're coming from every angle.

Well, it's always about food and family for us. I mean, I've been to several of the Kwong-Sudak family reunions that are held every two years and they're just incredible. I remember once if I walked into a family reunion. It was held in Sydney and we're in this big room in this hotel. There was about 300 people in the room. All of us related. The youngest was my nephew who had just been born. He was about eight weeks old and then the oldest in the room was Auntie Aida who was about 90 and everything in between.

And I just felt this is so special. So that was absolutely amazing. There are always speeches. There's a tree planting ceremony. Children running everywhere. It's completely wonderful.

COREN: Coming up, Kylie Kwong tells the whole secret to the perfect dish.



KWONG: OK, cool. Thanks, see you. Bye.

Hello, how are you? Thank you. Great. Beautiful organic bananas, oranges. Beautiful oranges. Organic sweet corn soup.

COREN: You just had your morning delivery. I noticed that all the produce are virtually organic, yes?

KWONG: Look, I'm so happy when the produce comes in, in the morning. It's the freshest most sustainably grown produce in Australia. And ethical living and sustainable living is our passion.

COREN: Why is organic produce so important to you?

KWONG: Well, for me, I mean, I guess, it all started when I was growing up and my mother who's a great Cantonese-style cook. She always taught my two brothers and I the importance of fresh produce, locally grown produce.

And more importantly, the importance of the people who grow the food. So I guess, as a restaurateur, I love serving this produce because of mom's lesson. But for a very simple point of view, I truly believe it taste better. No chemicals, no artificial preservatives and so on.

And also, I guess, from a bigger picture perspective, it's our response to climate change. How can I help combat climate change by offering you the most life giving beautiful produce.

COREN: So what have we got here?

KWONG: We have bought these amazing mushrooms, OK, now these are grown on the south coast of New South Wales and this is how mushrooms grow. They grow in clumps like coral. And these are oyster mushrooms and they just - well, we just break them off like that. We break them off rather than trim them neatly.


KWONG: And we also have these mushrooms as well, which are called Simeji, and again, we just break them like that. And we make this beautiful rustic sort of stir fry. That's the toughest, you know, cooking we like to do here. It's about celebrating the natural ingredients and the natural character of the ingredients. So we cook it simply and naturally.

COREN: You've always been creative. You sounded off as a graphic designer for an advertising company. You then studied to be a homeopath so how did you end up as a chef?

KWONG: Well, I spent the first few years out of high school in advertising and I realized very soon that it wasn't for me. I was about 21 by this stage. Whilst I was still thinking about what I was going to do next, I found a job with one of my friends who was a contract caterer just so I could fill in time, get some money behind me.

And I went to work with him the first day and we were cooking - we were cooking office people lunch Monday to Friday. And he said to me, I want you to go into the cooler and get me the basil, please. The Italian basil. OK, I'm 23 and I'm like, I don't know what basil is. I knew it was green and I knew it was a herb. I'd only grown up on Chinese food. So I went into the cool room and I pulled out all of the green bunches of herbs and I said, I know it's one of these, which one is it?

And he said that's tarragon, that's Rosemary, that's the basil, that's the parsley. And so that was a very amazing first day. But most importantly like I was sent down to the shops and the markets to get the produce. I was cooking it. I was serving it to the staff members and something just - it was like epiphany and I just made up my mind then and there that this is what I was going to do and that I wanted to study cooking professionally.

COREN: Now we are in your restaurant, Deli Kwong in Sydney and you just celebrated its 10th anniversary a couple of months ago. Congratulations.

KWONG: Thank you.

COREN: I know that you described it as the love of your life. A decade later, is it still the love of your life?

KWONG: Yes. No, it is. I mean, it's - you know, Deli Kwong was my first restaurant and my very first business. And actually I love running a business. It's so challenging and I love what it brings out of you.

When I opened 10 years ago, the goal was very simple. I just want to fill it every night and serve really fantastic fresh Chinese food out of this funny little Aussie place. Ten years later, the goal and the aspiration has grown much bigger than that. It's much more global I guess and that's very fulfilling and that makes life a lot more rewarding.

COREN: You've written five cookbooks and you've appeared in a number of TV series. Tell me what that process was like.

KWONG: When I wrote my first cookbook recipes and stories, it was at that same time I was filming my first TV show. So there were two different, very different things going on there. I was also trying to run this restaurant, but actually writing a book was quite a challenge.

I actually had to write recipes. I mean, I've never written a recipe. You know, I had never written a recipe. I was always a bit of this and a bit of that. That's how my mother cooks. So pinning me down with scales and measuring cups and a measuring jag was pretty difficult.

And then, of course, doing TV for the first time was a great challenge because, you know, when you're a chef in a very busy restaurant, you do things so quickly. You know, you do everything yesterday and you talk quickly and you move around quickly and everything is quick, quick, quick.

Whereas with TV, I had to actually slow right down and get used to TV time where often, you know, we'd have the whole stage setup. The cameras would be rolling. I was just about to launch into this performance and then someone would say hang on a minute that, you know, the lighting is not right and so we have to stop.

It would take maybe now to fix up the lightning, which is just the nature of television. So it took me a while to learn all of that and to just calm down about the time. So that was a great learning curve.

COREN: So your second and third TV series, "Simply Magic" and "My China." They were both shot in China. Tell us about that experience and the difficulties I guess that you faced actually shooting in China.

KWONG: It was difficult in a sense - for example, in Shanghai when we wanted to take the camera down all of the back straight (INAUDIBLE) where the true people at the heart of the city.

You know, the (INAUDIBLE) faces and amazing sort of stories on where the wolves comes from and that was very difficult because we were with - we had several local guards who really just wanted us to shoot the modern development out of the city.

And, of course, you know, we - you know, my director and I felt we would find much more sort of interesting characters in the stories within the wonderful gorgeous back straight. So that was a bit of a struggle, but we've got there in the end. And then shooting the series in "My China" was a challenge, but I really love that series because we did capture that footage of going back to the family village and I think that's treasure.

I journeyed back to this tiny, little hidden star village in Toishen (ph), which is three hours' drive south of Kwongjo (ph) and I was the first Kwong relative to visit - revisit the village in 90 years.

The day I arrived, I sort of walked up this little, you know, dusty, pebbly road to this amazing welcoming family of only 20 people and two or three miles directly related to. And we just had the most wonderful day, you know, cooking and eating, of course, that's the first thing we did.

And my great grandfather's home is still there. So it was just a profound moment actually going into his home and like touching the walls and knowing that he'd lived there 150 years ago. So I felt very, very lucky and privileged that day and I think, you know, to know where one comes from - from a familial, in a familial sense is - is a really - it's a great privileged because it means - it makes me feel secure and confident in the world to go out and do my thing because I always know that I've got family to fall back on.

COREN: Coming up, we get fired up in the kitchen as Kylie Kwong shows us one of her favorite dishes.


COREN: Kylie, you've spoken about your mom, Pauline, and what a great cook she was. You grew up on her cooking and she was gone and preserved all those recipes.

KWONG: This is one of the family's treasures. This is mom's photo album that as I was saying, you know, about 30 years ago when (INAUDIBLE) mom used to teach Chinese cooking classes from our home three nights a week.

And this is one of her original recipe albums, which she gave to me. It's such treasure, you know. Asparagus soup, braze chicken and mushrooms, sweet corn soup, we've got a sweet corn on the menu here now, but we use organic corn. Steamed chicken, braze prawns and mushrooms so she - she really was ahead of her time.

And I do remember the people who used to come to those classes, you know, there were 10 of them and half of them used to be men and half of them used to be women and Australian people as well. So I thought that was great.

COREN: You are the generation Australian-Chinese, do you identify with one more than the other?

KWONG: I think I'm probably a little bit of both. Inside, I am probably more Chinese, i.e., that means, well, my spiritual Buddhist practice. The way I feel about the elderly, you know. The way I feel about my family, very close to the family. Family is very important, but I'm very Australian in terms of, I guess, one's carefree nature. I guess, the way I view things.

COREN: You touched on Buddhism. You've been practicing for the 60 years or so. How is that changed your life?

KWONG: Well, just simply. I mean, the word Buddha means the awakened one so it's about to me - it's about being more awake than I've ever been, being awake to every moment. The way - the way this translates, for example, in my restaurant is I only offer, you know, organic (INAUDIBLE) food and locally grown food.

That is about respecting the people. That's about respecting the earth and the environment, which are very much part of the Buddhist practice. And to me it was about not just sort of studying Buddhism on a Sunday, but about putting it - integrating it into my every single moment.

COREN: The Dali Lama, he came out to Australia end of last year. You introduced him on stage and you also had the opportunity to cook for him. What was that like?

KWONG: Well, it was one of the great weeks of my life. I still can't believe it actually happened and he has these beautiful warm, soft hands. They are just gorgeous and so, yes, just warm.

And we spent the whole week with him back stage in Sydney and it's just really, you know, his practice just really encouraged me to keep practicing and doing what we're doing and to always, you know, keep trying harder and harder in everything that we do.

And to know that every single thing that we feel or think or do makes a very big difference, and to always be mindful of one's motivation and intentions.

COREN: Now I have to ask you what did you cook the Dalai Lama?

KWONG: Well, Tibetans traditionally hot food as in hot temperatures so we did lots of steamed vegetables dumpling. My Uncle Jimmy's beautiful Hokkien noodles, you know, stir fried vegetable dishes.

COREN: He left a happy customer?

KWONG: He left a happy customer, yes.

COREN: Kylie, what are we making here?

KWONG: We're doing stir fried mussels with black bean and chili. So what I've got are these beautiful fresh mussels from south Australia which came in today. And I'm boiling some water and I'm going to put the mussels in to open the mussels in the water to steam them through so -

They make the most beautiful sound in the wok these mussels and you'll see they only take a second, a minute or so to open up. So the mussels are opening now so - because I'm going to cook them again in a moment with a stir frying pot, I don't want them to overcook so I'm getting them out right - (INAUDIBLE) to open. I'm removing them.

COREN: Do you have a favorite dish or (INAUDIBLE) you just love, have always love?

KWONG: I really love seafood. I eat seafood about five nights a week and I particularly love steamed fish.

COREN: How often do you eat in your own restaurant?

KWONG: I eat here about two or three nights a week. We're open seven nights and then a lot of the time, I cook at home. And when I'm cooking at home, I love to cook Italian. Italian food is my second favorite.

OK, they're open. OK, oil, a little bit of peanut oil. We Chinese love using peanut oil because of that smoky nutty flavor. If you are allergic to peanuts, I just suggest maybe vegetable oil with (INAUDIBLE).

OK, in goes the garlic, beautiful Australian garlic, Australian ginger, which is grown in Queensland. (Inaudible) black beans and you can see I'm constantly stirring - stirring the - these are black beans. They catch and they burn and they become bitter. So it's very important to keep moving the wok and stirring.

COREN: (INAUDIBLE), isn't it?

KWONG: Yes, so when you're stir frying, it's very important to have all the ingredients already cut up, ready to go and right beside you, OK.

COREN: Timing and preparation.

KWONG: Timing and preparation, that's it. Now, I'm going to put in a few of the shallot and I'll save the rest for when we're serving. Fresh chili, if you love chili, you could leave the seeds in the chili because the seeds are the hardest part.

As you can see I'm just stirring - stirring all of those ingredients so I'm really, you know, to really bring out the flavor and intensify the flavor.

COREN: Do you find that you do a lot of entertaining with your friends?

KWONG: I do a lot of entertaining with my friends. I mean, my parents were the same that's where I got from.

Chinese cooking wine, which is - which gives the dish tip of flavor and character. It's an alcohol so I'd like to cook the alcohol off so it's not too harsh. OK, a little bit of sugar for carmelization.

You can see I'm holding it off the flame. I'm controlling the temperature and now we need a little bit of salt. So I use my organic turmeric (ph). We don't too much soy or turmeric because the black beans are already salty.

Not big splash sesame oil and a little bit of vinegar, that sour, salty, sweet component, add the mussels back in. Give it a really good toss. Lots of bright green colors, want to capture the essence and the spirit of all of the ingredients, but you don't want to overcook.

COREN: There it is, done.

KWONG: That's it. The stir fried mussels with black beans. Try some.