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Kylie Kwong – Wok’s Cooking

It might look like an empire now—television show, books, celebrity—but Kylie Kwong’s career is still about the business basics of providing a good product and good service.

When Kylie Kwong thought of her future, being a chef and restaurant owner was never part of her grand plan. Sure, she knew how to cook—she was always helping out in the kitchen at home—but she never thought about it as a career choice.

"When you’re Chinese and you grow up in a Chinese household, cooking’s just a part of your life," she says. Instead, Kwong was convinced she was destined to do something arty, so after finishing school she decided on a graphic design degree.

Working in advertising for a few years was long enough for Kwong to realise it wasn’t something she was particularly good at. The next few years were spent trying her luck at furniture restoration and a bit more graphic design work, before Kwong got a job with a caterer. It was only two days a week but, in lightning bolt style, she found her passion. "I just loved shopping for food and preparing it. And it was like all the lessons I learnt when I was growing up with my mum came tumbling down and suddenly made sense to me."

Working her way through cafÈs and delicatessens, she got her first really good job at 26, working for Neil Perry at Sydney’s Rockpool. While learning about working with good quality food in a good quality restaurant, she found it tough starting from the bottom with the 16-year-old apprentices after being in the workforce for so many years. Ironically, Kwong attributes her ‘advanced’ age to helping her work her way up to senior chef in the two years she was there. "Because I was a bit older and because I really wanted to be there, I learnt a bit quicker," she explains.

After a stint cooking Italian food, Kwong was lured back by Perry to be head chef of his new restaurant, Wockpool. Then, at 29, a stressed and burnt-out Kwong got a job with Bill Granger and was head chef at bills and bills 2. "I had never met Bill before and we became great mates and I worked with him for a year and a half."

Friendship turned to partnership when the pair opened billy kwong together. Eight months later, Kwong realised she was ready to take on the restaurant herself and bought Granger out. That was about four-and-a-half years ago and she has been the sole owner since.

Kitchen Cred

Even in the middle of the day, walking into the billy kwong there’s no mistaking it is a busy restaurant. On tables is the day’s fresh produce and there’s the spicy aroma from the broth Kwong is stirring on the stove. Maintaining the freshness of the produce is the most important operational consideration in running her restaurant. "I learnt all of these lessons from Neil [Perry], and once you’ve had the best you can’t get it out of your system."

Part of keeping the business evolving and standing out from the other eight or so modern Asian restaurants on the same street, Kwong is always looking for ways to improve her food, to stay a step ahead. "It always comes back to the quality of everything."

So how does she maintain quality of produce? "We have very good relationships with our suppliers, that’s the number one thing … we speak to them every day on the phone," she says. "They get to know what your standard is, what you like and don‘t like."

Kwong also relies on them to ensure she has the best food available. "They might say ‘we’re not going to give you the such and such beef today because it’s not very good at the moment but try this’."

Being able to ‘go with the flow’, Kwong can always offer her customers the best product available without sacrificing the quality of the food she produces simply to ensure it is on the menu. "We work the menu around the produce."


Happy Teams

Watching the way she relates to her staff and how they relate to each other, it’s clear that staff are another important factor affecting how well the restaurant runs. She is determined to make certain she has the right team every night. "You need to have a very tight, efficient team and [ensure] they’re not overworked and they’re happy. I try to maintain a certain level of happiness or energy here—it’s very much how I run the business."

In fact, much of how Kwong runs the business results from the way she runs her life, which she explains is quite intuitive and unorthodox. "I always navigate my life by my feeling and intuition. I go with what feels right, and so that’s very important to the way the restaurant is each night as well. Restaurants to me are based on feelings, dynamics and the energy, and when you walk into a restaurant you feel the ambience and so on. It’s an integral part of the whole thing, so it’s very important to maintain a certain level of energy here."

Kylie recognises her staff have very individual skills and strengths that others may not have, so she matches staff to the correct role as well as the to the best nightly team to ensure the kitchen and service staff are working at their peak. "It’s working out what makes each individual tick and putting them in certain places that your business needs them to be," she says. "I also look at their individual personalities and I don’t stick square pegs into round holes."

In doing so, Kwong believes she is a good employer, creating a working environment her staff want to be part of. In turn, she insists, this creates a better product from her staff. "If they’re happy about that, then they will cook better."

Ensuring the business is run the way she intended from day one, Kwong turns her attention to training her staff well. "I like training people. I’ve got two guys who run the kitchen and another man who runs the floor," she says. "Through those three individuals I can get across all my thoughts and feelings about how I want to run the business."

It is important to Kwong for her head chef and floor manager to concentrate on managing their teams so they can perform better, without getting bogged down with less important details such as paperwork. This she says helps them to respectively cook better and "be very gorgeous every night".

After the first two years spent doing the hard yards, working in the kitchen every day and building the restaurant’s reputation, Kwong now acts more as manager of the business, where she is able to work on the business rather than working in it. And although the restaurant is open seven nights a week, Kwong is content to work maybe two or three nights per month as well as a few day shifts, allowing her to do something different every day. "I like the fact that I can do things, like, the flowers and the wine list as well as the cooking and all of that. I hand-write the specials every day and I can control the menu and I like the fact that the business changes and evolves … and we go with whatever we need to go with at the time."

She employs people who have contrasting skills to her own to cover any weak points, such as accounting. "My mother does the books: BAS, GST, superannuation, she pays all the bills. She says to me ‘you’re good at making the money and I’m good at managing it’. She’s very practical, where I’m a bit more … I like beautiful things!"

Kwong concerns herself with being a democratic, fair, and understanding employer, constantly thinking of ways to keep her staff happy and feeling appreciated and respected. She does this by formulating the rosters a few weeks in advance, paying them competitive wages and salaries, understanding they have a life outside the business and giving pay and performance reviews when she says she will. "It’s just treating people like they want to be treated."


Kwong is the first to admit, as good as this may sound, it may not
be the workplace for everyone, and so she looks for qualities in her staff which complement the working environment. "The sort of people we attract are creative, arty types … it’s not for everyone. And because cooking is such a creative thing, I think it’s very important to have a creative environment when you are cooking," she says. "And then at night we have structure, because we have to, everyone has their sections and we’ve got certain guidelines."

Identity & Ambience

Kwong attributes her success to establishing a clear identity and a strong sense of self. "When people come to this restaurant, they know they’ve been to billy kwong. Why do they know that? Because of the appearance, the style of service, because we’ve got the hand-written menus, we’ve got our little logo and the flowers—it’s got a really strong look about it and it’s got a very strong sense of self."

Part of establishing billy kwong’s identity meant answering questions about exactly what Kwong wanted her customers to get from the product, the service and the whole encounter. "Everything in the business reflects your essence."

Kwong had set her plan from day one: to create a Chinese eating house. "We knew we wanted to have a little hole-in-the-wall place that just served really great food, good value, and we always wanted it to be an easy place to come into."

And she has succeeded. When first entering the restaurant, its size is surprising. The dining room is small and intimate (despite the cabbages taking pride of place in front of the window) and the open-plan kitchen is only partly partitioned by two cabinets, so customers get a complete sensory experience from the sights, sounds and tastes of the food being cooked only a few metres away. "The kitchen is the heart of the place, so that’s why we have an open kitchen."

She also had a clear idea of the proposed suburb in Sydney, and clientele, the menu—strictly Chinese food—and even the suppliers she wanted to use. She knew the atmosphere she wanted to create, from the fresh flowers to the jazz. "I knew right down to the colour toilet paper—every single detail."

The biggest evolution has been Kwong’s attitude to the business. "In those first two years I held on to it very tightly because it was like a little baby," she says. Now, after taking a step back and with time for other things—including a popular ABC television series and cookbook, Heart and Soul, and being a guest at various cooking and non-cooking events—Kwong is looking forward to new directions.

"I am taking great pleasure in teaching people the beauties of Chinese food," she says. "And judging by the clientele, they’re into it … they are very discerning, foodie types."

She also looks to improving suppliers, one day making organic vegetables a part of the menu and continuing her commitment to quality. "I only do things I believe in, or that reflect billy kwong values," she says. "I guess that’s what’s changed, I’m having a broader view on everything. It’s not just a restaurant on Crown Street, this little business, it’s actually a whole way of life for me."

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