And of course at the time when I did have that moment with that caterer, I was at a mature age. I mean I wasn’t seventeen, I was about twenty-three. I knew. I felt focussed. I’d done a whole string of mad things and I knew. And when I know something, when I’m sure of something, I just take it by the horns, if you haven’t noticed!
I’ve noticed! So how did you end up working with Neil Perry?
I wanted to expand my horizons and cooking skills because, you know, it’s really serious, it’s a profession. So I went and worked with Greg Doyle, who currently owns the Pier restaurant in Rose Bay. And at the time he’d just opened a sort of gourmet fish and chip shop, so I took that job because I knew he was a pretty special chef on the Sydney restaurant scene. And I wanted to work with quality. I thought, I want to learn from the best of the best of the best.
So it was always there for you, this focus on quality.
Yeah, that was sort of ingrained into us by our parents, you know: excellence, and standards and trying your best. So I worked with him for several months and he said, “I want you to go and speak to my friend Neil Perry at Rockpool.” And I’m like, “Who’s Neil Perry?”. No idea!
So he set up an interview with Neil, and at that time Rockpool was indeed the best restaurant in Australia. So I ran down there. I was so excited! I want to learn from the top. That’s what I knew. So I said, “I want to work here. I’ll work here for free–I’ll even clean the bathrooms.” I said that to him!
I had the most successful working relationship with Neil. Altogether six years with him. And in fact he came in for dinner last night [to Billy Kwong] and I was so thrilled. Nothing like having your mentor come into your own place; I mean, it’s lovely having his approval. So it was a very, very, very successful working relationship. And a very wonderful mentor-disciple relationship which was so special. He’s very good at pushing you off the cliff and empowering you. He and Mum are my two main mentors.
Your book It Tastes Better is dedicated to your mum, and you thank her for “teaching you how to eat properly”. That intrigued me. What is eating properly? It makes me think of the healthy food pyramid we were taught at school…
It’s so much more than that. We grew up in North Sydney and we’re three generations Australian but 29th-generation Kwong. I actually come from the largest Chinese family in Australia’s immigration history. Mum and Dad were born in Australia. We are very Australian, before Chinese. My brothers and I were the only Asian children in our neighbourhood and at the school for the first thirteen years, so we were quite different in that respect. Never a problem from a racial discrimination point of view, we all seemed to get on well with all the kids at school, and I always say the reason I think everyone loved the Kwong kids was because of mum’s cooking. There’s no doubt about it.
Mum cooked Chinese food six nights a week, Cantonese food. Really fresh. In other words she didn’t go to the supermarket and buy the stuff off the shelf. She had a dedicated butcher, Peter, who got to know all the weird and wonderful cuts that Chinese people ask for. We had dedicated Italian fruit and vegetable people, that we grew to know and love over all those years, an Italian family, and I have always said that Italian people and Chinese people are very similar in that we consider food and family are sort of the centre of everything. So subconsciously taking all this in, learning all these lessons about looking after the food producers, knowing where the food comes from, freshness. We went to the Sydney fish market to pick the best snapper, as well as having the Greek fisherman–pretty advanced, sophisticated lessons, thirty, forty years ago!
So there’s that aspect. She loves cooking. She loved to do it. She actually loves the practice of cooking, it makes her happy, so you can taste the happiness in the food. There’s the smile on the face when she’s presenting it to us every night around our funny little kitchen table.
And you had to eat together as a family?
Yeah, every night. And we always used to sit in the same place. There was Dad and then Mum and then me. I’m very close to my mother, I used to have my leg wrapped around hers, when I was…actually up until the age of about fourteen. I’m a bit of a sook like that.
She used to try to get up but she couldn’t get up because I’d be stuck to her. But Mum and Dad used to have dinner parties–this is really important I think, this is where we learnt so much. They used to have dinner parties, big dinner parties for about fifteen people. Because they had a lot of friends, they’re very gregarious. Dad is no longer unfortunately, he passed away five-and-a-half years ago. But totally extroverted, both of them–they’re full on.
Anyway, they used to have these amazing dinner parties and every Saturday fortnight Mum and I would spend all day and all night cooking. And then we’d put it on the table and we’d see the glee on people’s faces, and the look on her face of that total gratification, and she just loved giving.