For a woman at the top of her game, the chef has a surprising affinity for wooden spoons. Interview by Vanessa Lawrence.
Where are you right now?
I’m in the kitchen at my home in Elizabeth Bay, Sydney. After this, I’ll walk up to Billy Kwong [her iconic restaurant in Potts Point] to start my workday.
Where did you go on your last trip?
Nell [Kwong’s partner] and I went to stay with some very dear friends on their property 60 kilometres out of Launceston, Tasmania, for a few days. They live on a huge block of land with an amazing vegetable garden that overlooks Bass Strait. We’d pick fresh ingredients to cook with and sit on the balcony with glasses of natural wine I’d brought from the restaurant.
What was your typical childhood holiday?
Our family is huge; Mum has nine brothers and sisters who are all from Sydney and my late father grew up in Melbourne with his nine siblings. From the age of seven, every second Christmas about 30 of us would cram into two apartments side by side in a block overlooking Clarkes Beach in Byron Bay [on NSW’s Far North Coast] – Asians love to live together! We’d go for two weeks and the kids would spend every day, all day, at the beach. You could see our verandah from the water so, when lunch was ready, my Aunty June would hang a beach towel over the railing to signal to us that it was time to come in and eat. We’d have freshly baked white bread filled with juicy baby prawns.
When you travel for pleasure, do you prefer resorts or a more rustic vibe?
Definitely rustic – I don’t like resorts at all. Holidays are few and far between for me and I don’t get to see Nell nearly as much as I’d like because work is all-consuming. So when we do go away, it’s sacred time. We love peace and quiet, away from crowds.
When you walk into a hotel room, what’s the first thing you do?
I go straight over to the bed and feel the pillows. I’ve had some of the best sleeps of my life at The Peninsula Hong Kong, where the pillows are like clouds – they’ve ruined me for life! After that, I’ll check out the bathroom and the view.
Do you prefer to wander the streets or follow maps?
I’m a wander-the-streets type but I like to have a general sense of where I’m headed because I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat. Venice is the perfect place for that; you can duck in and out of the tiny cobblestoned streets but it’s not hard to find your way back to Piazza San Marco.
What are you most likely to bring home from your travels?
Everywhere I go, whether it’s Asia or Europe or Tasmania, I buy a wooden spoon. They’re my obsession and I have a huge collection of a hundred or more. Some are beautiful, earthy handmade ones from Tibet, others I sourced from workshops in Tassie… I keep them in my kitchen, sticking out of an old mortar and pestle. I also love to buy French linen tablecloths and good cookbooks if I can carry them.
What’s the biggest culture shock you’ve experienced?
In 1999, I visited China for the first time. I hadn’t travelled very much and nothing prepared me for the overwhelming crowds in Shanghai. Not many people spoke English, which was a disaster because I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin. Even though I was among millions of people who looked like me, it made me realise, as a third-generation Aussie, how non-traditional Chinese I was. I returned quite confused about my identity. I was able to unravel that confusion as I travelled more and delved into my family history.
Which destination was a real surprise to you?
Tibet. I’ve never experienced a culture and community where spirituality is the most important aspect of daily life. The energy of the people – who had nothing but were constantly smiling – really touched me. I never imagined I’d love it so much.
Can you share a memorable dining experience from your travels?
I visited my ancestral village in Toishan, about three hours from Guangzhou [a port city north-west of Hong Kong], when I was filming a television series back in 2007. It’s where my great-grandfather was born and grew up before he left for Australia and I was the first relative to return in 90 years – that’s nine zero! We bought beautiful fresh produce from the local market and cooked a huge feast: crab with black bean and chilli; stir-fried fresh water chestnuts with carrots and Chinese mushrooms; pork with cauliflower and green chillies; pumpkin with black bean and chilli… It was the most special dining experience of my life for all the reasons you can imagine.
Have you ever been fleeced?
Some years ago, I was going through the town of Dali in China’s Yunnan Province on a bus and we stopped to stretch our legs. Street sellers came running up flashing what they insisted were genuine Montblanc pens. They looked fantastic and I’m a sucker for a beautiful pen so I bought quite a few. The next day they had dried up!
What’s your No. 1 travel bugbear?
Packing. Even after all these years of travel, I’m terrible at it. I can’t plan ahead, I can’t cull, I can’t roll or fold properly.
If you could be anywhere else in the world right now, where would you be?
Bar Pinotxo in La Boqueria [one of Europe’s largest food markets in Barcelona, Spain] – an amazing tapas bar that’s been around forever. It only seats 14 people and encompasses everything I love about eating; it’s casual, it has great warmth and energy and the food is incredible. I’d be eating baby squid with white beans and aged balsamic, stuffed mussels, grilled gamberi [prawns] and hot Padrón peppers and drinking a cold beer. Heaven. ￼
Top image: Penny Lane