SECRETS OF THE STOVE
Kylie Kwong goes behind the scenes of a small Hong Kong restaurant and reveals the inner workings of her own
HONG Kong’s gorgeous harbourside location and overcrowded, noisy, built-up downtown exude an exciting energy that draws me back time after time. For me, the most incredible thing here is the way, despite the forest of cutting-edge high-rises in this economic hub, Hong Kong is still so traditional.
Beneath the Westernised surface is a very Chinese sense of balance, of blending the old and new. These influences come together in the food, which is predominantly Cantonese but embraces elements of other Chinese styles combined with a Western sense of experimentation.
Hong Kong’s extraordinary dining scene has been an enormous influence on the style of Billy Kwong, my eatery in Surry Hills, Sydney. I have always wanted Billy Kwong to be an intimate, energetic and vibrant eating house, serving fantastically fresh Chinese food in a comfortable and nurturing atmosphere. For all Chinese, food and family is at the centre of our existence. We completely lose ourselves in the heady aromas of fresh food markets and food preparation, we love sharing food with anyone and everyone, and we offer it to others as an act of love and respect.
Yellow Door Kitchen in Hong Kong is a small place run by the unconventional, artistic and gregarious Mr Lau. It’s a simple space within a small apartment block in Central on Hong Kong Island; it has a tiny kitchen and seating for 30.
Lau’s philosophy is simple: no monosodium glutamate or artificial flavourings, authentic recipes and only fresh, local ingredients. Like most Chinese, Lau’s chef goes to the markets twice a day to make sure all ingredients are absolutely fresh and of the highest quality. There are many wet markets in Hong Kong, each with a different character; Lau’s favourites are the well known Wan Chai and Central markets.
Yellow Door Kitchen is a little more than half the size of Billy Kwong, which seats 48, and is sparsely decorated in comparison. Billy Kwong is a square room, whereas Yellow Door is an oblong shape and has a slightly industrial feel with its concrete walls.
One long wall consists of large, framed windows looking out on the dense cityscape of Central and the other is like a feature wall, covered entirely with a silk curtain that softens the whole place.
At one end of the room is a small, simply designed bar recess and, behind this, is the tiny kitchen.
Like Billy Kwong, the kitchen works with four staff on at once: Big Sister Wah hovers over two huge, powerful gas woks, and another two cooks do all the cold dishes, garnishes and hand her the ingredients for each hot dish as she cooks. A kitchen hand washes dishes as well as doing food preparation.
Two wait staff look after the dining room, whereas at Billy Kwong, we have three to four waiters on at the one time.
There is a unique feature of Yellow Door’s interior and that is a redcoloured wall at the entrance, painted with white calligraphic characters by Tsang Tsou Choi, a renowned grafitti artist who called himself the King of Kowloon. Unlike at Yellow Door, the lighting at Billy Kwong is dim. I like the moody ambience this creates.
But although the two spaces are rather different on the surface, they share many similarities of energy and feel. The kitchens are the heart and soul of both places and both dining rooms are very much like being in someone’s home: simultaneously intimate and social, warm and welcoming.
An absolute must-try on the Yellow Door’s menu is the aptly named Mouth-Watering Chicken. Imagine a whole chicken gently poached in a white master stock of ginger, garlic, shallots, salt and Shaohsing wine, served chopped and draped in a complex, smoky dressing of pounded red dried chillies, caramelised garlic, crushed roasted peanuts, soy sauce, vinegar, chilli oil, Sichuan pepper, sliced cucumber and chopped coriander. Sweet, salty, spicy and sour all at once, with the chicken velvety-smooth, this is a heavenly dish.
Another elegant take on a Sichuanese staple is Yellow Door’s version of dan dan mien, a dish of silky, melt-inthe-mouth, thin white noodles, served with a sauce made from juicy pork mince charged with stir-fried Sichuan pepper and chilli.
One taste sets your mouth on fire but, strangely, as with all Sichuan-style food, you become quite addicted to that tingling, numbing sensation on your tongue. Cucumbers are a cooling accompaniment; Hong Kong cucumbers look like a large gherkin and are terrifically crunchy, making a simple, sour, vinegary side dish that offers relief from the scorching effects of the chilli.
Back home at Billy Kwong, the space, though twice as big as Yellow Door, is also small, a mere 77sq m in total. A young Taiwanese designer named Chen Lu worked on the design. I love Chen’s fresh, natural approach, his inherent understanding of all things Asian, his devotion to quality and his personal integrity.
One of Chen’s greatest talents is furniture design and he devised an ingenious way of overcoming the constraints imposed by such an intimate space.
Along both sides of the dining room, he created sleek cupboards that by night are disguised as beautifully lacquered dark-wood walls. By day, when the restaurant is in full preparation mode, these walls open to reveal spacious cupboards that house everything from peanuts and soy sauce to from a sausage machine and paper towels. I especially cherish the two display cabinets that Chen designed to frame the open kitchen. They are at once simple and elegant, and I love arranging fresh flowers and displays of artwork on their grand shelves.
Built into the other side of these cabinets are wonderful shelves that we use to store our cooking spices and other dry ingredients. I tell people it is a bit like working in a boat, very compact and efficiently designed to maximise the limited space.
The focal point of the room is a huge drum-shaped lantern that was handmade in Melbourne. I often watch people’s faces as they enter the restaurant and their gaze is drawn to the lantern; I believe it is magical.
Between noon and 2pm, my chefs arrive. Before we open the doors each night at 6pm, before we all go on stage, the room is filled with the buzz of our intense daily ritual.
The tiny, open kitchen is the engine room of Billy Kwong and I adore it. Here I feel most at home, there is so much movement and energy, so many smells and textures.
It’s so alive, and we insisted that Chen design the restaurant with an open kitchen, knowing very well the kitchen is the heart and soul of a place.
There is fresh food lying on every surface, awaiting preparation and cooking; there is a large vase of flowers in the centre of the marble and stainless steel kitchen bench, to create a homely, comfortable atmosphere; there is a steel wire stretched across the kitchen, the clothes line, where food orders are pegged during service.
In service mode, one chef looks after the steaming section, two chefs control the wok work, and one does the deepfryer and cold larder section.
The kitchen is unlike any I have worked in, sometimes a bit mad, frenzied and chaotic, but I like to work in an organic way, even a little on the edge, leaving space for spontaneity and creativity. It is tiny, but if we are organised, it all works rather smoothly. www.yellowdoorkitchen.com.hk www.kyliekwong.org
Heart and soul: From left, preparing scallops at Billy Kwong in Sydney’s Surry Hills; Kylie Kwong cooks up a storm in the restaurant kitchen; Mr Lau at Yellow Door Kitchen in Central on Hong Kong Island; interior of Yellow Door Kitchen