SE­CRETS OF THE STOVE

Kylie Kwong goes be­hind the scenes of a small Hong Kong restau­rant and re­veals the in­ner work­ings of her own

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Asian Indulgence -

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

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