N ot that she's crusading, but Kylie Kwong has come halfway around the world to deliver us from bad Chinese food.
It has been four years since the Australian chef last visited the East Coast; while we were ordering stir-fried things in gloppy sauces, Kwong has redefined that ethnic cuisine in her own modern terms. Lines form at the door of Billy Kwong, her Sydney neighborhood dinner spot known for its fresh, modern dishes and put on the map, she says, by the late R.W. Apple Jr. of the New York Times.
Oh, and during that time she wrote two cookbooks, taped a few television series, made a dozen trips to China and trained the restaurant staff to hum without her daily presence in the kitchen. She also began serving as Australia and New Zealand's fair-trade ambassador.
No matter how high-powered all that seems, Kwong says "there's more to my life than work. I look for harmony, balance, simplicity -- especially when it comes to food." Celebrity chefdom is not a temptation: "I've had offers, but I'm not interested in opening Billy Kwongs all over the planet, yeh?" she says, her Aussie accent pushing out the last word with the upturn of a question, as if to emphasize, "you know I'm not about all that, right?"
At 38, Kwong has the look of a woman who's comfortable in her own skin. She's glowingly fit and possesses an enviable collection of chunky jewelry collected on her Asian travels. Her vibe is serene, due in part to an interest in Buddhist philosophy, she says. Kwong is a natural on TV (her series have appeared on Australian TV, the Discovery Home Channel and Food Network Canada), although she still doesn't own a set.
Before she had a restaurant of her own, Kwong learned Cantonese cooking at her mum's elbow and Australian-Asian fusion fare at chef Neil Perry's Rockpool and Wokpool restaurants in Sydney.
"She's terrific," Perry said by phone last week. "Kylie's pushed ahead with what we started here: modern Asian food that respects tradition but lightens things up a bit. And she has a wonderful social conscience."
Oddly enough, the stricter she has become about food sources and how she spends her time, the more liberated she feels. Kwong is happy to be a sole owner instead of restaurant partner. She made the switch to all-organic and biodynamic produce at Billy Kwong three years ago -- an effort, she says, that is worth the cost. (She had to raise prices a bit, but customers haven't complained.) The cornstarch is long gone, the seafood is never frozen and the hoisin sauce is a house-made blend of organic red miso paste and organic rice syrup. Less than a week before Chinese New Year, she hadn't yet come up with a special dinner menu, preferring to see which ingredients looked best once she returned home.
Her own diet is all organic. Her best days are appointment-free and include a nap and dinner at the restaurant.
So the uncomplicated steps of her new book, "Simple Chinese Cooking" (Viking Studio, 2007, $34.95), follow that particular path. "I made sure to call for ingredients you can find in just about any large supermarket these days," she said last week, in town to speak at a Smithsonian program. "It's the defining factor of the book. I realized that the average Westerner is still intimidated, or just isn't familiar with shopping in a Chinese market."
That being said, she agreed to guide us through Kam Sam, an Asian grocery store in Rockville, which she declared had the "smells and sounds of a good Chinese market." Kwong was impressed with the range of produce and steered clear of frozen foods in general: "Just can't taste them." (See "Labels to Look For," at left.)
To cook her "Simple" recipes, you could use a wok, but a deep-walled nonstick skillet will suffice. Marinades are fast, as are most of the preparations. The book's explanations of equipment and ingredients contain no surprises. Those are Kwong's hands in the technique photos that illustrate how to stir-fry and how to use chopsticks. All the dishes were made by her, every one of them beautifully photographed. Salad recipes and ones that feature glorious, runny yolks aren't necessarily true Chinese, but "they're just me," she says. "They're in there just because I love them."
Kwong says she's not reinventing the wheel, but her version of cashew chicken, for example, is an evolutionary leap from the standard stir-fry: chicken thighs instead of breast meat, the cool crunch of cucumber. Sea salt instead of soy sauce. No sugar, no sesame oil, no MSG. Definitely not brown. She made a batch for us last week, using chicken we had marinated for half an hour in a little shao hsing wine, which lent a mellow, familiar flavor.
"This kind of cooking goes so quickly, you really need all the elements ready to go," she said, dispatching the scallions, garlic and cucumber with enviable speed and precision. Steam, aroma, the flash of searing the main ingredient in two batches; at this point, even the photographer had trouble keeping up. Even if it took twice as long to do the chopping, this could be dinner on the table in less than half an hour. This could be made for a crowd.
And with that, the chef cleaned the counter and said gracious goodbyes, with a nap on the agenda.