Kylie Kwong’s China

Kylie makes cabbage look alluring. Kylie works saucepans like she’s at a DJ console. Kylie makes chopping carrots look glamorous.

Not surprisingly, her show, “Kylie Kwong: Cooking with Heart And Soul” has succeeded in inspiring couch-potatoes around the world to get their aprons on. It has deepened the all-pervasive fascination for Chinese food. And, triggered vociferously friendly Internet discussions on everything from her recipes to her chipper personality.

Reassuringly, she sounds just as chirpy over the phone, calling from Sydney, in a conversation with MetroPlus about her show “My China”, on Discovery Travel and Living.

“We wanted to create much more than a cooking show,” she says, “People respond to raw emotion.” Kylie adds that it’s easy for her to connect with the audience since she really believes in what she’s talking about. “I’m not an actor. I can’t pretend,” she says. “What I can do is get in front of the TV and tell the world how much I love Chinese food…”

Besides, she states she’s inspired when she discusses subjects she loves: “I never stop. I’d drive you mad,” she laughs.

Since most of the world has had an enduring affair with Chinese food, “My China” is a logical follow-up to “Cooking With Heart And Soul”, which showed Kylie recreating classical Chinese recipes, many learnt from her mother, in her slick kitchen. But because, she is a professional chef, her techniques are more sophisticated than rustic, and her results look like glossy advertisements from a gourmet magazine.

Her restaurant, Billy Kwong, has 60 dishes on the menu, all of which are based on traditional Chinese recipes. “The difference is in the quality of the produce I use. I use organic vegetables. No chemicals. No MSG, or oyster sauce out of a bottle. If I want plum sauce, I make it out of fresh plums.” (Following Kylie’s beliefs, Billy Kwong aims to “to leave as small and light an environmental footprint as possible, to give back to the community whenever and wherever we can, and to think globally and act locally.”)

This show includes, what Kylie calls, “travel, history and raw emotion…” since it covers her travelling through China, reconnecting with her roots. A fourth generation Australian, she’s calls herself a 29th generation Kwong. “But, I felt connected with China when I visited.”

The series opens with her visiting her family’s ancestral village in Toishan. “I’m nearly 40 now…, she says, talking of how important the homecoming was to her. “It was amazing, very emotional. I felt like I was returning to the clan… It was very primeval.”

For additional colour, there’s Kylie’s great grandfather, who seems like quite an interesting character. “My great grandfather moved to Australia during the gold rush. He had four Chinese wives, and 24 children.” Kylie’s grand return included a visit to her grandfather’s house (It’s still there!) and spending quality time with her long lost Chinese relatives. “They spoke no English, and I speak no Cantonese or Mandarin.” But, they communicated. “We cooked for each other. We laughed. We ate.”

This show’s about more than making a perfect bowl of noodles. “You can call it a cooking and travelling show. Nine episodes. Nine different provinces,” she says talking of how they have tried to show how the physical landscape and geography of each place. “The physical look of the local fare. The local market — because that is really what says everything about the local community… It’s very textured. Far more than just a pretty cooking show.”

Bourdain on Cooking and Cobras

He’s eaten the live, still beating heart of a cobra in Saigon. After munching through a handful of crisp fried tree worms he likened them to “a deep-fried Twinkie. Only wormier.” He travels the world with an astonishingly open mind: whether he’s in a gun club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the menu includes a sampling of firearms, or a secret Russian fight club, where diamond draped blondes sip vodka and watch men beat each other senseless. He’s executive Chef of Les Halles, a traditional French restaurant in Manhattan. Oh, and, he’s pretty hot, with his bad boy leather jacket and attitude.

Forget delicate creativity, starchy linens and artistic flair – Anthony Bourdain’s more about kitchen machismo, fiery opinions and flamboyant food making him a sort of a culinary rock star.

With his travel show, featuring extreme cuisine, and action packed books, the chef-turned-author-turned-TV presenter, has been tripping around the world years, followed intently by a large brigade of foodies, travel buffs and – let’s be honest – breathless women.

In a telephonic interview, organised to promote his show No Reservations on Discovery Travel and Living, he seems thrilled with his life, cobra hearts and all. “I am very aware of what a great job I have,” he says, “With the freedom to go where I want, when I want and say what I want. I’ve been given free reign to discover the world… It’s an extraordinary and amazing job.”

Bourdain talks of discovering India, wandering through Rajasthan, Kolkata, the Sunderbans and Mumbai. “My first impression was that India is both beautiful and frustrating. It is so big that you can’t rid yourself of the sense that you’re missing most of it.” Saying that although he and the TV crew tried to see as much as they could, he adds, “I could easily spend the rest of my life making television in just India.”

While his travels threw up a number of surprises (“Royal food in Rajasthan, and the fact that though I’m a vocal proponent of the carnivorous diet, India is possibly the only place I can eat a vegetarian meal”), he seems most excited about eating vada pav on the Mumbai streets. “I’m a big fan of the Bombay burger — potato in a bun.”

Unfortunately, Bourdain was forced to leave out south India, as another TV show was recently shot there and the producers felt it would be repetitive. “I was very frustrated about that,” he says, “I haven’t ever been there. It was one of my first choices. I’ve heard so much about the seafood…”

On his quest for the perfect meal (“I wanted the perfect meal… I wanted adventure. I wanted kicks… I wanted to see the world. And I wanted the world to be just like the movies”) Bourdain tends to concentrate on everyday food because “people are proud of their local food; it’s the purest expression of a culture”.

Categorically stating he’s not interested in fine dining (“The world is so globalised now. Fine dining chefs tend to cook like fine dining chefs, irrespective of where they live… fusion food in Mumbai isn’t too different from fusion food in Melbourne”), he says, “People from all income levels are beginning to crave the authentic. They’re less snobby about fine dining.”

Meanwhile, his forays into extreme cuisines, he insists, certainly aren’t for shock value. “People eat very differently around the world. What someone in America finds shocking is everyday food for people in Thailand. I’m interested in whatever is good.” He also believes that food and travel are inseparable. “I don’t think you can enjoy or even experience a country without a willingness to sit with the local people and eat and drink.”

His writing is equally down-to-earth. “I don’t try to be an authority or an expert. It’s not a priority for me to describe the entire history of the food. I come from an oral storytelling experience in the kitchen… I try to give people a sense of what things looked like and smelt like at the time.”

And when he’s not describing a desert feast with Blue-clad Berbers in Morocco, or bodysurfing beside a fishing village in Vietnam, he writes crime novels to escape. “I write about me and what happens to me all the time. So, it’s a relief to escape to a world of imagination from time to time.”

But food is clearly his first love. Discussing the world’s best chefs, he names “Thomas Keller in California and the chefs at French Laundry in Napa Valley”, and then adds “every chef who shows up at work every day and cooks well… Anybody’s mother who cooks well. I think cooking’s a noble activity.”

As for that perfect meal he’s been chasing for so long? “I’ve had so many,” he says thoughtfully. “You can’t look for the perfect meal: it finds you. It might be a simple bowl of noodles soup in Vietnam, or a plate of roast bone marrow in London. It’s not about the food. It’s context that’s important. Like who’s cooking it… A Bombay burger is as much a perfect meal as dinner in Paris.”

Spurrier’s tryst with California

Paris in the mid-1970s. All wine was old world, and all labels that mattered were French. Then an Englishman came along and changed all the rules.

“I was a square peg in a round hole,” says Steven Spurrier, discussing how he became one of the wine-world’s most influential voices. Spurrier is best known for ‘The Judgment of Paris’ in 1976. At a time when French wine was considered supreme, he got the country’s most respected palates to blind-taste Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from France and California.

The Californian wines won in every category. “It was a huge surprise. In several cases, shock. One judge was very upset and wanted her notes back!” he chuckles, adding that he offered to make her copies instead. The French judges – secure in the superiority of their wine – had just naturally assumed they had picked the French wines. After all, they didn’t even consider the upstart new world wines contendors.

Even London, where Spurrier started his career, “was about old world wine: French, German, Italian…” It was the mid-1960s, Spurrier was straight out of college and enamoured with the business. “To be a wine merchant was a very respectable profession. When I told my father that’s what I wanted to do, all he said was, ‘Well, if you’re sure you won’t drink too much’.” Spurrier adds thoughtfully, “If I had said I wanted to be a bar tender on the hand, he probably wouldn’t have been okay with that!”

However, after learning the ropes for a year, he ended up getting married and abandoning the wine business for a stab at Hollywood style romance. He and his wife bough a crumbling mansion in the South of France “We were up in the Hills of Var. From there we could see the mountains. We could see the sea.” Over here they worked on restoring the house, and dabbling in antiques. “I had inherited a lot of money from my grandfather. I could do what I want. I was a rich kid! And I liked to do romantic things…”

However, by the mid-1970s, they realised they wanted more out of life. So Spurrier and his wife gave up on the house and moved to Paris, where he intended to get back into the wine trade.

“I bought a wine shop on Rue Royale. It was a perfect location, in the centre of everything,” smiles Spurrier. he began by catering to the local expatriate population. “I put an advertisement in the Herald Tribune saying ‘Your winemaker speaks English’.”

It worked.

“I was in the forefront, and I was lucky enough to be young, energetic,” he smiles. “I was made out to be a mover and shaker. I had long hair, flared trousers and a moustache when the wine makers in Paris wore berets and jeans. I became known as ‘The Englishman who has the wine shop.’

The wine shop inspired a wine school, which is turn became a lively meeting place for tourists and wine sellers. The Californian wine makers came by with their bottles, impressing Spurrier with teh quality of their wine. Then his partner went to California and returned raving about the wine there. Hence the blind tasting.

Spurrier says all he wanted out it was to demonstrate Californian wines had potential. “I would have liked them to come in second or fourth. It didn’t even occur to me that they could win.” He adds: “That was the first crack in the wall of French supremacy. It wasn’t what I was after. And, it didn’t please me at all. I had set out to make a statement — but this was an exaggeration of what I was trying to do.”

It certainly didn’t help with fitting in. “The French were understandably very upset,” he says. Of course, the Americans were ecstatic. “In California I had become a cult hero. They should have named streets after me!”

Spurrier adds thoughtfully, “In hindsight I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.” In 1950, there were 40 wineries in California. Now, there are 4,000. “It opened the world to new-world wines.”

Thanks to this vote of confidence “from the most trusted French palates in Paris” new world wines got an incredible boost. This marked the change of the old wine industry. The Australians got into the game, making wine fruity, fun and – sacre bleu – even frivolous, with a range of quirky labels, from ‘Aussie Jeans Rock,’ a red from Margaret river, to ‘Pink,’ a chic bubbly by Yellow Glen.

How much have things changed? Even the French are making allowances for hip labels, which appeal to the young. (As well as wine newbies.), despite the fact that they blow the lid off the mystery of wine. ‘Fat Bastard’ for instance is one of the best selling wines in the USA.

And Spurrier? He became famous, inspiring the movie “Bottle Shock”, which he says is more fiction than fact and “very Hollywood”. Now, the makers of a movie titled, “Judgment Of Paris”, have asked for his approval. “So I told them, ‘I want my role played by a British actor’. They suggested Hugh Grant. But, I said, ‘He’s far too old’. Then, they said, ‘Jude Law?’ And, I said, ‘He’s far too beautiful’.”

Sho-Buzz

April 2010
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