11 cooks-a-cooking: Kylie Kwong
Kylie Kwong has a dream business where, wait for it, people queue up for over a half hour to get a seat at her restaurant. Customers inconveniencing themselves and virtually begging to give you money never happens by luck but more by having your act together.
But in Kwong’s case, her business is no act. It is connected to her, it is a part of her and the wonderful vibes she has created in her operation are a reflection of not just the creator but also the people she has attracted.
As she might say, it is all connected. And there must be something in this connective stuff, as Kylie not only has one of the highest regarded eateries in the country but she has her own ABC television show and regularly pumps out best-selling books.
Think outside the square
Enough of this deeper stuff, let’s analyse the making of Billy Kwong, the restaurant, and its entrepreneur owner Kylie Kwong.
She proudly boasts she comes from Australia’s biggest ever immigrant family. The first Kwong arrived here in the 1850s at the time of the gold rushes.
“He was a herbalist, he secured four gold leases and had four wives,” Kylie reveals. “Between them they had 24 children, which made them the biggest immigrant family in Australian history.”
Kwong came under notice working for Neil Perry at his Asian-theme restaurant, Wokpool, for six years as head chef, before teaming up with another famous Sydney chef — Bill Granger — to kick off Billy Kwong in 2000.
“It was Bill’s name and mine,” she says. “However, after eight months we went our separate ways as he was expecting his first child, so my mum – a retired accountant – joined me.”
The restaurant’s menu is based on traditional Chinese cooking but no monosodium glutamate or MSG.
“The reviewers often call it modern Chinese but 80 per cent of recipes are rooted in traditional Chinese cooking,” she says. “Our ingredients are modern being organic and biodynamic.”
At the core of many successful operators is a desire to out-compete rivals and finding points of difference based on the understanding of where consumer trends are going often directs entrepreneurial behaviour.
Edward de Bono called it lateral thinking and thinking outside the square and Kwong’s stance on ingredients is not just a point of competitive difference but is consistent with her driving philosophy, which is rooted in Buddhism.
Like many success stories, Kwong has had the benefit of working in good company. The Perry experience and her training all prepared her to be something special.
Another great influence has been a treasured employee among a team of 17 workers she has an enormously high regard for.
“In 2004, I advertised for five weeks for a maître d’ – who is the important person in the restaurant,” she explains. “Kin Chin turned up just before opening on Friday night and handed me his CV.
“I was in a rush and told him I would call him tomorrow but after unravelling the most beautiful resume I’d ever seen I called him back immediately.”
Kin Chin had been the maître d’ and co-owner of Madam Fang’s in Melbourne and his aura, according to Kwong, has a big impact on the customers and staff in the restaurant.
“He has an inspirational attitude to life after 20 years of studying Buddhism,” Kylie says. “He walks around and makes everyone calm.”
Jim Collins, in his best-selling book Good to Great, talked about how the smart leaders of America’s leading companies knew the importance of having the right people on the bus. Kin Chin is testimony to Kwong’s capacity to lead a great business.
It’s not luck that attracts great people, and her former head chef Hamish Ingham is another example of how great leaders get the ‘people thing’ right.
Kin Chin’s Buddhist background had encouraged Kwong to commit to going organic in the restaurant and as she made the decision to innovate in that direction, Ingham returned from working in the USA with exactly the same recommendation. The ‘right people on the bus’ has a knack of giving returns to businesses beyond many leaders’ own wildest dreams. Ingham now runs his own restaurant in Surry Hills.
Accounting for her new millennium success, Kwong thinks the book and television exposure has been great for her reputation and the business.
“Being on national television with Kylie Kwong: Heart and Soul, means you are seen by 800,000 people who now know about a little restaurant in Sydney,” she says. “I also love receiving letters from other Australian Chinese girls, after seeing the shows, who relate to what am I doing.”
She says these reactions have shown her how important Billy Kwong’s has been in a much wider community sense.
She has no plans to expand Billy Kwong but it’s not a lack of ambition, as most experts would say it would work anywhere, but Kwong looks like she is in the ‘zone’ and very happy with life and business.
“They’re all connected,” she explains. “And that’s really great.”
The Gerber influence
By the way, you are sadly mistaken if you think the Kylie Kwong story is the case of a great cook who got lucky with a book and a television show. She is driven and even started her business venture a year before by reading one of the most inspirational small business books of all time.
“Michael Gerber’s E-Myth Revisited was my bible before I opened up Billy Kwong,” she says “It changed my view on everything, especially about working on your business rather than working in it.”
Her reading taught her that a business owner has to create an operation where you can work yourself out of the work of being a cook, a maître d’ or a technician in the business. Along the way, you graduate to manager and then you replace yourself out of that job to be the entrepreneur that has the big dreams that come true.
At the core, the process is about identifying frustrations in your business and eradicating them with systems, so the business becomes increasingly problem free and efficient.
The first time this writer went to Billy Kwong, Kwong sat at a table enjoying the fruits of her labour. It struck me that she wasn’t doing any work because it had already been done.
Gerber says the goals should be to have a business that can operate without you, so you can sell it, franchise it or just enjoy it.
If you’re looking to work on your business rather than being stuck in it, book in for a complimentary business assessment today with Switzer Business Coaching.
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