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Kylie Kwong and Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo: ‘You remind me so much of being with my mother’


This week, after a three-year hiatus and a lot of soul-searching, Kylie Kwong, one of Australia’s most influential chefs, opened her new eatery Lucky Kwong.

The small canteen will cook with ingredients sourced in part from the South Eveleigh Rooftop Garden, just around the corner from the restaurant in Sydney’s South Eveleigh.

Kwong says the project – named for the unborn son she and wife Nell lost in 2012 – was strongly influenced by her friend and longtime mentor Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo, a highly respected elder within the Redfern community who, among a long list of accomplishments, founded the hospitality school Yaama Dhiyaan. Here, the pair are in conversation about their love of cooking, their shared histories and the story of the neighbourhood they work in.

Kylie Kwong: So Aunty, what year was it? When did we first meet? I’ve known you for about 10 years. It was when I had my Billy Kwong market store at the Carriageworks farmers’ market.

Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo: That’s right, yes.

KK: You had a Yaama Dhiyaan store. Aunty Beryl would be there selling the kangaroo pies and the lemon myrtle biscuits, and I’d be there at my stall doing the pancakes.

BV-O: And that was just amazing because Kylie would come over, because I was the first Aboriginal store holder there. And everybody would look at me as much to say, “What is this all about?” Or they’d come up and they’d have a look and then they’d walk away.

One day, these little old ladies came in, two of them. First of all, they were looking for their money in their change purse and one of them said, “Oh, we have to help these poor Aboriginal people.” And I thought, “I should have turned my diamonds around.” And I said, “Who says I’m poor?”

Another guy, he came there and he said to me, “Where do you get the kangaroo from?” And I said, “I jumped the fence at Taronga zoo last night.” You have to have a sense of humour, otherwise it doesn’t work.

And then Kylie would come over and she’d buy all the lemon myrtle butter biscuits.

KK: They were so delicious. What does Yaama Dhiyaan mean?

BV-O: It means “Hello family and friends” in my traditional language, the Kamilaroi language of the Gamilaroi nation.

Chef, author, television presenter and restaurateur Chef Kylie Kwong and Indigenous Elder and cook Aunty Beryl Van Oploo at the Industrial blacksmithing workshop on Locomotive St, Eveleigh. Sydney, NSW, Australia.11th May, 2021.
‘It always has seemed to me, and feels to me, that you were just born a natural nurturer, educator,’ Kylie Kwong says to Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

KK: What led me to you was, in 2010, that was the year, remember, when I first discovered the Australian native plants. As my chefs and I delved deeper into using edible plants, I wanted to know the traditional uses, the history, the culture. Which is how I found you. You have taught me so much.

BV-O: It’s just natural. Our backgrounds are really similar, as we’ve always talked about. Because the ingredients that you use are very, very similar, sweet and sour.

KK: It seems to be naturally simpatico. Native ingredients with the Chinese flavour profile. For example, do you remember with one of my signature dishes at Billy Kwong? I did the deep fried duck with the plums. I always used to use blood plums, or European plums, or I’d use some type of citrus. And then when I discovered Australian native Davidson plums, I was just like, “Where have I been?” They’re so beautiful, they’re so perfect, the most incredible colour, and they work.

Every single native plant I’ve used has such potency, as you say, and very strong characteristics. Whether it’s the colour, the aroma, the taste, the texture. Like saltbush, that’s one of my favourite native plants, and warrigal greens. And here, in my new place, Lucky Kwong, I’ll be using Clarence [Slokee of South Eveleigh Rooftop Garden]’s Prostanthera, which is that beautiful native bush mint. That is just amazing.

BV-O: The flavour’s just there and it’s strong, whereas when you’re using normal mint, you might have to use a little bit more.

KK: What about when I put on the live green tree ants at Billy Kwong? I really wanted to give customers an experience of eating [them] live, because that’s how you eat them culturally.

So, I rang up Aunty Beryl, “How do you eat live green tree ants?” So, she told me all about that. I’d serve them after the main course, we’d put the ants in a little cup, and put them on the table for anyone who wanted to try them.

Because I had never done that before, of course, they all started pouring out of the cup, and going onto the table. [So I called her again]: “Aunt, aunt, they’re coming out! How do I keep them inside the little cup?”

BV-O: And she’s having a heart attack because the ants are going everywhere. I said, “Put some water in there and that will stop them from getting out.”

KK: Imagine this little cup with very feisty live green tree ants in there, straight from Innisfail, Queensland. Incredible, delicious. You bite them and it’s just like this burst of sherbet, isn’t it?

BV-O: Yes, and that’s similar to the honey ants. Which come from up the Territory.

KK: Fortunately, many people said yes [to the ants]. And so, at that point, we were able to begin a conversation, which is what I’ve always wanted to do with your ingredients.

KK: Our friendship has really deepened over the years, through our passion for food. But also too, for me, you remind me so much of being with my mother. My mother’s got 10 brothers and sisters, and my father had 10 brothers and sisters. So when you told me about your extended family, I immediately understood and it just brought a smile to my face.

BV-O: My aunt always had another seat at the table “for a stranger”, she used to call it. If anybody came past or wanted a cup of tea, there was always food there.

KK: Can you tell me about your childhood?

BV-O: Yes, well, what happened with me and my childhood, my mum died when I was a young girl.

KK: How old were you Aunt?

BV-O: I was 12. My aunt, who was my mum’s sister, had eight of her own children and one passed. And then there was 10 of us. There was twins in our family, and the girl passed. So, she had 16 of us. And then my cousin, who was my uncle’s son, his mum didn’t want him, so my aunt took him in too and raised him. So there was 17 of us.

KK: What, all living under the same roof?

BV-O: All living under the same roof.

KK: How gorgeous.

BV-O: But we didn’t have running water or anything like that. We had a tin shack, we had to bring our water from the river, we lived off the land and we all grew up healthy and with work ethics, with respect.

KK: Who did the cooking?

BV-O: Well, my aunt did the cooking but she taught us all to cook… That’s why I call myself a “bread and butter cook” because she taught me how to make bread and butter pudding. That was our dessert, once a week on the Sunday. And then she’d sing out, “Where’s the bread and butter cook?” And then I had to go and put it all together or help her. We all had our little chores.

KK: One of the greatest moments for me was when I introduced you and Aunty Ali [Golding] to my mother. We had an International Women’s Day event at South Eveleigh. And of course, I invited all my favourite women. And you three … It was just a beautiful moment of deep connection, and I looked around and I thought, “I feel so privileged to have these three wise women in my life.”

BV-O: That’s right, and it’s family.

KK: Do you know what the kind of element was for me that I saw in the three of you in that moment? You are all so humble. There’s this humility and an incredible compassion.

BV-O: Yes, because we’re mums, we’ve been through life. Our journey wasn’t easy, but then we look around with our children, and they all had choices in their life. That’s what it was all about, us working hard and doing what we needed to do, and then giving our children choices.

KK: What led you into a career in cooking and education? Tell me about when you first arrived in Sydney from Walgett. How old were you Aunt?

BV-O: When I first came to Sydney and arrived at Central as a 16-year-old girl. And that was very scary, let me tell you. The only jobs we could get in Sydney at the time were in a chocolate factory, or a lolly factory, or as a cleaner. Because we were Aboriginal people, that was it.

So there was a lot of us that came from Country. Sixteen to 18-year-old. Boys, then girls. The men went out to work. A lot of them worked at South Eveleigh, and Eveleigh at the smith works. That was the main employment. The women worked in factories, and cleaning, and whatever. That’s the way it was.

And then we discovered that I had elders on the block in Redfern, so Redfern became our home away from home. And the elders there, they looked after us and kept us safe.

KK: I think about all of the amazing people you’ve introduced me to, even in the last few years since I’ve been down here in South Eveleigh … Uncle Sol, Uncle Shane Phillips, Aunty Glendra Stubbs, Aunty Margret Campbell. She’s incredible, isn’t she?

Having your wisdom and your sense of calm has really inspired me with Lucky Kwong. Because even though it’s been challenging in many ways, like it always is when you’re setting up a new business, and with all of last year’s stress. When I think of you, I just feel very calm and I think, “Well if Aunty Beryl can get through everything that she’s been through in her life, then I can do this too.” So, that’s where you have no idea how much strength and comfort you bring to me. Just your presence. And I know that the entire community feels that as well, you have a very calming presence.

BV-O: Because I’ve always had to be like that. And my mum … I do remember that when she lived on the mission in Angledool, where she was born, we discovered that she used to be like the community person that used to help the littlies.

And then my aunts were like that too, from both sides, my dad’s family and my mum’s family were like that. All the girls in the family are like that, and that’s passed down from generation to generation, it’s just in the genes.

KK: It always has seemed to me, and feels to me, that you were just born a natural nurturer, educator. Just this incredible spaciousness and deep compassion. For as long as I’ve known you, what I love about you the most, is that you’re so non-judgmental. You just let people be the way they are.

BV-O: That’s right, because that’s what I learned off my elders, because that’s the way we are as Aboriginal people. We don’t judge people, we are who we are. You live with what you got. It’s very different now, we’ve got everything today, you have choices. But with us, we didn’t have any choices. We just had to do what we had to do. Like my elders used to say, “Everybody’s different, but you go there with respect and you respect whoever you come across.” And you be kind, and we’re caring, and that’s what was instilled in me.

KK: I really think a lot of the lessons you’ve taught me over the 10 years of our friendship, just by being the person who you are, that’s really inspired me in many ways for my new place. And I just know that Lucky … I just know that he would have absolutely adored you. He would have been on your lap every day.

  • This conversation has been condensed for length.

  • On 27 May, South Eveleigh will be hosting Australia’s first Stolen Generations Mobile Education Centre, on the advice of Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo and her community.

  • Kwong says: “As people participate in this experience and listen to the stories of the survivors, they understand the resilience and dignity of survivors, as knowledge holders of our shared histories. In doing so, participants become part of the healing. Without truth-telling there can be no healing.”



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