Kevin La on the best restaurants in town

Kevin La explains how to make crispy fried rice:

Kevin La explains how to make crispy fried rice: “It’s an abundance of textures, man.”Credit:Rhett Wyman

La and his three younger brothers grew up a five-minute walk from here with Cambodian parents of Chinese descent. He has fond memories of being shown around the Cabramatta produce markets and served food influenced by cuisines from across Asia (his parents were both born in Cambodia and his father also spent time in Vietnam before moving to Australia emigrated).

“Every night on the dinner table it was something different,” he says. “You never saw mom or dad with a recipe book, it was just things they ate themselves, things they remembered seeing their parents cook and then going off to try.”

When Kevin was growing up, La’s father worked seven days a week at a fruit and vegetable store and often only saw his parents in the evenings. He envied the kids at school who traveled. When he left high school, he wanted to see everything. “It was what I wanted to do most because I never got to do it as a kid.”

He visited family in Vietnam, France, Canada and Singapore. After completing his Optometry degree at UNSW, he immediately put his skills to work and in 2019 traveled to Nepal as a volunteer to provide eye care services to remote communities.

The idea for Sydney Food Boy came from a 10-day family trip to Singapore on the way home. He had visited the city a number of times during a stopover, but this was the first time he had the opportunity to explore the city himself.

“I would go out every day and say, ‘I’m going to visit this hawker center today, or I’m going to visit this restaurant today,’ and just explore and eat,” he says. “You can really see the impact of all the people who have lived in and around Singapore for over 200 years and the food culture there stands out so much.

“I would love for visitors to take a day or two to venture out to different suburbs and sample food here too.”

Kevin La, also known as @SydneyFoodBoy

“I wanted to come home and do exactly the same thing here — I wanted exactly the same feeling of exploring and traveling and eating cool food that I haven’t tried before.”

The first place La checked upon returning home was an Afghan restaurant in Merrylands. Sydney Food Boy has steadily built a following throughout the pandemic, working through the challenges of dispersed trading hours and curfews in a part of the city that has faced the toughest and longest lockdowns in the state.

“It was a difficult time for everyone. I tried to make the best of it,” he says. “I remember getting a few [optometry] Shifts in Hurstville and so excited to try Chinese food on this trail.

By 2022, Sydney Food Boy had hundreds of thousands of followers and brands lining up to promote. But La still shoots and edits most of his videos on his phone, a practice that has become so ubiquitous that he can come and go without his hosts ever knowing he was there.

“I try to eat as normally as possible because that’s the experience you want [to see],” he says. Still, being able to snap a picture or video without detracting from the dining experience is a skill La has had to improve on.

“Don’t let the food get cold,” he advises. “When you see your friends shrugging their legs, it’s probably time to put the camera down.”

The bill from lunch with Kevin La at Lao Village in Fairfield

The bill from lunch with Kevin La at Lao Village in FairfieldCredit:Rhett Wyman

As a tourist in his own town, La was surprised to discover the Sri Lankan influence in Toongabbie and the history of Swedish immigration to the beach areas of Manly and Bondi. “People know about the big hubs, like the Vietnamese in Cabramatta … but there are all these community niches that I didn’t know about.”

As he reflects on what he’s discovered since that fateful 10-day sojourn in Singapore, he sees no reason why Sydney couldn’t become a city equally renowned for its diverse food scene.

“I think Sydney has what it takes, it’s more about appreciating — we’ve got it all here,” he says. “I would love for visitors to take a day or two to venture out to different suburbs and sample food here too.

“You will really understand why Sydney is one of the best food cities in the world.”

What’s next, there’s an ever-growing list of more than 200 restaurants to check off. But he has no intention of giving up his optometrist career for life as a food blogger. “A lot of people ask me why I didn’t quit my job, but actually I really enjoy being an optometrist. That’s what I studied for, it’s a passion of my own.”

A few months ago, an email landed in Kevin La’s inbox asking him if he would like dumplings with Premier Dominic Perrottet. He thought it was cheating. After verifying the sender’s identity through a quick LinkedIn search, he realized the invitation was legitimate and agreed to meet Perrottet in Haymarket to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

They didn’t chat about politics, instead focusing on La’s upbringing and Perrottet’s love of smoked barbecue.

“Food connects you with everyone,” says La. “Me and the Prime Minister have almost nothing in common when you think about it, except that we grew up in Sydney. But when you love your food, the conversations just flow.”

The Morning Edition Newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Login here. Kevin La on the best restaurants in town

Justin Scaccy

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