9 February 2024

From suitcase to success: Duck In Heaven's journey from humble beginnings to new expanded premises

| Kellie O'Brien
Start the conversation
Duck In Heaven Cafe Woonona

Duck In Heaven has moved into new premises due to growing demand. Photo: Supplied.

Cooking for Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly inspired Jeni Sae-Yang’s Asian-influenced Duck In Heaven Cafe, which four months on has been such a success it’s resulted in her moving into larger premises in Woonona and planning cooking classes.

The restaurant started from humble beginnings in October, despite her past including having a foodie grandfather who had live-in chefs and whisked her to restaurants around the world, plus being a film producer in her 30s which gave her access to cook for all manner of celebrities.

“I started with absolutely nothing,” Jeni said.

“I had come out of a terrible relationship … I was left with nothing but a suitcase.”

Determined to rebuild her life and provide for her two children, Jeni seized an opportunity to lease a cafe space at the back of the Bulli School of Arts for a nominal fee.

“At first I thought I would just do takeaway because it was just me and the kitchen was very small,” she said.

“I thought I’ll do really good barbecue duck, barbecue pork, because no one was doing that in the Woonona area.”

Two days later, Blackbird Thirroul owners Chris and Alice Henry stumbled upon Duck In Heaven, asking if they could dine in and being so impressed, they became advocates for her cuisine.

“That first weekend, by Sunday, I had 30 people book in because they went and told everybody that it was the best duck they’ve ever had,” she said.

“All of a sudden, we were just packed all the time.”

She said people liked the vibe, the fact she was cooking for them and that she often cooked what customers wanted, even if not on the menu.

Formerly working at modern Australian restaurant Jose Jones, Jeni said she would often have Anita’s Theatre sending celebrities for her to feed.

READ ALSO Five minutes with Chris Henry, Blackbird Thirroul

One of those was Paul Kelly and his 20-member crew of band members and family, who were on tour during COVID.

“They said, ‘Can you close the restaurant and do a dinner for us? And we don’t want modern Australian food, we want to eat the kind of food you love to cook. What do you love to cook?’,” she said.

“It all started from that.

“So I made them Singaporean mud crab, whole deep-fried snapper, dumplings, and duck.

“When I had the opportunity to do something on my own, I thought, I’m going to do the kind of food I love to eat – really good, wholesome, quality Asian food that if I had a dinner party this is what I would cook.”

She said growing up in Hong Kong in a foodie household, she was used to having chefs at home, with her grandfather also having trained live-in chefs.

“My grandfather was an absolute foodie, so by the time I was in my 20s, he would take me to all the best restaurants in the world,” she said.

“We would go to New York and London.”

By her 30s, Jeni had become a film producer with even greater access to fine dining and the ability to cook or share food with the likes of US film producer Tim Burton and English singer Jessie J.

“Being in the film business, I’ve been going to the best restaurants but then people would come to my house all the time and I would cook for all these celebrities and it would always be amazing feast-style Asian food that you couldn’t get in the restaurant,” she said.

Not only that, her famous Peking duck may have been the inspiration for the name of her extended family member Ruben Style’s ARIA Award-winning band Peking Duk.

Jeni and her sister often babysat Styles and she cooked for him and the family at Christmas.

“My sister and I, I don’t know if that had a direct influence (on the band name), but we would all spend Christmas together.”

She said the success of her “little restaurant”, which she credits for saving her life during a difficult time through watching the joy her food brought others, came down to her love for food.

“I think it does well because for me it’s just so important to get the best quality food and to give people an experience that they walk away and think ‘wow’,” she said.

As Duck In Heaven gained traction, Jeni found herself grappling with the limitations of her initial space.

“That first cafe we outgrew very quickly because it was just set up as a cafe kitchen,” she said.

“It was never set up to have 30-40 people on a Saturday night.”

READ ALSO Woonona pharmacy rises from the ashes to reopen front doors and welcome daylight

Customers recommended the licensed Sugar Butter Eggs premises, which Jeni is sharing with the owners until they leave for Orange in March.

“I feel so blessed,” she said.

“Things have just happened – with no money, no investments, just going bit by bit and then building the business and the staff.

“It’s about that little neighbourhood restaurant that’s relaxed and it’s wholesome food … and it feels a bit special.”

Once she’s occupying the entire restaurant, she will begin cooking classes full time to teach how to easily make dumplings and other Asian cuisine, pass on traditions and connect with the community.

“My grandmother taught me how to make dumplings, and it’s very important for my daughter that we make dumplings together as a family tradition,” she said.

“It’s a bonding experience for kids and their parents and then they can share with their friends.”

Duck In Heaven is located at 359 Princes Highway, Woonona.

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Want the best Illawarra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Illawarra stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.