Chef Sam Leong and his father
Before setting foot in Singapore, Sam had worked in some of the best restaurants in Malaysia and Thailand, including a stint with his father (who was known as Malaysia’s “King of Shark’s Fin”) at their highly-acclaimed family restaurant. This was where he learnt all the essential skills and techniques, and developed a dedicated commitment at work. Photo: Courtesy of Sam Leong
As a homegrown celebrity chef, how would you describe your style of cooking?
Modern Chinese cuisine is the term. It is not fusion. Fusion food is usually a culinary heritage evolved over time in a culturally diversified society. In Singapore, Hainanese pork chops and steamed chicken with ham are good examples of fusion dishes. My style of cooking is still Chinese. No matter how I use a wide range of ingredients, I keep the core flavour Chinese. The look can be westernised, but the taste must be associated with Chinese food. It is an effort of mine to modernise and popularise Chinese cuisine.
How did your idea of modern Chinese cuisine come about?
The idea originated and was developed during my time with Jiang-Nan Chun restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore. Jiang-Nan Chun is an ‘atas’ (Malay, “high class”) Chinese restaurant serving Cantonese style food. Many businesspeople dine here to discuss business over lunch. For a typical dim sum lunch, four pieces of the same item were served in one steamer basket. I observed that when there were three diners, the last piece of dim sum would be the ‘paiseh’ (Chinese dialect Hokkien, “embarrassing”) piece left behind. The waitperson would approach the diners to ask who among them would like to have the last piece before the steamer basket could be removed to make room for other dishes. With each basket, the diners’ business discussion was repeatedly and annoyingly interrupted.
Similarly for fish dishes. In Chinese culinary culture, a cooked fish must be first presented whole to the diners for inspection. After that, the waitperson would divide the fish among the diners as they watch, with the fish head going to the most important guest. Again, the business diners wouldn’t be able to dine and discuss business in peace because of the cutting and division of fish, and the debate of who should get the fish head.
When I travelled as a guest chef to Europe and the US, I sometimes chose to dine at upscale western restaurants. I experienced the ambience, analysed the taste of the food, appreciated the dish presentation, and observed the service. I then realised I could serve dim sum in individual servings to solve the interruption problem. I started serving assorted dim sum platters with three or four different types of dim sum, but only one piece each. It turned out my business guests were very happy with this new arrangement.
Following this first success, I continued to design set menus with individual plating. However, such changes brought much additional workload to the kitchen helpers: more ingredients to prepare, more time to spend on plating and more dishes to wash. The front-of-house needed to change service style, which also created chaos. As a result, the restaurant manager became reluctant to promote set menus. Some staff resigned. Worse yet, my customers were unhappy too. They complained that after paying S$80 for a grouper, they didn’t see the whole fish. Instead, they saw only a piece of fillet on each of their plates. I was disheartened.
And then something happened in 1997. An elderly gentleman from New York visited the hotel. He came to the restaurant to check out the à la carte menu for his dinner. He loved Peking duck, but felt that he could not finish half a duck on his own and decided to eat elsewhere. I literally had to beg him to stay and convinced him to try our six-course Peking duck set dinner: two slices of Peking duck wrapped in thin pancakes with foie gras sauce; Cantonese chicken clear soup in a teacup; steam cod fish fillet; wok-fried black pepper beef; yee-fu noodle; and a chocolate dessert by the hotel’s pastry chef. After the meal, he shook my hand and said, “This idea is new, not many people appreciate it now. But don’t give up. One day you will be somebody.”
Those words from that stranger encouraged me to keep trying. But until today, I still don’t know who the old gentleman was.
Is there a dish that you would like to call Sam Leong’s signature dish? What’s the story behind this dish?
My top signature dish is Crispy Wasabi Mayonnaise Prawn. The dish was created in 1989 when I was the Chinese chef at Lok Wah Hin Restaurant at the Novotel Bangkok. It was the first time I used a Japanese ingredient in Chinese cooking. The crispy batter of the prawn and the creamy mayonnaise coating create the contrast in texture, and the sweetness from the mayonnaise, combined with the gentle nasal-clearing spiciness of wasabi, tantalises the taste buds. The idea was actually very simple — in Thailand, everyone simply loves deep fried food. This dish also holds a deeper meaning to me because it was created around the time I met my wife when she was an apprentice chef at Novotel. Back then, I jokingly told her to either marry me or get fired. She has always been very supportive all these years, and she is such an important part of my life.
Romance cooking up in the kitchen
The couple first met at work back in 1988 at the Novotel Bangkok, when Sam was a Chinese chef while Forest was assigned to the dessert station. The two did not start a relationship until at least a year later, at a disco while on a staff holiday in Pattaya. Photo: Courtesy of Sam Leong
Another dish that makes me proud is Coffee Pork Ribs. The idea of this dish came to me over a dinner at home. I love coffee. One day, I was having coffee while my wife was preparing salt-baked pork ribs for our two sons. The smell of the baked pork came through my nose and met with the sweet and bitter taste of the coffee in my mouth, and my brain came up with the creation. That was in 1995 when I was working for Jiang-Nan Chun at Four Seasons Hotel Singapore. After spending a few days in the kitchen experimenting with coffee powder, cocoa powder, tomato ketchup, plum sauce and Lea & Perrins, I finally found my coffee sauce recipe. Since then, this dish has been carrying my name – Chef Sam’s Coffee Pork Ribs.
Today, many Chinese restaurant in Singapore have these two dishes on their menus. Of course, they don’t call it “Chef Sam’s”!
In the late 1990s, you became very famous both locally and internationally. You like to describe it as “a stroke of luck”. Why?
I do believe we all need a bit of luck in life. When Jiang-Nan Chun opened in 1994, I was only 28. I spent a good eight years there, and my fame started from there.
One day, a Caucasian hotel guest dined at Jiang- Nan Chun. After the meal, he exchanged name cards with me. His name was Wolfgang Puck. At that time, I had no idea how famous and influential he was. The following year, I received a letter from Mr Puck, inviting me to Los Angeles to attend the annual American Wine and Food Festival (AWFF). I decided to showcase my two signature dishes there.
That was my first time travelling as a guest chef. I was excited but inexperienced. We had been booked to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, but I didn’t know it was an ‘atas’ hotel. My team and I were politely rejected by the concierge because we were wearing jeans and sneakers. We eventually had to enter the hotel via its back entrance.
The Leong family
Sam and Forest were married in 1990. Their elder son was born the following year and their younger son two years later. The family relocated to Singapore from Bangkok in 1993. Photo: Courtesy of Sam Leong
For the opening night of the Festival, most chefs prepared enough ingredients for about 300 servings. Being ‘kiasu’ (Chinese dialect Hokkien, “afraid to lose out”), my team prepared a thousand servings of wasabi prawns and coffee pork ribs each. Most booths were closed by 9pm, but the queue outside my booth lasted until 11pm. We cleared all our food and missed the bus back to the hotel.
Back then, most Americans associated Chinese food with fried rice, fried noodle, sweet and sour pork and dim sum. However, my dishes gave them a brand new experience. My debut at AWFF was a success. The Americans loved the two dishes, and the American media gave me some very positive reviews. Since then, I have participated in the event for eight consecutive years.
Back in Singapore, the local newspapers and the Tourism Board wanted to know more about me, and the publicity started. In March 1999, during a Parliament debate on the issue of expatriates, then- Minister of Manpower, Lee Boon Yang cited me as a role model — a Malaysian with little academic qualification who came to Singapore to make a living as a chef, created award-winning dishes and did Singapore proud at an international culinary event.
The next day, the headlines of The Straits Times read, “Knowledge Workers Don’t Need Doctorates”.
I guess my encounter with Mr Puck at Four Seasons Hotel and being mentioned in Parliament by the Minister were my “strokes of luck”.
Besides luck, all of us know great success also requires tremendous effort. From 2000 to 2010, you were the Director of Kitchens for the Tung Lok Group. You were also the creative force for the Group’s restaurants, and you helped the Group’s overseas expansion. How did your ten years with Tung Lok further elevate your style of modern Chinese cuisine?
Yes, Tung Lok provided me with a very good platform to reach my full potential in my culinary career. Andrew Tjioe, the CEO of the Tung Lok Group, first invited me in 1996 to join his operations. He was visionary, and we shared the same view on modernising Chinese cuisine. However, I felt I was not ready yet. I had just started with Jiang-Nan Chun, and there was still a lot more for me to learn.
Then, in 2000, Andrew made me a second offer. Tung Lok was operating 13 restaurants and had just won the bid for Jade, a Chinese restaurant in the Fullerton Hotel. I accepted the offer after Andrew agreed to give me the authority to command the chefs in all his 14 restaurants. I needed the authority to keep things in order. At the age of 34, I was made Zhong Qu (Cantonese, “Director of Kitchens”) of the Tung Lok Group.
From Jiang-Nan Chun’s 65-seat capacity to Jade’s 120 seats, I could no longer do the cooking myself. I needed to get myself away from the wok so that I could create new dishes, train the chefs and manage the workflow. I borrowed ideas from Japanese kaiseki and French dégustation for plating to keep things simple and efficient. My customers were happy and business was good. Dining at Jade had to be reserved three months in advance. Jade was a breakthrough for me.
Two years later, Tung Lok opened My Humble House at Esplanade — the national performing arts centre. This time we followed gǎnjué (Mandarin, “feeling”) and went full-scale. We invited a Chinese artist to oversee the concept design: black, blue and silver colours with a bit of gold, dim lights, long table, jazz music, all individual plating menus with wine pairing. We set the right stage for our food, and let the ambience and presentation enhance diners’ experiences.
Initially our local customers were not used to this style of dining. But slowly, My Humble House became an icon for modern Chinese cuisine. The Business Times and The New York Times praised the restaurant for its food and modern aesthetic. My Humble House was an experiment. It was so successful that we branched out into six cities in Japan, China and India.
My Humble House at Esplanade
My Humble House was a unique dining concept that fused art with modern Chinese cuisine. The dishes had creative names like The Passion that Lasts, Knows No Bounds (清酸辣花蟹羹，一树樱桃带雨) which was hot and sour broth with crab meat and ginger flower.
During my days with Tung Lok, Andrew always supported my travel overseas as a guest chef. I was given another title, “Corporate Chef”, to represent the Group to explore business opportunities during my travel. He believed it was good publicity for Tung Lok, and that it would also provide learning opportunities for me. I travelled to meet chefs around the world, learnt about exotic ingredients and brought them back to try in my kitchen.
No matter how fancy the ingredients are, I set a simple rule: appetisers and desserts can be bold and experimental, but the main courses must be Chinese — the Chinese way of cooking and the Chinese taste. From a customer’s perspective, one must know what one is eating; one must truly enjoy the food, and the food must remind one of the Chinese cultural roots.
You have had the honour of serving some famous public figures, such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew, former US presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, and Queen Elizabeth II. What were these experiences like? Did you have to incorporate western culinary elements into some of the dishes to please their palates?
Oh, in fact, it was very easy to serve VVIPs, because a few days before the actual meal we would have been briefed on what they liked to have, and we had plenty of time to get it right. For example, when Queen Elizabeth came to the Fullerton Hotel in 2006, I was told the Queen just wanted to have fish that was healthily and simply prepared, and she didn’t want it spicy. I just steamed a filleted cod fish, and served it with some clear chicken broth for her.
As a general rule of thumb, we don’t use ingredients such as shark’s fin, fish maw, sea cucumber or bird’s nest for westerners. They are delicacies for Chinese, but westerners usually find them too “exotic” for their tastes.
An Asian culinary icon
Sam Leong is the founder of Michelin star restaurant Forest at Equarius Hotel in Singapore, and has cooked for public figures such as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, former US presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, and Queen Elizabeth II of England. In 2019, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Gourmet Awards.
In your opinion, what are the main differences between a Chinese chef and a western chef?
Let me give you some examples. In my younger days, I was once in Paris with my wife Forest, and we stayed at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. We went for dinner at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in the hotel. While we were eating, we were surprised to see Alain Ducasse himself coming to each table to greet every guest. That gesture made the guests feel overwhelmingly honoured. As a result, the guests appreciated not only the food, but also the chef as a person. In Chinese culinary tradition, chefs are heroes in the kitchen but they don’t interact with customers directly. I changed that — I greet my guests in my restaurants.
In western fine dining, the dishes are served without additional sauces by the side. The concept is simple: the chef dictates the taste, and a dish is the final product from the chef with the optimum taste. But in Chinese restaurants, soy sauce, vinegar, chili oil, pepper powder, and other condiments are all on the table for diners to add if they choose. In our Chinese cuisine restaurants, these sauces are not provided at all. When customers request them, we have to explain the concept to them.
When you received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Gourmet Awards in 2019, you said you were inspired by your wife’s passion for teaching, and you hoped to impart to others not only the skills of innovative cooking but also the essence of food and hospitality. Could you tell us more about your passion for teaching?
In the 10 years with Tung Lok, with Andrew’s support, I achieved a lot, including having my own reality shows, a few cookbooks and a biography. However, I also know I owed my family a lot. I spent too little time with them. I still remember my dad’s last words to me when I was only 24: in life, after we have achieved much, we need to know when to let go.
I left Tung Lok in 2010 without a plan in mind. At that time, Forest was teaching Thai cooking classes at PA [People’s Association, Singapore’s grassroots organisation]. She enjoyed teaching very much and she was very popular among her students, especially the housewives and the elderly. So, we decided to start a cooking school to offer cooking lessons during weekends.
A few months later, I received an invitation from Resorts World Sentosa to be a consultant for one of its new restaurants. As a consultant, I would need to plan kitchen layout, design dishes and train the chefs. I accepted the offer, and the restaurant was named after my wife, “Forest”.
From then on, I started doing more consultancy work. Many clients are from Europe and the US. They need to set up Chinese cooking stations inside their kitchens. I help them do the planning and recommend Chinese chefs to them. In a way, I see myself helping other Chinese chefs in their careers and using my knowledge and experience to make Chinese cuisine accessible to more western diners.
A family of chefs
Sam’s late father was a renowned Cantonese chef and his mother used to run her own chicken rice stall. His wife, Forest, is a Thai chef and his son, Joe Leong, is a budding pastry chef. Photo: Sam Leong: A Family Cookbook / Marshall Cavendish
If you were to name two chefs you admire most, one from the East and one from the West, who would they be? Why?
For a Chinese chef, I would say Martin Yan. He is a famous chef and a good presenter. Through his TV shows, he helped to promote Chinese cuisine worldwide.
From the West, it would have to be Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. His name is associated with “molecular gastronomy”, “culinary foam”, and he is famous for his “deconstructivist” cooking style.
Restaurant businesses slowed down substantially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. What is your plan going forward?
I was diagnosed with stage-four nose cancer in 2016. I stopped all my work and went for treatment. I recovered, but I slowed down a lot. I spent more time with my family.
I have two grandsons now, so Forest and I will be busy taking care of our grandchildren. We are very contented with the life we have now.
CHEF SAM LEONG
In 1994, at the age of 28, Chef Sam Leong became the executive chef at Jiang-Nan Chun at the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore. From 2000 to 2010, he helmed the Tung Lok Group’s Chinese restaurants as its corporate chef. After leaving the Group in 2011, Chef Leong devoted his time to culinary education, his restaurant Forest at Resorts World Sentosa, and consultancy work. He has also starred in television cooking shows, appeared in international food events, mentored young chefs and cooked for guests from all walks of life.
On 1 March 2021, Sam Leong, Singapore’s very own celebrity chef, and his wife Forest, shared with us their life stories, especially his culinary journey in modernising Chinese cuisine.