Taking Penang Chinese cuisine abroad

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From South Korea to Sri Lanka, one master chef is spreading the joy of Penang Chinese food.

At 51, Andy Leong is currently the executive Chinese chef at the exclusive Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, the latest position in a long, eventful culinary career that’s taken him all over the world. A classic “Penang Boy Makes Good Overseas” story, Leong is also part of the new celebrity chef wave, serving as chief judge on Thailand’s Iron Chef competition. You’d think he’d have nothing to prove anymore at this point.

But here he is, sitting with us at Gurney Paragon one morning, ready to fly back to Bangkok later in the day, having just completed a press tour for his most recent achievement: leading a team of Penang chefs to the gold medal at the third Thailand Culinary World Challenge

2015. His team was named by a panel of judges as the Best Country of Origin Cuisine Team and overall champion, and the press tour was a victory parade of sorts. Malaysia had sent teams in the first two competitions, both of which came home empty-handed. Until now.

It turns out that in spite of his stature, Leong still regularly takes part in cooking competitions – something he’s been doing since the early 1990s. But he insists that he’s not out to win as many awards or titles as he can: “You think I’m hungry for a medal? I want my children and the younger generation to see what you can still do at my age.”

Leong’s journey with food started at a very young age, when he helped sell hokkien mee in Chowrasta Market in the 1970s. He would get up at 7am to push the stall cart from Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah to the market, and helped to sell until 1pm. He could earn 50 sen a day (RM10 in today’s money, he estimates).

His mother was a food caterer, and Leong describes how, when he was older, he and his father would help distribute her food in tiffin carriers after school on their motorcycle.

Leong went to St Xavier’s Institution until Form Five in 1976, where he excelled in athletics but not his studies. In fact, after his first day of the SPM exams, he was told he failed his Bahasa Malaysia paper, so he didn’t bother showing up for the rest of the exams. Instead, he immediately took a job with a building contractor with the aim of paying his mother back the RM150 cost for the SPM exams. The money was good, and when he was done he had quite a bit left over. “I didn’t know what to do yet, actually,” he said.

But after some recommendations from his chef uncle, he found himself working in a Chinese restaurant in KL, Jade Garden, which was right next to Pudu Prison (“Where they hung Botak Chin!”). He found himself working long, ungodly hours, having to go to work at 4am to help prepare the dim sum. It wasn’t so bad, he reasoned. “The chefs worked at 2am or 3am to prepare the recipes, you know!” He toiled away in the kitchens, until he eventually worked his way up to assistant chef, third wok.

“Do chefs nowadays know how to process a sea cucumber or shark fin?” he asked. “Nowadays junior chefs don’t know. I consider myself very lucky. Give me a shark, and I can process it for you. Give me a whole chicken that’s running without its head, I can kill it for you. Give me a pig that’s still running around, I can kill it for you. We all needed to learn how to do that. Back then no one was going to supply you with chicken drumsticks!”

After three years with Jade Garden, he worked in various Chinese restaurants before getting the opportunity to work at Ramada Renaissance in Hotel Columbo, Sri Lanka, as the junior sous chef of the restaurant’s Szechuan cuisine, where he had to help the head chef run the kitchen, train the staff, write the Chinese menus in English and learn to cope with the occasional bomb threat (this was during the Tamil Tigers era). After a brief stint in Singapore, he ended up back home in Penang in 1988, working at the Penang Mutiara Beach Resort, then the most exclusive hotel in Penang.

“It was one of the richest hotels I’d ever worked in,” Leong recalled. “I started as a sous chef in the seafood restaurant, then four years later I was promoted to Chinese executive chef.” He would soon find himself running not one, but two restaurants in the hotel: The Catch and the House of Four Seasons, which served fine dining Chinese cuisine in Cantonese and Szechuan style. He would stay with Mutiara for 11 straight years. This posting also allowed him to travel to other countries to promote Mutiara and its cuisine.

Mutiara, according to Leong, was still a strong, reputable hotel at the time, but an offer from the Mandarin Oriental in Jakarta came up. Leong, 31 at the time, felt that it was time to make a move. He still had housing loans to pay off, and he would be getting married the following year. In 1998, he was running Mandarin Oriental’s Chinese restaurant, Xin Hwa, but it didn’t last long – the financial crisis struck South-East Asia, and Indonesia in particular was hit hard. The country was in turmoil, and Suharto would soon resign. It was a particularly dangerous time, especially if you were foreign, or Chinese.

But Leong managed to get himself transferred to the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, thanks to the strong recommendation of his general manager.

It was there that he was exposed to a whole new level of hospitality, with general manager Kurt Wachtveitl pushing his staff into offering the very best service to its guests.

“To work in the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok,” he said, “is like carrying a big stone every day. If a guest comes to your restaurant, you have to remember who they are for a week, until they leave the hotel. Mandarin Oriental is one of the hotels that can bring up the name of Bangkok – bring up the name of the Mandarin Oriental (brand).”

Leong would eventually leave after five-and-a-half years. He helped launch the Marco Polo restaurant in the Grand Intercontinental in Seoul, South Korea, and then worked at various hotels and restaurants in Penang. He returned to the Mandarin Oriental brand, this time working at a Chinese restaurant at its Chiang Mai branch. And after a brief stint with Intercontinental Asiana in Saigon, Leong was back at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, where he still runs the China House Chinese restaurant to this day. (We are told his durian pancakes are a speciality.)

Bringing his cuisine to so many different countries means he has to tread a fine line between staying true to his food while adapting to the local palate. He would study the country’s culinary history and sample their foods before planning his menu. Leong says that in his menus, he tends to change up to 25% of his recipes to suit the locals.

“The sweet and sour sauce has a little red in it, but if the country I’m working in likes it brown, I have to modify it. If they like theirs spicy, I can change it. If they like fruit at the end of their course, you better give them fruit. Don’t try to be clever and give them mango pudding – you will fail. And if the country wants halal food, you better remember-lah. But it all comes back to the taste.”

Leong plans to stay with the Mandarin Oriental, but he still has dreams of opening his own Chinese restaurant in Penang – one that will be linked to Chinese opera, which his late father took part in. He has ideas of how to incorporate classic opera costumes into the restaurant’s design, making sure that the restaurant is purely rooted in his own personal history. He believes this will happen within the next two to three years.

In the meantime, he has plenty to keep him busy. He believes in the importance of regularly taking part in cooking competitions (“What are other countries doing now? What is the world doing now? Here you can see for yourself, and then you can give them a challenge.”), and he has Iron Chef to preside over. He’s also in talks to create a television programme to explore the history of classic Penang cuisine (“I plan to call it Lost and Found.”) For Andy Leong, history is always at hand.

By Jeffrey Hardy Quah



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