Sam Leong’s biography Defining a Culinary Icon may have been on bookshelves since last June, but Singapore’s very own celebrity chef reckons he has more than a few chapters left in what has already been a life packed with achievement. At 48, he is busier than ever.
Asked why he chose to issue a biography at this stage, he says he wanted “to share with the younger generation who are looking forward to coming into the food and beverage industry”. He wanted to demystify the life of a chef but also “tell everyone that the kitchen is not about glamour but hard work and long hours”.
With over 26 years of culinary expertise and innovation, Leong has a diverse range of experiences to share and numerous lessons to impart to aspiring chefs. He credits his father, a Malaysian chef, for his grounding in the culinary world. “I’ve learned the basics of Cantonese cuisine from my father as well as very important moral values,” he says.
Many have deemed his dishes fit for the world’s most famous public figures. He has cooked for Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, former US presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth II of England. Naturally, Singapore Airlines chose him as the first Singaporean in its International Culinary Panel of world-renowned chefs. But it was his foray into television as a chef mentor for cooking competition shows for three years, coupled with his published cookbooks, that brought him fame as a celebrity chef.
His signature dish is the Wasabi Prawn, which he credits for making him famous all over the world. He describes it as deep fried and crispy. He says: “Everybody loves deep fried food. This one is coated with wasabi mayonnaise. It both crispy outside and yummy inside.” He created the dish in 1989 in Novotel Bangkok, while he was the Chinese chef at Lok Wah Hin Restaurant. It was there that he met his wife, Forest. He jokes: “My wife was then an attached apprentice. I was the boss, so my instruction was, marry me or get fired.” He also presented his Wasabi Prawn at the American Food and Wine festival in LA in 1997 organised by chef Wolfgang Puck. “Everybody loved it there,” he says.
Sharing the knowledge
Three years ago, after his 10-year stint working for Tung Lok, a group of restaurants in Singapore, Indonesia, China, Japan and India, this driven chef boldly set out to open Sam Leong @ Forest Pte Ltd, a food and beverage consulting company. “As a Chinese chef, I’ve already fulfilled my goals, received awards, written cookbooks, travelled the world and done television shows,” he says. Now he aims to help his wife, Forest, fulfil her dream of opening a cooking school.” Forest Leong grew up in Thailand, assisting her father, a traditional Thai cuisine chef. Together the husband and wife chef duo have been running Forest Cooking School since November 2010.
“Even though we only teach at weekends, it’s all about careful planning and preparation on weekdays,” he says. “We are professional, so when Forest is teaching Thai dishes I am her assistant, and vice-versa.” Another collaboration is the book Home Cooking with Sam and Forest. He says: “I have four cookbooks and Chef Forest has two, so we decided to combine both our cuisines together last year in one cookbook.”
At the school the two chefs always try to transform restaurant dishes into home-cooked meals. “The reward has been having students gushing when they are able to cook for their families after learning from the classes,” says Leong, beaming a satisfied smile. Their cooking classes attract a mix of all kinds of professionals, including some lawyers and doctors.
Rising to a challenge
Leong opened his own restaurant, called Forest, on February 2012. This three-storey restaurant at Singapore Resort World’s Equarius Hotel is aptly located within a natural forest in Sentosa. Despite his experience, this venture poses new challenges.
He explains: “While working in a hotel, I did not need to worry about rental. I just had to make sure the food cost was in line and we satisfied guests’ expectations.” Now, beyond creating the food, this chef has to worry about paying the rent, about building the business and about revenue. One challenge he faces is having his restaurant amidst Singapore’s growing casino scene. “You have to build branding,” he says. “The F&B industry is prospering a lot due to the casinos. It has brought more celebrity chefs to Singapore.”
Leong is a trailblazer in Singapore’s culinary scene but he hesitates to guess what’s next, saying: “it is unpredictable”. But he has noticed one thing. “More and more chefs are going into the media industry, and are becoming recognised.”
With food and beverage clients in Singapore and abroad, Leong is striving to grow his company. “The challenge of being a chef is managing long working hours, and having less time for family,” he says. He’s father to two sons in their early 20s. To unwind, he goes for long drives from Singapore to Malaysia, covering as much as 550km in a single trip. The successful restaurateur wistfully confides: “My dream car is a Bugatti, but I know my dream will never come true.”
Judging by his success so far, it would be wise not to bet against it.
Sam Leong in 30 seconds
At the age of just 28, Leong was the executive chef at Jiang-Nan Chun at the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, later moving on to become the director of kitchens/corporate chef for the Tung Lok Group.
He represented Singapore at the James Beard Foundation Awards in 1999, the Master of Food & Wine Australia in 2002, the Annual St Moritz Gourmet in Switzerland in 2002 and the Flavors of
Asia event at Napa Valley in 2004.
His impressive haul of awards includes Best Asian Ethnic Chef of the Year at the World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence in 2001, 2002 and 2004 and Executive Chef of the Year and Chef of the Year in 2005. In 2008, he won the Five Star Diamond Award and was recognised by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences as one of the world’s finest chefs.