Top chef Sam Leong battles nose cancer

Chef Sam Leong with the mould of his face and body used to ensure that he did not move during his radiation sessions. He has put photos and a congratulatory red packet from his mother on it.
Chef Sam Leong with the mould of his face and body used to ensure that he did not move during his radiation sessions. He has put photos and a congratulatory red packet from his mother on it.PHOTO: COURTESY OF SAM LEONG

Celebrity chef Sam Leong is planning how to improve his one-Michelin-starred restaurant

Singapore celebrity chef Sam Leong of the one-Michelin-starred Forest restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa has opened up for the first time to say that he was diagnosed with stage four nose cancer in February.

In an interview with The Straits Times, the chef-consultant, 50, says he completed chemotherapy treatment last month and is on the road to recovery.

The "lemon-sized lump" behind his nose, as Leong describes it, has drastically reduced in size. He will have another review in October and hopes to be back at work by then.

"But I won't be able to 'chiong' like last time. My body is weak and I'm always tired," he says, using the Hokkien word for "rush" and to work hard.

Leong says he had no clue or symptoms of his condition. His only concerns were a persistent cough and fever, and a blocked ear.


Chef Sam Leong with the mould of his face and body used to ensure that he did not move during his radiation sessions. He has put photos and a congratulatory red packet from his mother on it.  
PHOTO: COURTESY OF SAM LEONG

 

"I was travelling every week and the air pressure in my ear would take a day to clear. I mentioned this to the doctor, who advised me to see an ear, nose and throat doctor."

It was an anxious week-long wait for the doctor to confirm the diagnosis, he says, and plans were made swiftly for him to start chemotherapy sessions after the diagnosis.

While he has not had severe side effects from the chemotherapy and radiation sessions, his tastebuds and appetite were affected.

He says: "When the chemotherapy started, everything I ate, like watermelon and mango, tasted bitter. Then, for the past two months, everything is salty. The water I drink tastes like seawater."

But he could taste the yong tau foo he ate for lunch last Friday, he adds cheerfully. "So I'm definitely getting better. I don't feel pain or side effects like fainting or bloating."

Leong had stopped working after the diagnosis, although he remained part of the team of chefs who prepared the gala dinner for the Michelin Guide Singapore's launch last month.

He says: "I had committed to doing the dinner, but with my situation, the team took over the recipe and cooked for the guests that night.

"I couldn't even promise to be at the ceremony. What if I had collapsed on stage?"

Leong, whose restaurant is known for serving contemporary Chinese cuisine with Thai influences, was at the Michelin ceremony to the end.

For a Chinese restaurant to be recognised by the Michelin Guide is an achievement, he emphasises, and he had waited for the moment for more than two decades since starting his culinary career.

"I am so proud to be included in the Michelin Guide alongside my chef-idols from Europe such as Joel Robuchon. It is a big thing that Chinese cuisine is recognised alongside more well-known ones."

Initially, his 76-year-old mother took the news the hardest as his father had died of liver cancer.

Leong says: "She was okay when I told her about it. But soon, we realised she was losing weight. Then, when she noticed that I could cope with the chemotherapy, she became more positive."

His 46-year-old chef-wife Forest - who runs cooking classes - also remains upbeat about his recovery. She runs the restaurant with their team while he is resting at home and they have discussed how to improve and retain the Michelin star.

She says: "It's normal for us to be shocked, but we have been positive and supportive of him. I wanted him not to travel so much so that he goes for treatment regularly."

Their sons, aged 25 and 23, accompany Leong for meals or chemotherapy sessions, she adds.

Leong also hopes his experience can help to motivate others.

He says: "I've met people who have gone through cancer and hope to encourage others to be positive and strong.

"Cancer is not the end."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'Chef is recovering from cancer'. Print Edition | Subscribe