Foodie Confidential

Foodie Confidential: Joe Leong follows celebrity chef dad Sam Leong's footsteps into culinary world

Like his celebrity chef dad Sam Leong, Joe Leong is going the culinary route, but he is gearing up to be a pastry chef

Eight years ago, when chef Joe Leong told his father, home-grown celebrity chef Sam Leong, that he wanted to follow in his footsteps, he did not expect the outburst that ensued.

The lanky 24-year-old recalls: "My father got so angry and asked why I wanted to 'suffer' in the kitchen when I could further my studies."

He was then taking his O-level examinations and was mulling over his future.

But his decision should not have surprised his parents - after all, he comes from a family of chefs. His parents helm contemporary Chinese fine-dining restaurant Forest in Resorts World Sentosa and also run a food consultancy and catering business. His late grandfather was a renowned Cantonese chef and his grandmother ran a chicken rice stall in Johor.

Having spent more than three decades in the kitchen, the older Mr Leong, 52, was all too familiar with the harsh realities of becoming a chef, including long working hours in a hot and rigorous environment.

The next day, when he had calmed down, he laid out the culinary options for his son. Working in a Chinese restaurant was ruled out as he was "a weak and sickly kid" who did not have the strength to heave huge pots and woks over the fire.

Being a pastry chef was a more viable option as the work was lighter and involved "making more delicate and refined food".

When learning how to make desserts, chef Joe Leong was told his hands were less warm and so were suitable for crafting chocolates.

After completing his studies at Yuan Ching Secondary School, the younger Leong plunged headlong into the culinary world at age 17, "with zero knowledge" of making pastries as his parents specialise in Cantonese and Thai cooking.

Instead of attending pastry school, his father helpd him secure apprenticeship stints at 2am: dessertbar in Holland Village and at Resorts World Sentosa. He also worked in the pastry sections at InterContinental Singapore hotel and Pollen restaurant in Gardens by the Bay.

The younger chef Leong immersed himself in the world of desserts, from crafting chocolate art to pulling melted sugar to turning out tarts and cakes for large- scale events.

"I enjoy the precise art of pastry- making," he says. "With desserts, I can create a lasting impression before a meal ends."

Last year, he made his foray into cooking. His pastry stint at The Tippling Club in Tanjong Pagar Road required him to double-hat as a junior sous chef.

He says the transition into the hot kitchen was "fun but very tough".

He also had to grapple with the added pressure of having famous parents in the food and beverage world. His Thai mother Forest, 48, is also a chef and co-runs the family's food business. His older brother, 26, is between jobs.

Leong says: "Because of my background, people assumed I knew the basics of cooking, such as working the stove or filleting a fish. I had to bow my head to ask chefs to teach me and learn as fast as I could."

However, he is determined to step out of the shadows of his parents. "I had to work harder and longer hours to live up to the higher expectations that people had of me. But I love the challenge."

He showcased his cooking prowess with his parents and grandmother at a cooking event last week to launch Quorn, a meat-free product made with mycoprotein that is produced by fermentation using a fungus.

After leaving The Tippling Club last month, he now helps out at his parents' business, working on consultancy projects and events.

The bachelor relishes "research and development" sessions in his home kitchen, from dehydrating any ingredient that he finds to smoking ice cream over oak wood chips.

What was it like growing up in a family of chefs?

There was always food around as my mum would get me to taste her food and ask for my opinion.


    My grandmother's double-boiled chicken soup, my mum's larb moo (Thai minced beef salad) and a Chinese-style salmon dish by my dad.

My dad hardly cooked at home. If I wanted to eat his food, I had to go to his restaurants. The only time he did was when he brought home premium ingredients, such as A5 grade Toriyama wagyu or abalone to experiment with.

Growing up, what is a fond food memory?

Whenever my brother or I fell ill, our mum would make a snack, skewered banana and cheese slices. It was a sweet and salty perk-me-up.

How supportive are your parents of your cooking career these days?

They are very supportive. My dad made a surprise visit to The Tippling Club with chicken soup, which was heart-warming. Once in a while, my mother would also bring food for the kitchen staff if she had a food event nearby.

What is your goal in the F&B industry?

I hope to run a small restaurant by the age of 30. The menu will focus on the play of textures of ingredients, for example, presenting chilli crab in the form of a puree and cracker.

What are some of your favourite eating places here?

I grew up eating chicken nuggets and Double Quarter Pounder burgers from McDonald's and while I was working in restaurants, my work would often end at 3am, so I would have fast food thrice a week.

I also like Koh Grill & Sushi Bar in Wisma Atria for its Shiok Maki topped with sweet and sour mayonnaise.

Do you have a sweet tooth?

Not really. I cannot finish a full serving of dessert or pastry as I eat a lot of them as part of my job. I prefer sour food, such as green apple- flavoured sour strips, as it whets my appetite.

What are your favourite ingredients in the kitchen?

I like to add smoked paprika to pasta and burgers as it makes the food tastier. For desserts, I like adding citric acid to sorbets and ice cream for a sour treat.

What is your guilty pleasure when it comes to food ?

I can finish two tubs of Haagen- Dazs strawberry ice cream at one go while watching movies.

What is your favourite dessert to make?

I love making chocolate bonbons, especially adding alcohol such as whisky to them.

When working at 2am:dessertbar, I was told that my hands were less warm, which made them suitable for crafting chocolates. Making chocolate is therapeutic as you cannot rush the process.

Who is the better cook - your dad, mum or grandmother?

This is a very difficult question as they are all very different cooks. My dad is on another level as he has a lot of crazy ideas and his cooking is out of this world.

If I want seafood, I would have my mum's cooking. I like her steamed garlic prawns with spring onions and steamed soya sauce red snapper. For Cantonese soups, it would be my grandmother, who brews soups such as lotus root and pork ribs once a week for the family.

If you could dine with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

Former radio DJ Rosalyn Lee. I am a fan of hers and used to listen to her on the radio when I was working at 2am:dessertbar.

Once, I served her a dessert there with trembling hands as I was rather nervous. I would like to make up for that encounter.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 17, 2017, with the headline 'Cool hands for chocs'. Subscribe