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Jade's artist-chef

Sunita Sue Leng
Sunita Sue Leng • 10 min read
Jade's artist-chef
Chef, food sculptor, ceramicist, painter, calligrapher. The skilled hands of Leong Chee Yeng of The Fullerton Hotel’s Jade Restaurant produce haute Chinese cuisine as well as intricate works of art.
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Chef, food sculptor, ceramicist, painter, calligrapher. The skilled hands of Leong Chee Yeng of The Fullerton Hotel’s Jade Restaurant produce haute Chinese cuisine as well as intricate works of art.

"This is a no-water soup,” says Leong Chee Yeng, executive chef at Jade Restaurant at The Fullerton Hotel. He smiles at our quizzical looks, then carefully ladles the steaming broth from a massive tureen into a bowl. He has added absolutely no water in the making of this soup. The tureen is packed with pork, chicken, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes and watermelon, all in neat layers. All the liquid has come solely from the ingredients after four hours of double boiling, he explains.

The soup — flavourful and refreshing — is Leong’s latest creation. Tasked to come up with a dish to mark National Day, he decided to work around a precious Singapore resource — water. The ingredients were chosen for their colours — white and red to reflect the flag — and health benefits, as diners are increasingly watching their diets, Leong points out.

Dishes such as this “no water” soup showcase Leong’s ability to craft something extraordinary out of the most elemental of things. The youthful-looking, 51-year-old Malaysian-born chef, who started cooking out of necessity at 13, is today a leading name in fine Cantonese gastronomy in Singapore, lauded most recently as Asian Cuisine Chef of the Year at the World Gourmet Summit 2016. He rates this as one of the high points of his 30- plus years in the trade, which has seen him receiving 15 or 16 awards, by his count.Leong’s culinary competence has taken him from frugal beginnings in Kuala Lumpur to heritage hotel The Fullerton, where he has helmed its Chinese restaurant for the last decade, turning out dishes that have become classics. These include his black pepper beef tenderloin, a dish he picked up from highly rated chefs at the various fine dining restaurants he cut his teeth at. He then put his signature on it by sautéing diced Japanese wagyu beef á la minute with oven-roasted black pepper, garlic, eggplant, capsicum and onions.

The crux of Chinese cooking, he lets on, is prowess with the wok. Every dish is a manifestation of finesse with the flame: knowing when to toss in ingredients, how to swirl them around the sizzling surfaces, and when to remove them from the heat. Leong’s simmered noodles with Boston lobster, another house special, reflects this. The dish is a twist on KL-style Hokkien mee and is flavoured with crunchy pork lard and dark soya sauce. There is an added kick from the in-house XO chilli sauce with dried scallops. However, the standout is the egg noodles. Fried first, they are then simmered with garlic, lard and seafood stock. “The cooking skill with the noodles is the secret,” says Leong.

Outside of the kitchen, he is just as talented with his hands and has an artistic reper toire that stretches from sculpting to cera mics to painting and calligraphy. His passion for pottery alone has resulted in a staggering collection of over 1,000 works of porcelain art, such as vases and antiquestyle figurines. Where does he keep them all? “ Under my bed,” he says with a laugh.

He did, however, bring out over 30 pieces for his first-ever exhibition two years ago during Singapore’s Golden Jubi lee. Held at the hotel, proceeds from the sale of his artwork were donated to charity. Most recently, the unassuming chef- artist was persuaded to display 18 of his ceramic vases at Jade, which has been given a facelift. The restaurant is now adorned with custom-made wallpaper inspired by a gelatin table centerpiece crafted by Leong, comprising birds perched on a tree. Also on display in the restaurant is calligraphy by the chef listing the various ingredients he uses in his cooking.

Leong displayed a flair for the arts early on in life. At the Chinese medium primary school he went to, he excelled at calligraphy, a form of writing Chinese characters that calls for dexterity with brush, ink and paper. At the school’s annual calligraphy contests, he was always among the top three. By Primary Four, his teacher discouraged him from entering to allow others a chance to shine. However, in Primary Six, the contest was one person short so Leong was asked to take part again. Disgruntled, he put brush and ink to paper at a fast and furious pace and was the first to finish. To his surprise, he clinched the top prize. “When you write fast, the result is better,” he reckons, adding that he is often complimented on his very steady hands.

Gifted as he was, art was not something Leong could afford to indulge in as a child. His father put in long hours in the timber industry and his mother toiled as a rubber tapper. The youngest of seven children, he began finding his way around the kitchen from the age of 13, cooking simple meals such as fried eggs for himself and his mother, as his older siblings had left home.

At 15, he quit school and went to work in his uncle’s restaurant. It was grunt work in the kitchen, where he learnt the basics, such as how to wash a wok. Over the next few years, he worked at different Hong Kong or Cantonese-style restaurants in Malaysia’s capital city, picking up skills on how to roast meat and make Chinese sausages by hand.

Food art
Along the way, he also picked up food carving, which is widely used in Chinese food plating to enhance the aesthetics of dishes. “I would bring the yams and carrots back to my room at night and practise,” he recalls. Soon, he developed a repertoire not just for fashioning vegetables and fruit into eye candy but also for sculpting elaborate and life-like figurines using food. Chocolate, sugar, butter, ice, dough, gelatin — he mastered all media and turned them into objects of art.

Leong’s commitment to his craft saw him consistently putting in 13- to 14-hour days and his uncomplaining demeanour meant he was never short of work. In 1988, he moved to Singapore after getting a call from a friend who told him about an opening in a restaurant that was looking for a chef who could also carve. In the Lion City, he cooked at some of the top names in Chinese haut gastronomy, including Hai Tien Lo at Pan Pacific Hotel, Summer Palace at The Regent Singapore and Meritus Man da rin’s Pine Court restaurant.

He embarked on pottery in 1991 when he was at the Pan Pacific. The hotel had entered its culinary team for a competition and he wanted some special plates. Not wanting to spend money buying expensive china, he decided to make his own. He learnt to do so from his fourth brother, who studied art and currently lives in Melaka and has a pottery shop.

“My first plate looked like the bottom of a shoe,” he recalls with a laugh. Today, his clay work is good enough to be sold. Yet, he remains modest about his artistry and claims that his wife, who is also a potter, is better than he is. “She has a very good eye,” he says. He spends his days off at a kiln at the Kampung Glam Community Centre and also has pottery-making equipment at home.

In 2003, Leong chanced upon a job opening in Dubai while surfing the internet. He flew to the emirate for the interview and was asked to take part in a cook-off. He landed the job as executive chef at Zheng He restaurant at the Madinat Jumeirah, which is the largest five-star resort in Dubai and has over 40 restaurants and bars.

Dubai was an eye-opener for Leong, schooled in traditional Cantonese fare. One challenge was the vastly different appetite for Chinese food in the Middle East. “Half the time, I cooked Cantonese food, but the other half, I had to cater to local tastes. Everything was chop suey. They wanted sweet and sour everything. Even vegetables,” he says. Another dish that was regularly requested was kungpo chicken, a spicy dish hailing from Sichuan made with onions, dried chillies and cashew nuts. A second challenge was that the kitchen had to be segregated into halal and non-halal, from cooking equipment right down to serving utensils.

Still, Leong gives his stint in the Middle East two thumbs up. “Business was very good,” he says of Zheng He restaurant, which was voted Best Chinese Restaurant in Time Out Dubai’s Restaurant Awards for 2006 and 2007. Before the towering Burj Khalifa put Dubai on the global map, it was the luxurious Madinat Jumeirah that drew the tourists, including celebrities and sporting stars. Leong spent four years in the emirate, during which time his daughter, now 13, was born. He also has a son, aged 14.

New look, new dishes
However, Dubai proved to be “too hot, always 39 degree celcius or more”, and in 2007, Leong made tracks back to Singapore. He has been at Jade since. The restaurant recently got a new look and new dishes, but its menu has broadly stayed intact, with eight signature items taking centre stage. These include deep-fried prawns with wasabi mayonnaise, stewed home-made tofu with angel gourd and stewed South African Four Head Abalone in oyster sauce. Soup is de rigeur in Cantonese cuisine and the hallmark here is Jade’s dried seafood in superior broth, for which ingredients are boiled for six hours to produce a fragrant soup from sea cucumber, abalone and dried scallops.

Another crowd-pleaser is the crispy roasted pork belly; here, the meat is tripleroasted for 1½ hours. The difficult part, Leong says, is to make sure the skin is very crispy while the inside is tender and moist during the roasting process. After years of trial and error, he has found that a combination of slow cooking and highheat cooking renders juicy slabs with a crackling top layer.

He and his team have also introduced new dishes to the menu, such as steamed red garoupa with luffa gourd and crispy diced chicken with dried chilli “Nanyang” style, where bite-sized chicken thigh meat is marinated with Southeast Asian herbs and spices and deep-fried. The standout, however, is Leong’s inventive barbecued lemongrass lamb ribs. The meat is marinated with char siu sauce for half an hour. It is then scented with bruised lemongrass and glazed with honey and rose wine before being baked in a hightemper ature salamander grill.

Concoctions such as this and his “no water” double-boiled soup are Leong’s way of expressing his creativity through food. His other creative outlet is pottery. “When I make pottery, everything disappears. It is only clay and me. I feel hoi sam,” he says, using the Cantonese term for happy. There are no rules to follow, only his own. At another time, in another place, in different circumstances, he might have made his name as a ceramicist. But pottery remains a hobby, he stresses, and he plans to keep plugging away in the kitchen. Through cooking, Leong has found a way to fuse his multidimensional artistry with an award-winning occupation.

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, loves writing about food almost as much as eating it

This article appeared in Issue 785 (June 26) of The Edge Singapore.

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