Coming from a family of chefs, Joe Leong is making a name for himself with Sonder
Chef Joe Leong’s earliest memory of being in the kitchen goes way back to when he was in kindergarten. Before mealtime, he would help his mother to prepare beansprouts. With both parents — Sam Leong and Forest Leong — making a name for themselves as celebrity chefs, the younger Leong remembers his parents being busy during public holidays as they worked in the kitchen.
Joe recalls that his parents initially did not want him to have a career in the kitchen, but he saw it as a natural progression and eventually found his passion in food.
In this interview with Options, Joe shares more about his past, present and future.
What made you want to start on your own?
Previously, I was with V-Dining, which closed during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the lockdown, I had ideas of opening my place — at first, something small, perhaps a café. But the owners of Sonder approached me to take up the role of head chef, and I was intrigued.
As the head chef at Sonder, I had the opportunity to overlook the whole restaurant’s design, hiring staff, and sourcing equipment. I have the freedom to do many things around here, and of course, I have a lot of backend support from the owners.
What is Sonder?
Sonder is pronounced as “zonder”, a German word that means “special”. And that is why our tagline is “a special kind of dining”. Our speciality here is Euro-Asian cuisine, which marries European cooking techniques with Asian flavours.
Since I am in charge of the menu creation, I want diners to experience my nostalgia. I instil a lot of nostalgia into my dishes because these are the familiar flavours I grew up with. For example, the Risotto with Roulade of Chicken and Spring Onion Pesto is my take on traditional chicken rice. I grew up eating chicken rice because my grandmother used to work in a chicken rice stall when I was young. It is also my father’s favourite thing to eat, such that sometimes we would drive to Malacca just for chicken rice balls.
How did your previous experience bring you here today?
I have been a chef all my life. It started when I was about 16 or 17 and my father got me a job at Janice Wong’s 2am Dessert Bar. At first, I admit that I didn’t have a passion for what I was doing; I just looked at it as another job.
I remember my parents telling me not to go into Chinese cuisine because of the long hours and how I would sacrifice my holidays. I won’t be able to see my family much. My parents did not want me to follow them down that same road. So, since I was somewhat ‘OCD’, my father suggested I try my hands at desserts and fine pastries, and that was when I joined Janice.
I appreciate chef Janice for her guidance, as she didn’t see me as just the son of Sam Leong. She made me work, and as I learned, my passion developed. I think this happened about three years into the job.
After that, I joined chef Ryan Clift at The Tippling Club. Back then, I did not tell anyone about who my parents were because I did not want to live in their shadow. But one day, my dad popped into the restaurant to “visit his son”, and my cover was blown. Chef Ryan was also a great mentor, and he respected me for not using my parents’ names to buy favours.
Later, I joined Forest in Resort World Sentosa, where my dad was also the culinary consultant. This was my first stint in Asian cuisine, and it was not easy. Next, I went to V-Zug and was a Gourmet Academy Chef, where I taught cooking classes and provided private dining. Then, when V-Zug started V-Dining, I was asked to join. I wanted to try something different, and I came up with the dessert menus there.
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What is your cooking style like? Who are some of your inspirations?
My cooking style is quite adaptive and nostalgic. I want my diners to feel the comfort I feel when they eat my creations. I want to tell them a story of my past through my cooking. I don’t cater to my customers’ taste profiles but mine and my family’s.
I take inspiration mainly from my parents. My mum, who is Thai, cooked most of the food I grew up eating, and you will be able to experience that in some of the dishes here [at Sonder]. My dad specialises in modern Cantonese cuisine; some of that is also in my creations. I still take advice from my parents today on bringing out the flavour in my dishes.
I also take inspiration from my past mentors, who have shaped me into who I am today.
Joe draws inspiration from his parents and mentors for his dishes
What does home-cooked food taste like to you?
Home tastes like chicken macaroni. Growing up, I was a sickly kid. I would fall sick easily and hardly have any appetite to eat. My meals back then were mostly soups, noodles and chicken macaroni. When I have chicken macaroni, I don’t recall the sickly experience but the simple comforts.
What is your speciality dish to cook for the family?
Lasagna and potato gratin. My wife loves my lasagna and potato gratin since I’m not home often because of work. When I have the time, I will sometimes cook a big batch and freeze it for my family so they can eat it whenever they want.
What is your relationship like with your parents today?
My parents are still working today, but they are not very active. Since I started my own family, my relationship with my parents has improved.
When I was younger, I hardly saw my father because he was always in the restaurant kitchen, while my mum did most of the cooking at home. When I started working, our relationship drifted apart because we were all working long hours and hardly had time for each other, and even though we lived in the same house, we hardly saw each other.
Today, things are much better. I realised that I could always approach them for anything. And I have realised that time is so important. So, I try to spend as much time as possible with my family — my wife and kid, as well as my parents. Now, I can see that my parents are trying to give back to the family, helping to take care of my kid.
How do you juggle your personal life, family and work?
It’s not easy, especially with my wife being pregnant again. When I’m not at work, I will try to give all my free time to my family. I will spend time with my wife and son on my days off, taking the family out and ensuring I am there for them.
I also love watching movies. When I have time, I’ll watch a movie or rewatch one. I’m also a music buff, and I play the guitar. My son loves it when I play the guitar.
Sonder is a two-in-one bakery bistro by day and an omakase restaurant of Euro-Asian flavours by night
Hidden dining gem
Tucked away in the industrial Henderson area is Sonder, miles away from the city’s hustle and bustle. This hidden gem of a restaurant marks chef Joe Leong’s first independent outpost, bringing to the Henderson locale a two-in-one bakery bistro by day and an omakase restaurant of Euro-Asian flavours by night.
During the day, expect an entire repertoire of freshly baked bread, viennoiserie and sweet treats, and an ala carte lunch menu. From 12pm to 5pm daily, find house creations like the Butter Brioche and Flavoured Focaccia, alongside items from the viennoiserie carrying butter croissants, Kouign Amann, pain au chocolate and fresh fruit tarts.
Sweets and desserts also do not disappoint with items like chocolate bonbons, lemon meringue tart, apple crumble and more. Whole cakes are also available with a four-day pre-order.
For lunch, dig into dishes such as the Beef Pastrami Sourdough Sandwich ($20) and Whole Pork Knuckle by Grandpa Pin ($45), which is also great for sharing between two to three pax.
Options had the chance to enjoy lunch at Sonder, and some favourite dishes include the Risotto, Roulade of Chicken, Spring Onion Pesto ($20), which is chef Leong’s take on the local chicken rice dish, as well as the Red Ruby ($15), which showcases his Thai heritage.
During the evening, fixed-course menus set the pace, with prices starting from $88 for four courses to $188 for nine courses. The dinner menu features dishes that borrow the best local flavours from Singapore, reinterpreted into contemporary fine cuisine with Leong’s creative cooking m ethods.
Some unique dinner dishes include the starter of Aubergine, Red Curry Sorbet, Pearl Onions, and Sun-Dried Cherry Tomatoes, which features a Thai-style red curry made into a sorbet and served with aubergines. For the mains, the Barramundi, Steamed and Fried, with Garlic Lime Jus; and the Kurobuta Pork Collar, Burnt Apple, and Coconut Glaze were delightful highlights showcasing the chef’s passion and creativity in his cooking.
Sonder also offers a set lunch menu starting from $30 for a two-course menu to $45 for a three-course menu.
217 Henderson Rd,
Tel: +65 6513 4502
Photos: Albert Chua/ The Edge Singapore
Food pictures: Sonder