His dad is Michelin starred. Chef Joe Leong is trying to step out of his shadow
What happens when a child follows in the footsteps of a famous parent like Chef Sam Leong? There are tribulations and also poignancy, as On The Red Dot discovers.
SINGAPORE: At almost every birthday celebration and graduation ceremony of his when he was younger, Joe Leong did not get to spend it with his father.
That was life growing up with a father on top of his game as a well-known chef.
They did not even celebrate Chinese New Year as families usually do, because they were operating a Chinese restaurant and that was the busiest time of the year.
“(My father) would bring home a dish of yusheng, run to everybody’s door (and start knocking) … ‘Wake up! Come out and eat something,’” recounts Joe.
“All of us would (go) to the kitchen or the dining area. We’d lo hei — just a very quick supper — then go back to sleep.”
For dad Sam Leong, the working day was 8am to midnight. And that was his life.
“The kitchen or home — there are no other places I go to,” says the celebrity chef, whose Forest restaurant in Resorts World Sentosa is Michelin-starred. “I can’t do much (else) because my responsibilities at work (are) too much.
“That’s why I never wanted my children to come into the culinary (arts).”
So when his younger son wanted to be a chef too, he not only disagreed but also was “so angry”, Joe remembers.
After nine years now working in the kitchen, however, the 26-year-old no longer has to worry about gaining his father’s approval. Instead, what he is trying to do is step out from under his father’s shadow.
WATCH: My celebrity chef dad didn't want me to be a cook (4:23)
The programme On The Red Dot finds out what happens when a child follows in a famous parent’s footsteps. (Watch the episode here.)
RUNS IN THE FAMILY
Being a chef was actually not what Joe expected when he was in school. His interests were in tennis and music. But one day, his father sat him down and talked about “shelf life”.
“Because in music and tennis, it isn’t easy to make a name for yourself. Let’s say I make (a career) in tennis, what can I do? Tennis coach? I didn’t see myself doing that,” he says.
“(Or) you might play music for 50 years till you die. No one would notice you at all. So he said, why don’t you try something more stable?”
While his father “didn’t know why” he ended up in the same trade, it was what he was exposed to, he points out, “ever since I was born”.
“I grew up in a family of chefs. My grandfather was a chef,” he says. “My aunty, my uncles (were) all somewhat … in the food and beverage industry.
“My mum and my grandmother were always in the kitchen cooking. I’d usually sit inside the kitchen … waiting for food.”
So that was also how he grew up — watching his parents cook. And it rubbed off.
After his O levels, he started out in pastries at 2am:dessertbar by Janice Wong. It was his father, having eventually accepted his choice, who guided him towards that first job in 2010.
“I went in with zero knowledge, but I went in with connections,” he admits. “People said, ‘Oh, just because you’re Sam Leong’s son, you got into this place very easily. Oh, you rise up (through the ranks) so quickly.’”
What people did not see, he says, is how he tried to live up to expectations. “(If) people worked eight hours, maybe I worked 12 hours … Definitely, it was hard because of the pressure,” he adds.
My social life (was) gone … My friends — almost all of them — I’ve lost touch (with) already.
But he has not looked back. He went on to Swissotel the Stamford and Fairmont Singapore, InterContinental Singapore and the Tippling Club, specialising in pastry and dessert.
“I do every single thing, from production to regular cakes to fine dining dessert,” he says.
‘CAN’T ESCAPE’ HIS BACKGROUND
When chef Lee Jing Peng first met Joe in 2016 at the Tippling Club, “he was very quiet and shy”. But his skill spoke for itself.
“He really grew a lot … and he came up with all his desserts that wowed customers. He (transformed) the chocolate tart into a modern interpretation that no one expected. How could a chocolate tart be so nice?” Lee effuses.
After working as a junior sous chef at Forest restaurant, Joe joined V-Zug’s V Dining restaurant in July and now manages its pastry. He is also in charge of its high tea, which includes the theme and the desserts, explains head chef Lee.
It is not only what he makes, but also how he works that has earned him his boss’s respect.
“Chef Joe has a kind of charisma. When something’s very boring, he can make it very interesting. No matter how bad his day is, he still smiles,” says Lee.
“I can’t even do that, honestly. If I get angry about some mistakes that my staff do, I’d flare (up) at them. But he doesn’t … He’d still patiently teach you to do all the things he wants you to do.”
Even as Joe is beginning to make a name for himself, he admits he “can’t escape” his family background. “Many people (go), ‘Oh, you’re Chef Sam’s son. Oh, you must be very good,’” he cites.
Lee has seen this too. “Some guests come in and say, ‘Chef Joe Leong? Leong? Is (he) Chef Sam Leong’s son?” Then they’d (be) like, ‘Wah, I finally get to see you in real life,’” he describes.
“He feels a little bit reluctant to answer because people tend to ask a lot of questions.”
Wherever his father goes, says Joe, people notice him. It is a reputation he has built over 30 years — one he has also been acclaimed for in past Channel 8 shows, like Star Chef and King Of The Kitchen.
In fact, he was still the reason his son got into V Dining.
“Chef Joe was introduced by Chef Lee … I rejected him because I didn’t know about Chef Joe. But later on, I came to know that he’s Sam Leong’s son,” discloses Angeline Yap, V-Zug’s managing director for Singapore and Southeast Asia.
(Sam) is a very humble guy and very down-to-earth, even (though) he’s won Michelin stars. I can see the similarities (between Joe) and his father. That’s also one of the main reasons I hired him.
“Whenever we introduce (Joe), we’d say that he’s Sam Leong’s son because … everybody remembers (Sam)," she adds.
By his own admission, Sam is “not a dessert fan”. But when he got the chance recently to visit his son at work, and make pastry together for the first time, he was “impressed” with Joe.
This, coming from a man who is the “boss” and “king”, so “everything he says must go”, his son says with a laugh.
“Usually, when I ask him for advice on cooking, he’d be very strict about it. So for pastries, he has to do it my way already. So it’s something different, something good,” Joe adds.
What his father discovered is that making pastry “needs a lot of patience” and is “a bit (of a) different culture”. Sam tells him: “It’s my blessing to have desserts from you.”
Spending time with his two sons — the elder one is a teacher — is something the 53-year-old tries to do more nowadays.
It was three years ago, at a check-up, when he was found to have nose cancer. And the details are still fresh in Joe’s memory.
“My mum gave us a call. My mum said, ‘Oh, your dad has cancer.’ A week later … he told us the news: Stage 4,” he recalls.
The diagnosis “shook the whole family”, says Sam, who quickly went for chemotherapy treatment. “This was the first time in my career that I did nothing,” he adds. Every day after treatment, (I just) came back (to) rest.”
Only then did he also notice the view from the balcony of his home of 18 years. “My God, I could see Chinese Garden, I could see Jurong Point — which I didn’t have time to do (before),” he recounts.
They thought he might be gone in a year, but he pulled through, and they “grew closer as a family”, says Joe, who is now married. “We’re still busy with our jobs, but we try to spend more time together.”
Uninterrupted sit-down dinners, for example, are not as rare as they used to be. “It (didn’t) happen more than five times,” Sam reckons.
(When) Joe and his brother were in school, halfway through dinner, (there’d be) one phone call and … I’d need to go back (to work).
“Cancer may have been a signal … that I should slow down a little bit to appreciate (life) more," he adds.
Joe calls him a “role model” who is “very passionate” about his work, and hopes to achieve “something similar”. But mum Forest points out that her younger son “has his own talents” and a “different mindset” from his father.
“Joe has found his own way and … we’re very proud of him,” she says. Sam agrees, adding: “I didn’t teach him what to do. I just gave Joe some (guidance).”
It may have been tough when younger to understand his father’s absence, but their bond is strong. “He taught us (not to) give up halfway, (to) try to focus on one thing, work hard (and) be humble,” cites Joe.
“He gave us shelter; he gave us food; he gave us a nice life.”
Watch the episode here. On The Red Dot airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.