“I Never Looked Back”: Chef Alex Ong

You are considered an Asian cuisine expert but started off cooking classical French cuisine! What’s the story behind that?

When I first started my career as a kitchen apprentice at the Shangri-la Hotel in Malaysia, I was attracted to the kitchen brigade in the Western kitchen. The uniforms were starched and neat. They were incredibly disciplined in the way they worked and their food was amazing.

I refused to have anything to do with my heritage or my own local cuisine. I dug deep into learning everything about classical French cooking and became very good at it. When I finished my apprenticeship, I left for Bermuda because I wanted to see America and the Southampton Princess Hotel was the only place that would hire me.

Eventually I was recruited by the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Atlanta and I was later transferred to their Amelia Island resort property. There were very few restaurants in that area with authentic Asian food. That was the turning point in my life when I decided to start figuring out how to cook food from home. And I never looked back.

Many Malaysian cuisines are seen highlighting peanuts as a complementary ingredient. Can you tell me more about growing up with peanuts in Asia?

Groundnuts, as they are called in Malaysia, were an extremely popular snack when I was growing up. I remember accompanying my parents as they drove around the countryside searching for the best roasted peanuts. Snacks at the movies meant peanuts; both roasted or boiled, or something stinky like fire-roasted dried squid, pounded with a mallet into oblivion, and drenched with a sweet chili-garlic sauce with chopped peanuts.To this day, I can never watch a Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movie without a bucket of boiled peanuts.

How do you use peanuts in your cooking today?

I still use peanuts in a lot of my cooking. I use peanuts roasted or fried, or coated with spices and aromatics, or in braised oxtail soup, or with garlic and chilies, or steaming them with sticky rice in dishes like my Lo Mai Gai (see recipe PDF). Peanuts rank as one of my favorite things to eat and work with.

For years you worked as the managing partner of Betelnut Pejiu Wu in San Francisco. What’s next to tackle in your list of endeavors?

I left Betelnut in 2013, trying to find my next goal. I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the new regulations and how it affects the business model that is our industry today. I believe in a business model that values its employees as its most important asset. I am a firm believer that without the support of my staff, I would just be a dude with an idea.

How can I create a business model that is both sustainable to its investors and also to the staff?  I'm working on it by asking lots of questions, listening to experts, building support, and hoping and dreaming that I can be part of the change in the way that we treat the very people who grow, cook and feed America. I'm all ears and I'm all fired up.

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