May 18, 2009
the monday interview with Yong Bing Ngen
Fired by passion
The never-say-die spirit of the award-winning Majestic chef-owner got him where he is today
By huang lijie
Chef Yong Bing Ngen was Singaporean even before he became one.
The Malaysian-born chef- owner of Majestic Restaurant and Majestic Bar in Bukit Pasoh Road and Jing at One Fullerton has always harboured the Singapore dream of owning landed property.
He says: 'My hope has been to have my own land, a place where I can grow plants and rear fish without space constraints.'
So, when the right house came along last year, he turned in his blue permanent resident identity card for a pink one.
His over 2,000 sq ft bungalow in Kembangan, which was purchased for $1.4 million, is one sign that he has arrived.
Here are three more: At the recent World Gourmet Summit, he won Chef of the Year, Asian Chef of the Year and the Workforce Development Agency's WSQ Most Supportive Mentor Culinary Chef, the last of which means the most to him.
'It means that the effort I put into grooming young cooks has not been in vain,' says Yong, 43, adding with a laugh that the title more than makes up for his failed childhood ambition of becoming a teacher.
Far from carving a career in academia, he dropped out of secondary school only to stumble into his real calling: cooking.
Born the eighth of 10 children into a working-class family in Kuala Lumpur, his father was a duck farmer and later a goods delivery driver. His mother was a housewife.
He excelled in primary school but his grades in secondary school nosedived because he was weak in Malay. Aware that he had little chance of passing his secon- dary school leaving exams, he left school at the age of 16 and jumped at the first job offer as a helper at his brother- in-law's zi char shop in Genting Highlands. There he cleared tables, washed dishes and swept the floor.
One day, a month after his move, he found his goal in life. It was not a heavenly dish that seduced him but the culinary feat of cutting chilli.
He says: 'The chef must have sensed that someone was watching him so he looked up from the chopping board. But his knife never stopped chopping and he didn't cut his fingers. I was so impressed that I decided I was going to become a chef.'
So he became an eager apprentice with no 'shi fu' or master. He had to first pay his dues from the very lowest rung in the kitchen.
With the help of an older brother, then a cook in Kuala Lumpur, he landed a kitchen help position at the now-defunct Choi Yuen, an 800-seat Cantonese restaurant in Sungei Wang.
'It was tough and tiring and the job was not well respected,' he says. 'Tsui fong lou', a derogatory term in Cantonese which literally means kitchen man, was his nickname.
He was so embarrassed about how sweaty and dirty he would be at the end of a work day that he would drag his clog-shod feet home, 3km away, instead of taking a public bus to avoid offending others with his stench.
Yet he persevered, like a junior Shaolin monk fetching pails of water up the mountain.
Eager to learn, he would show up at the restaurant an hour before everyone to wash dirty kitchen towels that had been soaking overnight in pails and make morning tea for the staff even though these were not his duties.
As a reward for his diligence, he jumped six positions to that of a cutter during his three years at Choi Yuen.
He went on to work at various hotel restaurants including the Palace Hotel in Kota Kinabalu and Ming Court Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
In 1988, he finally found the shi fu at whose feet he would learn to become a great chef. At Kuching Hilton's Chinese restaurant Toh Yuen, he worked under executive Chinese chef Leong Mun Soon.
Sam Leong's father his mentor
Yong recalls of his mentor: 'He often said that before a chef can cook good food, he needs to build up good relationships with everyone in the team.
'And he would befriend people in other departments of the hotel too - housekeeping, purchasing, engineering and so on - because they support the running of a restaurant. For example, you need housekeeping to provide you clean table linen, purchasing to get you the best produce and engineers to repair equipment in the kitchen.'
He could have been Leong's disciple- cum-surrogate son, just like in a gongfu movie of old, except this shi fu already had a son in the business who was born in the same year and same month as Yong - celebrity Chef Sam Leong, currently Tung Lok Group's corporate chef and director of kitchens. Both the older and younger Leong worked at Toh Yuen.
Yong later followed the Leongs to Novotel Bangkok's Lok Wah Hin restaurant as a sous chef. There, he met his future wife, Watchara, now 40. The Thai national was then a hotel service staff. They got married in 1992 and have a son and daughter, aged 15 and 13 respectively.
When his shi fu died in 1992 at the age of 61, he found a new mentor in the younger Leong, whom he calls his 'hao lao da', big brother in Mandarin.
'Whenever he left a restaurant to work at another one, he would prepare a position for me at the new place and I'm grateful to him for that.'
He spent 15 years working under the younger Leong and enjoyed a smooth- sailing career at Chinese restaurants such as the Four Seasons' Jiang Nan Chun and Jade at the Fullerton Hotel where he rose to the position of executive Chinese chef.
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, he struck out on his own, leaving the cosy warmth under Sam Leong's wing in 2003 to be executive Chinese chef at Raffles Hotel's now-defunct Empress Room.
'All along, I had my career path paved for me by the chefs I worked under. I wanted to see if I could forge my career on my own merit.'
It may be tempting to read a certain rivalry between Yong and Leong because of their shared history but both deny it.
Leong, who was World Gourmet Summit Chef of the Year in 2005 and Asian Chef of the Year in 2001, 2002 and 2004, says: 'Chefs of my father's generation might get angry and upset when a good staff member leaves, but you can't ask somebody to stay with you forever.'
Similarly, Yong says he has never felt he was in Leong's shadow: 'I was comfortable with my position in the kitchen and my superiors recognised my capability. Also, as Sam's second-in-chief, I would be in charge when he travelled for work. In fact, when I bump into Sam now, I will hug him.'
To which Chef Leong responds: 'I don't hug people. I'm not used to it. But when Chef Yong hugs me, I hug him back.'
He adds that he is proud of Chef Yong's achievements: 'He's a boss now and I'm just an employee, so I feel happy for him.'
The journey to owning his restaurant has been fulfilling but not easy, says Yong.
When Empress Room closed down in 2003, he was transferred to the hotel's fusion restaurant Doc Cheng's, where he struggled as head chef. (The hotel had turned down his request to be demoted to sous chef.)
He was a fish out of water who expressed befuddlement when his assistants asked him to check for the doneness of steak and when he learnt that the 'uncooked rice' was actually risotto, a dish he had not heard of previously.
'But the cooks under me were patient enough to explain things to me. And as much as they taught me, I tried to share with them my Chinese cooking skills too,' he says.
Thankfully, that fusion food fiasco ended in 2004 when he moved to helm Pan Pacific's Hai Tien Lo restaurant and made a name for himself with dishes such as wok-fried Boston lobster with citrus cream sauce and double-boiled sea treasures with black truffle soup.
In 2005, Mr Loh Lik Peng, owner of the New Majestic Hotel, approached him to be an equal partner in Majestic Restaurant.
As he did not have enough cash on hand to invest in the business, he borrowed $100,000 from Mr Loh.
And if the restaurant failed?
He says: 'I joked to Lik Peng that my life was all I had and he could take it. But seriously, I said $200,000 was the most I could return him if I pooled together my savings, cashed out insurance policies and sold off my bungalow in Malaysia, which I bought years back and rented to my sister to run her kindergarten.'
The opening of the modern Chinese restaurant two weeks before Chinese New Year in 2006 was inauspicious: They had hoped to cash in on the festive spending. Instead, Yong ended up sending the staff home after lunch on the third day of the New Year holidays because there was not a single reservation.
Apparently, the restaurant's location was obscure and the hotel was still undergoing renovation.
He says that things turned around three weeks later when a positive review of the restaurant by Straits Times Life! food critic Wong Ah Yoke was published in the newspapers.
The restaurant then broke even in six months and he paid back the $100,000 to Mr Loh.
Buoyed by the success of Majestic Restaurant, he decided to open a second restaurant with Mr Loh.
With his savings from Majestic Restaurant, he ploughed $500,000 into the $1.5-million upscale Chinese restaurant Jing. It was scheduled to open by the middle of last September to coincide with the inaugural Formula One Singapore Grand Prix.
He says: 'We were all excited about Jing's opening. Then Lehman Brothers collapsed and the global economy went downhill. But we went ahead with the opening nonetheless.
'There were days last year when Jing would get just 10 to 15 diners at meal times. But things have picked up since.'
To draw the crowds, he rolled out value-for-money promotions including its popular $36 weekend a la carte brunch buffet.
He says: 'Jing hasn't broken even yet, but we're surviving well and we'll keep on working hard.'
That never-say-die spirit of his, that is his true Singaporean colours showing.
my life so far
'Lo mai kai (glutinous rice with chicken), roast meats and char siew bao (honeyed pork buns), which I used to eat with my father after we made our rounds delivering ducks to eateries in Kuala Lumpur's city centre'
On his comfort foods
'In life, you succeed not because of your own greatness but because you have few enemies'
On the successes he has enjoyed in his career
'I treat my work every day as a performance and I always aim to do my best, whether or not the spotlight is on me'
On his work ethic
Big on sports
Professional figure skating and running a restaurant might have little in common but not to Chef Yong, who loves sports.
A former school badminton player, he says: 'If Majestic Restaurant did not take off, I'd bow out gracefully the same way American Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan did when she pulled out of the 2006 Winter Olympics because of an injury.'
Indeed, he peppers this interview with sporting analogies, and by his own admission, uses sporting metaphors in the staff pep talks he gives. He finds the metaphors helpful in conveying the importance of team spirit in a restaurant.
'When something goes wrong, I tell my staff it happened because they didn't play like a team and were not vigilant enough, so a goal was scored against them.'
While his busy work schedule prevents him from following sports matches - which is why he does not root for any one sports team - he manages to watch some on TV at least once a week and he plays badminton with friends whenever he gets an opportunity and sneaks in a few laps in the hotel swimming pool when he travels for work.
His favourite sports programmes include the quadrennial football World Cup, the Olympics and NBA finals.
He adds that he often pays more attention observing the coaches than the players.
He says: 'My role as a chef- owner is similar to that of a football coach who oversees and directs the team while the head chef, like a football captain, leads the team onto the playing field.'
He admires Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United.
He says: 'He has an eye for spotting talented players even when they are young. As a chef, I hope to be able to do the same, to see the potential in young cooks and cultivate them to become future culinary stars.'