Guest Chef: From Singapore to Amherst, the Long Way

Guest Chef: From Singapore to Amherst, the Long Way

Willie Sng brings a world of culinary experience to Umass Dining.

Favorite Dishes

Chili Crab with baguette, Laksa (a noodle dish with coconut curry that is a Singapore specialty)

Favorite Dishes to Make When His (Now Grown) Sons Come Home:

Veal chops with a creamy truffle sauce

Favorite Boston Restaurant:

Penang

Favorite Amherst Restaurant:

Siam Square

Hobbies:

gardening, growing flowers

Willie Sng took the scenic route from his native Singapore to become executive chef of dining services at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Most of the stops were while Sng was with the Westin hotel chain. Later, he served as executive chef at Miami (OH) University, and also managed a B&I cafeteria before joining UMass in 2003.

Sng started at the bottom with Westin, as a desk receptionist in Singapore, before enrolling in the company's three-year culinary apprenticeship program.

He served as sous chef at Westin's Montreal Bonaventure Hotel for five years, then five more at the Bonaventure in Edmonton as executive sous chef before landing at the chain's crown jewel property, the Los Angeles Bonaventure, as executive sous chef.

Later, he managed his own Westin culinary operation as executive chef in Cincinnati, where he worked on major corporate events for locally headquartered companies like Procter & Gamble. He also started his own contract management company, which operated the cafeteria at the local Miller Brewing plant for some 1,200 employees.

At UMass, Sng oversees retail operations, four dining halls and campus catering while also working with Director Ken Toong on UMass' annual Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference and its college chef exchange program.

Why did you get into this profession?

I thought working the front desk was boring. Plus, you were the one on the firing line who faced the music from customers. I wanted to do something more exciting that would also let me travel. Then it hit me: ‘If I learn to cook, I can travel the world, and learn different cuisines!’ That's when I decided to go to the hotel school.

Were you interested in cooking before that?

I first learned to cook Peranakan, the traditional cuisine of Singapore, with my grandma. Peranakan is very interesting in that it is a fusion of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisines. But unfortunately, because at the time I was more interested in soccer than cooking, I didn't learn nearly as much from her as I could have. This is something I now very much regret.

Canada must have been interesting…

Montreal is an amazing city, but a lot colder than Singapore! I was there for five years, then the company offered me an opportunity to be executive sous chef in Edmonton, where I spent another five years in the mid-80s and became one of Wayne Gretzky's fans. [Ed: Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers were an NHL dynasty at the time]

Any special celebrity-related memories from your days in Los Angeles?

I did the Grammy Award dinners two years in a row. Also, I remember doing an event for Elizabeth Taylor and her AIDS foundation at the Page Museum.

How did your cafeteria contracting business come about?

I had a friend working at the local Miller plant who told me they wanted someone to run the cafeteria. We started doing just breakfast, but then took over all three meals. I did that for about nine years until they pushed me to add the third shift. I thought that was too much and put my foot down. Soon afterwards, I sold the business.

Any big lessons from that experience?

The big difference between Westin and what I was doing at Miller was that I had to watch my bottom line a lot more because now it was my own business, out of my own pocket. Also, I had to make sure that whatever food I put out, the employees liked it and that it was cost effective for me as well.

How did UMass come about?

Ken [Toong] had asked me to do a Peranakan cuisine presentation at the 2002 chefs conference because he knew my background. Later that year, I assisted him with his chancellor's inauguration dinner, which was for 1200-1300 people. Three months after that, he asked me if I would like to come work there and I said, ‘Well, if you take care of me, I will take care of your program, okay?’ I've been here ever since.