Dining at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has been setting trends for years under the leadership of Ken Toong. Right now, Toong is especially excited about a new hire, award-winning Chef Alex Ong, Director of Culinary Excellence. Ong, born and raised in Malaysia, started working in the U.S. for Ritz Carlton, then moved to San Francisco where he worked with legendary California food icon Jeremiah Tower at Stars before opening Betelnut Pejiu Wu as chef and managing partner. Ong has guest blogged for the San Francisco Chronicle’s food section, consulted with various onsite foodservice programs and is now getting used to the different climate (complete with “the white stuff falling from the sky”) of Massachusetts and campus dining. We asked him about both his past and future.
Q: How did you come to meet Ken Toong? I know you’ve been featured at past chef conferences at UMass…
A: I met Ken at the World of Flavors Conference at the CIA at Greystone. He attended one of my presentations and came up to introduce himself and invited me to the UMass Chefs Conference and also as a guest chef on campus.
Q: What shaped your decision to come aboard at UMass as Director of Culinary Excellence? Did you move to Massachusetts from California or were you living somewhere else?
A: Campus dining is a field I have not really covered in my career. The challenges are enormous and I get a chance to help shape the next generation of informed consumers. How many chefs are given that opportunity? I am truly honored. And yes, I moved from California to Massachusetts.
Q: What are some immediate challenges on your plate in this director role? What are some long-term goals you have in mind?
A: Trying to absorb it all and understand which, what, where, who and why. My ultimate goal is to create a global food culture that encourages an environment for students to understand and learn about different cultures and perhaps create the urge for our young people to want to go out and explore our world.
Q: How have you approached getting to know staff and the campus community?
A: Listen…let them speak. Understand where they come from, what their challenges are and getting the big picture. UMass is a big place. There are a lot of moving parts and getting to know and understand the working mechanics and culture is an important place to start.
Q: What has the adjustment been like from one coast to another? How are people different would you say? Are kitchens and chef different?
A: I miss my farmers and the availability of fresh produce year-round in California. It’s starting in a fresh, new environment with new friends, new coworkers, a new home…and the white stuff that falls out of the sky in winter! People are not necessarily different than on the West Coast. It’s just the more laid-back environment here and everyone has been so welcoming and helpful. That meant a lot to me. We have a lot of wonderful and talented chefs here in the kitchen and the area. Sure, I miss the food scene in California, but I’ll appreciate it more when I go back to visit.
Q: Which recipes from Betelnut have you brought with you for campus dining? Or is it more general ideas?
A: It’s more of a general idea. I will let things settle down a bit. There is so much happening on campus with the dining program. Once I feel that the major initiatives are in place, I will start to introduce more fun food. Perhaps a late-night street food market. You never know!
Q: How has your culinary sensibility changed since you opened Betelnut?
A: I have definitely grown from my days at the Nut. I have more patience…realizing that I cannot build Rome myself in a day. I have to build a team, be clear in our mission and allow them to challenge themselves and be there for them when they need me as a guide and give them the tools that they need to succeed every day.
Q: What’s your favorite food to make at home?
A: Hainan chicken rice, either poached or roasted. A dish that demands skills and attention to detail to make. Clean tasting, simple ingredients…humble dishes but with an explosion of flavors and textures in the mouth. Comfort food that keeps me grounded.
Q: When you worked with Jeremiah Tower, what was your impression of him?
A: JT is my mentor. We still keep in touch through Facebook. Everything that you saw in “The Last Magnificent” [a film about Tower’s life] is true, and then some. Stars [Tower’s iconic post-Chez Panisse restaurant in San Francisco] was that magical place unlike any place I have ever worked. The star power, the team in the kitchen, the champagne and how he worked the room to make everyone feel like a million bucks. It’s the only restaurant where you could see a gentleman in shorts and a T-shirt enjoying caviar on buttered buckwheat blinis sitting next to a gentleman in an Armani tuxedo chowing down on a hotdog.
Q: What was it like working for someone so larger-than-life? Now that he’s getting more recognition, it seems like people are appreciating his contribution to that whole California scene. How do you see echoes of that continuing?
A: I learnt a lot from my three years there. Just when you think you got a dish down, JT would taste it and tell you it needs this or that and boom! It tasted that much better. He’s truly the father of California Cuisine. He embraced the Asian and Mexican flavors and ingredients with the Mediterranean, French and American cooking techniques. And it was done right and the food speaks for itself. “Make it fabulous and not look like cat vomit, please,” [Tower would say]. That still rings true in my ears every day.