Chef Alexander Ong is the chef-owner of Betelnut Pejiu Wu in San Francisco. Born and raised in Malaysia, he apprenticed at the Shangri La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur for four years before coming to the United States. Recently, Chef Ong and other Betelnut owners announced an exciting change to the entire restaurant concept; on March 11, Betelnut will transform into a new restaurant called Hutong featuring Chinese, Malaysian, and Vietnamese street food inspired by the hutongs, alleys and backroads of Asian cities. JoyFoodly wishes Chef Ong great success in this new venture. You can read all about the restaurant’s upcoming debut here.
JoyFoodly: Tell us about your first food memory. What do you remember about it?
Chef Ong: I was probably about 6 or 7 years old and I had just lost a fight with my sister (she denies it), but my mum had separated us and took me into the kitchen and sat me on a stool. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was making chicken curry and asked me to help her stir the sauce while she prepped and added more ingredients. The smell of the “rempah” (aromatics – shallots, lemongrass, garlic), the way the spices get folded into it, the sizzle, the eye watering punch of the chili paste, the feeling of the fatigue in my arm from stirring and the determination to see it through. I was hooked, and from that day on I always volunteered to help her in the kitchen.
JoyFoodly: What about food inspired you to make it your career?
Chef Ong: My dad told me that everyone needs to eat and as a great cook, I would never starve because my skills will always be in demand.
JoyFoodly: Imagine your best friend is coming to dinner tomorrow night. They are bringing their 9-year-old child with them. What would you want to cook for them?
Chef Ong: I like to keep things simple. Poached whole Gulf prawns, Roasted Snake River Farms Kurobuta pork collar, roasted cauliflower with bits of chili flakes, roasted garlic cloves and lots of parmesan, Chinese garlic noodles with lots of fried curry leaves and Dungeness crabmeat and for dessert a warm apple pie and lots of Humphry Slocombe creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream.
More about Chef Ong
Before Betelnut, Chef Ong was recruited by the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead Atlanta to travel throughout the United States working on assignments for the company. In 1995, he moved to San Francisco, where he worked with Chef Jeremiah Tower at Stars for three years. Though he was trained in classical French cooking, he decided to return to his Asian roots and opened Le Colonial’s kitchen and then Xanadu in Berkeley, where in 2000 he was named Rising Star Chef by the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a member of the Culinary Institute of America’s Asian Cuisines Advisory Council and serves on the Advisory Board for Asia Society of Northern California.