A Former United Nations Official Turned...Chef?
A self-taught chef, Simpson Wong has created a name for himself in the Asian culinary world with his ability to integrate various global influences into his cooking. Having a strong appreciation for clean simple flavors, Chef Wong prides himself on using fresh organic produce for his market-to-table menu. With two restaurants already under his belt, Jefferson and Café Asean, Chef Wong's latest endeavor, Chomp Chomp focuses on showing New Yorkers the authentic taste of Singaporean hawker food with dishes like Hainanese Chinese Rice and Crispy Chicken Wings. In this episode of LUCKYINSIDER, we delve into the mind of a chef who is bringing the hustle and bustle of Singapore's hawker stands to the calm streets of the West Village:
LUCKYRICE: Is there a special meaning behind the name 'Chomp Chomp'? How does it tie into the philosophy behind the restaurant?
Simpson Wong: Chomp Chomp is the name of a legendary hawker center in Singapore. Growing up in Malaysia, my family would make frequent trips to Singapore and I would enjoy noshing on the fantastic hawker food there. I recently traveled to Singapore to get further inspiration and reacquaint myself with my roots and with hawker food. Revisiting Chomp Chomp greatly inspired me and helped me bring my roots to the West Village with my personal interpretations of rustic Singaporean street food including BBQ Stingray and Fried Hokkien Noodles.
LUCKYRICE: All of your restaurants have been in the West Village - what draws you to this neighborhood?
Simpson: I just love the West Village. It is such a wonderful neighborhood with great energy and has an always evolving scene, especially in terms of dining and friendly people. The architecture of the side streets and little lanes also make it such a fun neighborhood to explore.
LUCKYRICE: You've been cooking in NYC for a couple decades now - how has your cooking evolved? How have your customers' palates evolved?
Simpson: I have always been a believer in using the freshest, locally sourced ingredients. I always did at my previous restaurants, Jefferson and Wong, and currently at Café Asean. I try to travel to places like Long Island to source seasonal ingredients to feature on the menu.
In terms of customers, they are as savvy as ever. They demand great food and fresh ingredients. I also think diners are leaning towards unfussy, uncomplicated food. Great service is also very important to customers.
LUCKYRICE: Because of all the various ethnic influences that define Singapore, do you consider its cuisine to be inherently "fusion"?
Simpson: I think Singapore and Malaysia hawkers invented the word "fusion" way back in the day before it even became popular. But seriously, I think Singaporean hawker food and food culture in general is so incredibly vibrant and rich because of the cross-pollination of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and Eurasian influences. The word "unique" gets overused but I feel it applies to Singaporean hawker food because there is nothing like it. The amalgamation of all these flavors from these ethnic groups has created remarkable dishes that continue to enthrall globe trotters and gastro-travelers.
LUCKYRICE: What do you think draws people to Singaporean cuisine?
Simpson: The flavors, the fresh ingredients, and the heady meshing of cultures and influences that stretch from the Arab world to the Pernakan ethnic community is enticing. Slurp down a plate of Char Koay Twoe or Fried Hokkien Mee and you will understand!
LUCKYRICE: What is an ingredient, unexpected, but essential, to Singaporean cooking?
Simpson: That is very hard to pinpoint. When our forefathers first landed in Singapore and Malaysia, they had to use all of their ingenuity and skills from their motherlands to develop dishes and utilize whatever resources and ingredients they had. All these exciting confluences of ingredients from local meats, vegetables, and spices, along with dishes from all over the globe, came together. So when you look at hawker food now, it has so many ingredients, like belacan (shrimp chili paste derived from krill), chilies, and so forth. This is what makes hawker food so exciting - it's that constant innovation and use of fresh ingredients that appeal to people's taste buds.