When we met chef Simpson Wong in front of his restaurant in New York City's West Village, he was carrying bags of fresh produce from the nearby farmers' market. This is a daily occurrence at Wong, the "Asian locavore" eatery the Malaysian opened in 2011.
Born and raised in a rainforest on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Wong took a decidedly indirect route on his way to becoming a well-known New York restaurateur. He was a banker in his homeland, an official at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and even an international liaison for Penthouse magazine before professional chef seemed a possibility.
Food was always a constant in Wong's life — from his mother's cooking in the village to the dinner parties he threw as an adult for his own pleasure. And ultimately, his foray into the restaurant business happened by chance. In 1996 in New York, while walking on 10th Street between 6th and Greenwich Avenue, Wong came across a place for rent.
"It was a dream for me to have a tiny little place that I can have friends come and hang out and eat my food," the self-taught chef said. "The restaurant took off and it’s been there for 17 years now."
That was Cafe Asean.
Wong then proceeded to open Jefferson which scored two stars on The New York Times and was featured in the television show Sex and the City. Celebrities flocked to the restaurant, which regularly had a line of limos outside its front door. But with two booming restaurants came longer hours, and an unhealthy lifestyle. In 2005 it all caught up to Wong, when he suffered a heart attack at the age of 41.
"I was trying to think what actually contributed to the heart attack," Wong said. It was partly the stress level, he concluded, but also an incredibly high intake of cholesterol on a daily basis. Wong was saucing at Jefferson, which served New American cuisine with French influences, and he was tasting all of the sauces that went on the dishes. "If I’m tasting a teaspoon of the sauce at a time, by the end of the night I would have consumed about a whole stick of butter," he said.
Jefferson closed soon after but the heart attack didn't stop Wong's passion for food. He took the opportunity to travel across Southeast Asia with his mother and explore different cuisines and styles of cooking.
Wong's new healthy lifestyle coupled with his Asian adventures inspired him to become a locavore chef. And his namesake restaurant in the West Village became one of the pioneering spots in the city for dishes made from locally grown ingredients.
In the video above, we sit down with the ever-smiling chef to learn more and see him making Lobster Egg Foo Young, one of the signature dishes from the Wong kitchen.
Simpson Wong was one of the guest chefs at Asia Society's Celebration of Asia Week gala dinner on March 18 in New York City. For photos of the star-studded event, click here.