Step into our kitchenPIONEER goes behind the counter of Ampang Kitchen, run by a father-son duo championing Peranakan ingredients and flavours.
// STORY Thrina Tham
// PHOTOS Kenneth Lin
In the Leong household, the men do the cooking.
Their day begins at 7am, when either Mr Raymond Leong or his son, Lance Corporal (LCP) (NS) David Leong, gets up to buy ingredients from the market. It ends at 11pm after washing up from a dine-in.
This is Ampang Kitchen, a private dining kitchen where the two home chefs host meals in their bungalow on Jalan Ampang in Bukit Timah. Their air-conditioned living room is modern and spacious, with 10 seats around a long dining table facing floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook their backyard.
Curious guests may wander to the outdoor kitchen where the real work is done: preparation and cooking of traditional Penang Peranakan cuisine.
A Family Affair
Though many private dining kitchens have popped up in the past year, Ampang Kitchen has kept busy.
It started as a humble home catering business in 2014 and ventured into a dine-in in 2017. Nowadays, the duo host about four dine-ins a week, though they have done 14 days in a row during a busy December period.
Customers range from individuals who take away a single dish for a potluck, to corporate groups wanting to impress their clients with a unique home dining experience.
One dish on their menu, for example, is the banana flower kechai, or salad, that is not typically served in restaurants. Intensive preparation for the dish includes picking out the tiny flower petals and removing the stigma inside each one. The flowers are then boiled before they are combined with prawns, cucumbers, pork and coconut milk for the salad.
Most of Ampang Kitchen's customers come through word-of-mouth. "It's rewarding when customers write good reviews. It lets us know that what we're doing is worth it," said LCP (NS) Leong, 27.
Mr Leong added that while they appreciate feedback, they are their "own best critics".
"We're passionate about our cooking methods, so we don't take shortcuts (when preparing our food)," said the 72-year-old, who is affectionately known as Uncle Raymond to some customers.
For the Love of Food
Cooking Nonya dishes might seem like an unlikely retirement job for Mr Leong — a Cantonese and a chartered accountant of 30 years. Yet, food has always been his big passion in life.
He first fell for Peranakan food at 16, when he tasted Nonya dishes cooked by a friend's grandmother. He then went to Penang to master the cuisine in 2004, paying RM10,000 (about S$4,000 then) to a shifu (master). He learnt how to prepare 74 dishes in 14 days.
"There were no secrets, he taught me everything. We used to tumbuk (pound) ingredients the old-fashioned way; there was no electric grinder. Everything was done the authentic way, with a small fire," he said.
Mr Leong came back and started a restaurant with friends but it did not take off. He finally found something sustainable when he roped in his youngest son to start Ampang Kitchen.
Following in Dad's Footsteps
Though LCP (NS) Leong has Bachelor degrees in Criminology and Marketing, he never had a doubt about joining his dad in becoming a home cook.
"Growing up, he has always been spoiling us with his food. Over time, I realised it's a waste for the recipes and techniques to end with my dad," he said.
"Authentic Peranakan cuisine is a bit of a dying fare; it's tedious and some people are not keen on it. This was an opportunity to hopefully preserve it."
Patience and perseverance are also what LCP (NS) Leong relates to his time in national service.
The Supply Assistant in 922nd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment clearly remembers his first In-Camp Training (ICT) in 2017, where all the serviceman did a 6km route march together.
"I thought everybody would be a bit demoralised, because we didn't expect it to be so physically demanding during our first ICT," he said. "But nobody fell out."
"There was a lot of encouraging and looking out for each other," recalled LCP (NS) Leong on how they pulled through that exercise, which took place outfield at 2am.
"In the end, we were proud that we went all the way."
A dine-in at Ampang Kitchen starts at $60 for a 6-course lunch (for a minimum of 8 people) and $100 for a 9-course dinner (for a minimum of 10 people). The kitchen also offers takeout for its dishes.