On his days off, 54-year-old Leong Chee Yeng trades his toque and chef’s whites for a t-shirt and clay-spattered apron before settling in front of a potter’s wheel, his face a picture of furrowed concentration as he throws and pulls clay into bowls and vessels. It is an expression mirrored when he slaves over the wok. For Leong, the art of making ceramics is tied with his passion for cooking. “There are two fires lit within my heart,” he shares. “One is a fire for cooking, one is a fire for pottery. Both are linked by fire, and both are intricately connected to the dining table.”
Outside of the kitchen, the chef spends his time at 3Arts Pottery at Telok Kurau, surrounded by greenery and nature. “When I’m working on my pottery, whether it’s a cup or a bowl, I am always thinking about the food it will hold as well. Just being here in this environment is a constant source of inspiration for me,” he says.
Guests at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore’s Jade restaurant where Leong is Chinese executive chef would be familiar with his work—the 120-seater restaurant is lined with his pottery masterpieces from lifelike sculptures and painted vases to earthen tea pots and dishware. Leong has made over a thousand pieces since he first began dabbling in ceramics more than two decades ago.
The chef’s aesthetic is raw and organic. Though carefully refined and requiring great craftsmanship, each piece feels freshly unearthed, evoking the natural texture of stone and clay. Leong shares that his love for nature and creating things out of his own two hands drives his cooking as much as his pottery. When not in Jade’s kitchen, he might be found pottering about the hotel’s herb garden where he grows and harvests fruit and vegetables like curry leaf, basil, green chilli and passionfruit. “Using produce I have grown in the dishes I create makes it even more wholesome.”
At work, the chef’s creativity manifests itself in his cuisine that is inspired by art, history and diverse cultures, all firmly grounded in classic Cantonese traditions and techniques. He draws on the heritage hotel’s rich history to create signature dishes such as the Singapore Heritage-style Stewed Soon Hock and delves into the city’s street food culture for innovative dishes like xiao long bao dumplings filled with peppery bak kut teh soup.
As an artist and a chef, a principle Leong adheres to is taking the time to set the foundation and get the basics right for everything that he puts his hands to. “Throwing and pulling clay is the hardest part, you need to have a firm foundation otherwise it is more likely to collapse as you continue,” he explains.
“Similarly, you cannot rush through cooking. I always encourage my team to take a bit more time to put together a good dish before serving it to our guests. That’s a common thread through my pottery, cooking, and even my life: this pursuit of perfection."