Masterchef Asia Woo Wai Leong on alcohol, cooking and Singapore’s national dishes

masterchef asia winner close-up with weeloy

Credits: @woowaileong

For Woo Wai Leong, winner of the first season of Masterchef Asia, food is something that should be constantly evolving.

“Take chilli crab for example,” the 29 year old says. “The sauce that you get is simply a mix of tomato sauce and chilli sauce – there’s zero effort to make it more unique, or to elevate it.” Leong goes on to talk about how the national dishes of other countries are constantly being updated and reinvented – and how Singapore should also be “upping the ante” on what we consider our national dishes.

Cooking techniques aside, F&B businesses should also take a look at how they structure their teams, says Leong.

masterchef asia woo wai leong close-up

Credits: @woowaileong

“If I were to start a restaurant, I would completely break down the old hierarchy,” Leong reveals. “You could potentially merge the bartender, the person at the front of the house, and the person at the back of the house into one person – that’s how I’d do it.”

This would mean investing more into training and nurturing talent, but Leong contends that it’s a good way to retain valuable employees. “Especially for the current generation, people need to be fulfilled at their jobs, and one way of achieving this is to broaden their skillsets and help them learn new things.”

“If you have a great chef that’s working for you, you can add value to him by teaching him how to bartend. Then he has a choice – he can choose to cook on some nights, bartend on others – and he can help out if one of the bartenders can’t make it, so it’s really a win-win.”

For Leong, alcohol and food have always been closely intertwined, something that was evident in the countless occasions he incorporated alcohol in his dishes at Masterchef Asia.

masterchef asia woo wai leong close-up with weeloy

Credits: @giffardasia

“I cut my teeth as a bartender – that was back when I was working as a trainee at my law firm,” he says. “It was rough, but immensely fun and very exciting. I started from the ground up, polishing glasses, and learning as I went along.”

If he were to reinvent the Singapore Sling and to make it his own, Leong says he would take the iconic drink’s existing flavours and turn them on their head.

“It tastes very tropical and very sweet now – I think that’s a bit of an obvious choice, so I would do something creamier,” he says. As he starts describing the drink, he gets more animated: “I’d do a cherries jubilee – so that’s cherries flambéed in liquor, giving you that burst of heat and caramelization, and then maybe some ice cream to go with the bitters as well.”

Inspiration is clearly not something that’s hard to come by for Leong – it’s the subsequent testing and refining of ideas that is more problematic.

“I have tons of ideas in my head – in fact, I think I need a separate laptop just for work, so that I can keep track of everything,” he says. “If I could have an entire kitchen dedicated to testing – that’d be the dream.”

What’s next in store for Leong? He’s currently working on a series of short how-to videos to encourage people to start cooking. Leong says that he aims to debunk the misconception that cooking is a chore – and to show his audience that they can “cook smart”.

masterchef asia woo wai leong close-up with weeloy

Credits: @woowaileong

At the same time, Leong is also working on the next installment of his pop-up restaurant, Meeting Of The Minds, which he says is fueled by a desire to push the boundaries of f&b. Dates aren’t confirmed as of yet; but fans who are eager to try his food may get their updates via his website, and book a table when the schedule is out!

Follow Leong on his culinary journey and learn more about any events or pop-ups he may be doing through his Instagram account, @woowaileong