Chef Alex Ong, 46, is leaving Betelnut Restaurant this month. There is already a new chef in place, according to Ong. Betelnut briefly morphed into a more casual spot called Hutong earlier this year. The name and concept overhaul stuck for a little over one month until San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer panned Hutong in April. Then Hutong once again became Betelnut. Ong chatted openly about the reasons why he is leaving Betelnut, and is looking to possibly do some restaurant consulting while remaining open to other possibilities that may or may not include another restaurant in the Bay Area.
Ong is an East Bay resident who was born in Malaysia. His food stands out at events like SF Chefs, IACP, and related fundraisers. Cecilia Chiang is one of his mentors and he successfully pulls off adventurous dishes: chicken liver soaked in milk and fried, served with an addictive black pepper sauce; chicken wings with a sambal-tinged dip and the ever popular “recession survival” pig roast feast. In 2001, Ong was hired to head up the kitchen at Betelnut, a popular Cow Hollow restaurant on Union Street. He started his professional career in a giant kitchen operation with 600 cooks at the Shangri-La Hotel and next worked in Bermuda as the chef de partie at the Fairmont Southampton Princess Hotel. Ong worked for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel chain in Atlanta & Amelia Island & served as chef tournant at Caesar's Tahoe. Finally settling in the Bay Area, he served as the executive chef for the Orocco East-West Supper Club, and was the senior sous chef for the much loved Stars & opening chef at the French-Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial. Ong’s comments have been edited for grammar and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: Why are you leaving Betelnut? What happened?
Ong: Nothing happened. Contrary to what people say of Hutong, I have been there a long time, twelve years. It’s time for me to try to look for something for myself. I have two boys that are ages eight and six years old at home. I think it’s important for me to look at things: do I want to be in a restaurant slaving away seven days a week? Or be with my family? I am going to take some time off and just relax and be a dad and a husband for awhile. I really want to take my time and think about what I want to do. I’m not a spring chicken anymore.
I’m 46. I’m an old hag as we say in the industry. Perhaps I’ll do more consulting work. Whatever I do next, it’s not going to be cooking in a restaurant as much. I will miss the rush of dinner and service. It is what it is. I’ve got to make sure that the family comes first. If there’s an opportunity to do something small and fun and I’m able to put a good team together and run a restaurant, I won’t say no.
I am at that age where I am not comfortable with media and attention. I’m more about achieving good food, for people to have fun, and people to come back. At the end of the day, I go home. I am lucky that I have a job that I love and hopefully that I am good at it. I’m continuing to grow and share what I know and I realized there’s a lot of things I don’t know. It’s an unending quest for that knowledge. I went back to Malaysia and was begging my sister, “How did mom cook this?” I was absorbing all of that and it’s who I am. I don’t want to lose that.
Bay Area Bites: Are you staying in San Francisco then?
Ong: San Francisco is always a fun place to cook and work but I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. There’s a lot of opportunity out there. I had twelve amazing years at Betelnut. I walked in and thought “holy moly, this place is a monster.” I have nothing but great things to say about the people that I worked with and worked for, nothing but grateful thoughts for them. I learned so much from them. There are people saying, “Hutong failed.” Shit happens, we all move on. The good thing is that I realized I still have the fire in me to work for eleven weeks straight for ten to fifteen hours a day, and come back with a smile on my face and say “I want more.”
Bay Area Bites: Are there any dishes that you will not miss cooking or seeing on the menu?
Ong: Six months from now, I’ll be craving dishes from Betelut. When you’re away from something for a while, you crave it. You can have a glass of Champagne and one bite of minced chicken in lettuce cups [editor’s note: the lettuce cups are one of Betelnut’s most popular dishes] in your hand.
Bay Area Bites: What will be bubbling on your stove at home?
Ong: The simple stuff that doesn’t take days of preparation [laughs]. My oldest son will try anything once and is pretty adventurous and my youngest loves prosciutto, pizza, and fries. I come home for my late night snack of cured meats, and it’s gone because he ate it. He loves to go to Tony’s Pizza but will pick off every single spot of herb on his pizza.
The way we cook at home is very simple. For them, they’re still learning and I’ve showed them Malaysia and how I was brought up. It’s not “I’ve got to have a plate of Alice Waters' salad” with them.
Bay Area Bites: Have you talked to any of your mentors about what’s next?
Ong: I will let things unfold. When we did Hutong, it was a big who-ha with the press. I wasn’t really comfortable with that. When I open a restaurant, I want to get my ducks in a row. I want to get my feet wet and fine tune recipes. Talking to the media is a bit too much for me, to be honest. I just want to cook and get all our shit together first.
The most important thing right now is that people are calling and talking to me. It’s nice to chat and catch up with people and get a conversation going. I don’t want commit to anything right away.
I had lunch at Waterbar with Emily Luchetti and she said that sometimes it’s nice to walk away and just recharge your batteries. The amount of time and stress and worry from working at a restaurant adds up. Things like the plumbing is not working, deliveries are not coming in. That eats you up over the years. I just want to be able to say a vendor isn’t calling me at 5 a.m. saying, “the fish for your VIP guests is not showing up.”
So I can have fun, go out and eat, be a Dad. My wife has always been the soccer and baseball mom. I’m not there to see my sons make a home run or do a triple play. I feel guilty. I want to take them swimming and have fun.
I want to do things like go to Zachary’s Pizza and stuff ourselves with pie. We can go hiking or to a movie, for once and not worry about things. This way, I can be there for them and understand who my two boys are since right now they are trying to identify who they are. It’s important for me.
I worry about the little things for them, like the food that they eat at school. They eat too much junk food, and love it. I have my downfalls too and will indulge in that kind of thing. But I am thinking about how can we make things better for them and the future.