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.