Flash-grilled: Sandra Leong

By BigHospitality

- Last updated on GMT

Flash-grilled: Sandra Leong

Related tags: Sandra Leong, Old Chang Kee, Restaurant, Singaporean cuisine

Sandra Leong is the UK director of Singaporean restaurant Old Chang Kee, which has two central London locations

What time do you wake up?
6am, it’s a curse.

What’s your favourite restaurant or group of restaurants (besides your own)?
Controversially… KFC.

What motivates you?
Knowing that we’re helping to carve out a space for Singaporean food in the Asian food scene here, which has until now been traditionally dominated by Chinese or Indian food.  Many of our customers would have known only Singapore Fried Noodles before (which to me is an abomination and actually doesn’t exist in Singapore!), but I like to think we’re slowly changing that.

How do you let off steam?
I like bat and ball games. Hitting things hard is a great de-stresser.

What keeps you up at night?
In this current COVID-19 climate, the sense of responsibility I feel to my staff and their livelihoods. 

What’s your signature dish to cook at home?
My mum’s Peranakan pork belly curry.  Spicy and sour with lots of tamarind!

Tell us something you wish you had been told at the start of your career?
That you can’t please everyone. When we opened, we had generally good reviews, but a stinking one from a critic I love. I interrogated every single detail of his experience. Everything was the same as it always is, he just didn’t like it. 

Which colleague, mentor or employer has had the biggest influence on your approach to the restaurant business?
My Dad, who likes to say it’s better to fail fast than fail slowly. We try a lot of things. Some work, some don’t but we move on quickly. We have had some mini disasters with our menu. My colleagues are great and always happy to roll with it, but I’m sure they sometimes get tired of me saying ‘I’ve got an idea!’

Best business decision?
Not surrendering to the shutdown in March and quickly pivoting our business to deliver ‘ready meals’ - frozen curries and curry puffs - around London. Have we profited from this? Not so much in money, but in goodwill from customers who appreciate the service we are providing.

Worst business decision?
Rushing into hiring my opening team, not knowing how to manage them and then having to let them all go. All because I hadn’t quite figured out what sort of boss I would be yet. Even though they left on my terms, I lost so much sleep worrying that I had been a weak and inadequate leader. I made peace with that eventually and realised I just needed to find the right team.

What piece of advice would you give to those looking to climb the rungs in the business?
Generosity towards your staff doesn’t go unnoticed. There’s a lot of talk in hospitality about how hard it is to find and retain staff, but there are also a lot of horrible places to work out there.  Look after them to the best of your abilities and more often than not, they’ll reciprocate.

If you could change one thing about the restaurant industry today, what would it be?
It frustrates me that East Asian cuisine is often grouped together, even though it is so diverse and has different identities. Northern Chinese is different from Southern Chinese, Japanese is different from Korean, Thai is different from Singaporean. The onus is on restaurant owners like us to promote and educate, but I think there is also a lack of diversity and understanding among people who set the agenda, like journalists. Having said that, we could all do more to demystify the cuisines we are championing.

What was your dream job growing up?
Being a cashier. I like pressing buttons

What are you currently reading?
This Is Going To Hurt​, by Adam Kay.  About the life of a junior doctor in the NHS.


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