Thailand Culinary Academy’s Willment Leong Talks Food + Philanthropy

Singaporean chef Willment Leong of Thailand Culinary Academy speaking at Johnson & Wales University’s Providence Campus.

Distinguished Visiting Chef (DVC) Willment Leong (Thailand Culinary Academy/World Chefs Without Borders) speaking at JWU’s Providence Campus. | Photo: Mike Cohea

Chef Willment Leong has worked in some of Thailand’s most esteemed hotels, but his real passion is giving back: through education, through fundraising, and through the universal language of cooking soul-satisfying food. As JWU Providence College of Culinary Arts Dean Peter Lehmuller describes JWU’s 177th Distinguished Visiting Chef (DVC): “He exemplifies the fact that cuisine transcends borders.”

Four years ago, Leong left his position at Bangkok’s Swissôtel Le Concorde to focus his time and energy exclusively on education, training and chef-led humanitarian efforts.

Since 2010, students trained at Leong’s Thailand Culinary Academy have participated in 47 international competitions and brought 92 individual trophies back to their native country. All students at the academy are required to take part in charity work of some form — and Leong encourages them to promote themselves through their charitable work. “Don’t be shy when you are doing good things,” he notes.

Leong also serves as an ambassador for World Chefs Without Borders, a nonprofit humanitarian organization dedicated to providing education, resources and aid to those in need and afflicted by natural disasters.

The organization’s reach is global, from raising funds to rebuild earthquake-ravaged Nepal to feeding thousands of refugees along the Greek border. It’s obvious that Leong takes deep pride in the group’s good work: “We’ve built kitchens and chicken coops. We’ve given culinary scholarships to Thai students and donated 500 new rooftops to Philippine families who lost their homes to Typhoon Yolanda.”

As he starts his cooking demo, he reveals a teaching style that mixes humor with military precision.

He and his JWU assistant, DVC scholarship winner Kurt Ruta, have clearly built up a rapport in their few days of working together, and Leong delights in ribbing the army veteran about his knife skills: “Chop those finer.” “Yes, chef!”

Chef Leong keeps a running commentary of asides as he whips briskly through two traditional dishes: seafood cake with Thai green curry and sour mango relish and slow-cooked Hainanese chicken with aromatic rice and two dipping sauces.

Chef Willment Leong assisted by JWU Providence student and scholarship winner Kurt Ruta.

Chef Leong demos Hainanese chicken rice with an assist from JWU Providence student Kurt Ruta. | Photo: Mike Cohea

“Scrape the meat off the mackerel rather than simply fileting. If you go too close to the bone, the flesh is too fibrous, and the fish cake’s texture will be off.” He holds the fish close to the overhead camera so the audience can see the proper texture up close.

“For the curry, we use basil water, so the color stays bright.” “Toasting dry herbs and spices is very important, for unlocking flavor.”

“Asian mirepoix is ginger, garlic, shallots and spring onions.” (Mirepoix is a finely-chopped combination of vegetables used as a flavor foundation for soups, stocks and sauces.)

Leong holds up a slender red chile: “This is called a Thai strawberry. Does anyone want to try it?” A student volunteers and swallows the chile, stem and all. “You ok? You need to go to hospital?” The student, clearly not a chile novice, nods “no.”

Chef Leong holding up a “Thai strawberry.”

“This is called a Thai strawberry. Does anyone want to try it?” | Photo: Mike Cohea

After samples of each dish have been passed to the audience, Dean Lehmuller presents the DVC scholarship — as well as a knife set — to Kurt, who acknowledges Chef David Petrone as a mentor and inspiration.

To conclude, the dean awards Chef Leong the traditional DVC medal “in the spirit of the exchange of ideas and fostering friendship.”

Leong’s final words of inspiration to students? “Keep the hot wok going and always help others if you can. The more you share, the more you give.”

DVC Joshua John Russell

Fish cakes with Thai green curry (left) + Hainanese chicken rice (right). | Photo: Vanessa Ali

Fish cakes with Thai green curry (left) and Hainanese chicken rice (right)

Topics: Culinary Arts Providence Distinguished Visiting Chef