Believe you me, a Tanjung Malim boy has been cooking for a number of Hollywood A-listers for the past two decades in New York.
His restaurant Jefferson was even the setting for an episode of Sex And The City where one of its main characters, Miranda (played by Cynthia Nixon), held her wedding reception.
“Sarah Jessica Parker (who was Carrie in the show) and a lot of HBO staff were regulars at Jefferson,” said chef Simpson Wong Kok Seong, 52. “They liked the place, so they approached us and asked about the possibility of shooting a scene there. I was like, OMG, I’m a kampung boy and an iconic TV show has picked us,” he said, recalling how it all happened.
The New Yorker reported that Jefferson was “so buzz-worthy it hosted a wedding reception on Sex And The City.”
Wong said he did not have to make special preparations for the two-day shoot.
“They had a team of people. When they were done shooting, they put everything back at exactly the same spot. I was very impressed.”
“One thing, though. Many paparazzi tried to bribe us into letting them climb up to our roof to take photos during the shoot at Miranda’s garden wedding (which took place across from Jefferson),” he said.
Jefferson, which served fusion food, was closed in 2005 after Wong suffered a heart attack. (“Too much cholesterol inside me!”)
Wong’s culinary journey in the US began in 1988 when he made his way to the Big Apple to fulfil his dream to see the world. He was 22 then.
“Remember those calendars you get from grocery shops where they featured a foreign landscape each month? There would be winter scenes or pictures of tulips. As a kid, I told myself that I wanted to be out there.”
He arrived in New York where he had several friends waiting for him. “They took me to Chinatown, gave me a newspaper and I started looking at the job vacancies.”
His first job was as a busboy at a Japanese restaurant where he was fired within two weeks. A customer had asked for a soda but Wong was clueless because he was more familiar with the Malaysian way of saying “carbonated” or canned drinks.
“I told myself then that I must learn quickly,” he said.
He took on a variety of jobs, including a stint at Penthouse adult magazine.
“No, I wasn’t involved in porn,” he laughed. “They were looking to publish in China and since I could speak and write Chinese, I helped them in liaising work and looking at the contracts.”
There was also a brief stint where he ran a one-man office for someone who worked with the United Nations.
“My boss was always travelling to Geneva, so I would handle all the faxes, arrange meetings and book accommodation for him,” he said.
Eventually, he answered his true calling when he opened Cafe Asean in 1996, offering food inspired from his childhood in Malaysia.
The restaurant remains popular till today, serving a variety of clientele from ordinary folk to stars such as Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman and Martha Stewart.
He went on to start Jefferson, Jefferson Grill and Wong, which have all been closed now.
Jefferson, which served fusion food, earned two stars from The New York Times. Wong, his eponymous restaurant, also earned two stars.
Two stars from NYT is defined as “very good”. NYT’s ratings ranged from zero star to four stars (poor to extraordinary).
These restaurants have had their list of celebrity diners from Nicole Kidman and hubby, to designer Ralph Lauren.
Wong remained diplomatic when pressed to share some gossip about his famous customers.
“They are all usually very nice and polite but they keep to themselves. Nicole Kidman came in with Keith Urban on New Year’s Eve when we had a tasting menu. She asked for only a salad without dressing. When she was done eating, she came into the kitchen to thank us. Very classy!”
The only morsel of gossip that Wong revealed was how an Academy Award actress went to the bathroom “like 15 times” when she dined there.
Chomp Chomp, a restaurant that offers hawker food, is his latest venture. It has already earned a review from Silvia Killingsworth, the managing director of The New Yorker, who wrote in the Aug 3 issue that “Wong’s aim is less to intimidate you with spice than to woo you with depth of flavour.”
Despite a happy childhood, Wong had a tough start in life. The second youngest of eight siblings, he recalled that money was hard to come by. His late father, who died in 2001, worked in a lumberyard and was always toiling away and his mother had to help him often. There was no electricity supply in the lumberyard.
“My mother had to cook for the staff. There could be seven to 15 of them. She would always ask me to come and help.”
Wong eventually learned to love cooking from observing his mother. Furthermore, his mother had grown their own chillies, pandan leaves, kangkung and other herbs and vegetables. “I liked the whole process; from nothing to something sumptuous,” he said.
His mother, now 81, lives in Puchong, Selangor.
Wong went to Kuala Lumpur after SPM. He earned a place in a college but lacked the funds to proceed. After taking several jobs, New York beckoned to him.
These are hectic days for Wong, who is still a bachelor. His life is focused on his work; his day begins at 9am and does not end till past midnight.
As for trends in food, Wong said that French food was making a comeback in New York.
“Asian food is also getting big. Thai and Japanese food have always been huge. The past two years, Chinese food is making a big impact on the New York dining scene. Laotian and Cambodian food are getting popular, too.”
He has learnt much from his adventures.
“Anything can go wrong at any time. People are willing to spend, but they also expect much more. I have learned to take it easy and not let things drag me down.
“This is a very rewarding job, especially when you see people enjoying your food.”