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David Leong invented cashew chicken.
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By Brianna Altergott
Wing Wahng Leong playfully tries to coax a smile out of his father with the Chinese word for “laugh” as they pose for a photo together in front of their restaurant, Leong’s Asian Diner.
“Xiao, Dad! Smile!”
A small grin crawls across David Leong’s face as the flash goes off. Although his expression is worn after ninety-three years, David’s happy smile shines through his soft wrinkles as he proudly stands next to three of his sons.
Now known as the king of cashew chicken in Springfield, he certainly has a lot to smile about with a story that started long before Leong’s Asian Diner was around.
David was born and raised in Guangdong, China. His childhood was surrounded by food that inspired him later in life.
“His father was a butcher, and his mother was a really good cook,” Wing Wahng says after leaning in toward his father to hear his answer. “That’s where he learned to make a lot of the food.”
In 1940, David immigrated to the United States from China and served in World War II. After the war, cooking became his focus.
“I got out of the service, and I cooked in New York and then Pensacola, Florida,” David says about moving to and from various restaurants. Then, David came across something that would change the course of his life.
“In 1955, he read an article in the Chinese newspaper where Dr. John Tsang was looking for a Chinese cook to move to Springfield, Missouri,” says Wing Wahng. “He said if he would move to Springfield, he would help him start a restaurant.”
Within the year, David opened the Lotus Garden with his brother Gee Leong. After three years, the brothers closed their restaurant because a supper club called the Grove offered David and Gee positions as chefs. David and Gee went on to work there for six years.
Creating Cashew Chicken
Try the cashew chicken at Leong's Asian Diner in Springfield.
By 1962, David had saved enough money to open his own restaurant. Leong’s Tea House, a 350-seat fine dining restaurant, served its first customers in fall 1963. The menu included Chinese fare, as well as steak and seafood.
“He knew that most people were not familiar with Chinese food at this time,” says Wing Wahng, “so he came up with an invention of cashew chicken. He knew most people in the Midwest loved fried chicken, so he decided to take out the bone, bread it, fry it, and put a sauce over it.”
The allure of the dish is unmistakable. The chicken itself is delicious, but the sauce is what makes it special. The hint of oyster nestled inside the thick, creamy sauce makes it stand out from other recipes.
“It was the first of its kind,” adds Wing Yee Leong, another of David’s sons. “He adapted the taste to the Ozark’s taste. He was a pioneer in that.”
However, the restaurant’s first month proved difficult. Highway construction next to Leong’s deterred a lot of potential customers. Moreover, Springfield residents seemed reluctant to try unfamiliar Chinese dishes.
“He had a following from his years at the Grove,” Wing Wahng says. “Most people were familiar with his steaks and seafood, but when he added on the Chinese part, he wanted to transition them.”
“The people who tried it were adventurous,” Wing Yee says.
The adventurous ones must have spread the word because the dish grew in popularity, and chefs in the area started trying to imitate David’s recipe. Today, most of the Chinese restaurants in Springfield offer cashew chicken, and Springfield has a lot of Chinese restaurants.
During the 1970s, Gee parted ways with David to open his own establishment, Gee’s East Wind, and David’s oldest son, Wing Cheong Leong, opened and closed a number of restaurants in the area. Meanwhile, the Asian population in Springfield was growing, and cashew chicken, created to merge Chinese and American cultures, became a staple in Springfield.
After David’s wife, Wong Shau Ngor, passed away in 1997, he closed Leong’s Tea House, and Gee closed his restaurant in 2000, shortly before he died.
Years passed before cooking crossed David’s mind again. During a trip to China in 2009, he decided to stay longer than the rest of his family. David fell ill, and the relatives in China called Wing Wahng three days later with upsetting news.
“They said, ‘Your dad is in a coma, you need to come get him,’” Wing Wahng says. “When
I brought him back to the United States, he woke up and said, ‘You know what? I think I need to do something to keep me active again, so let’s go ahead and do a restaurant.’”
Suddenly, the eighty-nine-year-old cashew chicken king was at it again. Wing Yee and
David proudly opened Leong’s Asian Diner on December 6, 2010, in a barn-like building converted from a Mexican restaurant called Tortillas.
“We had to get a restaurant going again and make it ours,” Wing Yee says, reminiscing. “We still had such a huge following, and we felt like the time was right.”
David has seven children, including two daughters. However, three of his sons, Wing Wahng Leong, Wing Ling Leong, and Wing Yee Leong have come together to open a restaurant in Springfield with him, thirteen years after David closed his last restaurant.
“I think the reason why my dad had so many kids is so that he could put us all to work,” Wing Yee chuckles.
“When I was younger, I used to think my parents never slept,” remembers Wing Wahng. “They would stay up late at night and get up early in the morning. They were always doing something.”
Each of David’s seven children was involved with their father’s cooking from the time they were young.
“When we were young, we played there,” Wing Yee says. “We were the restaurant kids. But they put us to work, too. We did things like folding wontons and picking snow peas and things like that.”
“We all grew up in the restaurant business,” adds the second-oldest brother, Wing Ling. “And after a while, we all grew tired of it. We thought, ‘Isn’t there something else we can do?’”
The Leong family has drifted apart at different times, but three brothers ended up together again, united by their father’s passion for cooking.
Wing Ling, sixty-one, has worked for Sysco food service in Springfield for the past thirteen years and now helps out with the work at Leong’s Asian Diner.
Wing Yee left Springfield in 1980 and moved to Santa Barbara, California. “I got my culinary education out there and worked with world-famous chefs for fifteen years,” says the fifty-six-year-old. After returning to Springfield, Wing Yee worked as a chef at various restaurants, including Cartoon’s Oyster Bar and Fire and Ice, before becoming the executive chef of Leong’s Asian Diner.
Wing Wahng, fifty-three, left Springfield for about twenty years to work as an insurance agent in Colorado, but he is still involved with the restaurant as general manager.
Since David, Wing Wahng, Wing Yee, and Wing Ling have come together to start a new restaurant, they have seen success and growth in popularity.
“With all of us working together now, we’re able to do things we couldn’t do before, things we never would have been able to do on our own,” Wing Ling says, full of family pride. “We all have the restaurant blood in us.”
Leong’s isn’t restricted to cashew chicken. Shrimp and Scallops with Asparagus in Black Bean Sauce is one of the restaurant's specialities.
David’s delicious legacy doesn’t end with just cashew chicken. Leong’s Asian Diner is also known for its handmade eggrolls, a crunchy treat with a twist of peanut butter rolled with fresh vegetables, shrimp, and roast pork.
Leong’s Asian Diner isn’t the only place to taste the family’s signature flavor, though. After years of experimenting, the restaurant now offers several types of sauces, including plum, mustard, and sweet and sour, in grocery stores around Springfield. Of course, the cashew chicken sauce is among the choices.
Among the ups and downs, the Leong family is proud of everything their father David has accomplished in his lifetime.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Wing Wahng says. “Some people say my dad is one of the most prominent people in Missouri. You have Brad Pitt, you have Johnny Morris who created Bass Pro Shop, but the one who has the most influence in Springfield is my father because he has the unofficial dish of this town.”
And the town treats him well. The mayor of Springfield honored David on April 3, 2013, with his own day, “David Leong Day.” And the week before, the House of Representatives honored him with a proclamation for his service and what he’s done for Missouri. The plaque now hangs in the restaurant for all to see.
“That void when we were gone for thirteen years, I felt like things were out of balance,” Wing Yee says. “This was our legacy, and everyone else was trying to claim it.”
“And now I feel like the rightful king is back,” he says, laughing.
Indeed he is.