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Fifteen Minutes With Hutong's Alexander Ong

Hutong

Left: Alexander Ong at the helm. Photo courtesy of SFGate
Right: Stone pot noodles, roasted onion purée, Surryano ham, crispy anchovies, egg yolk. Photo courtesy of Tablehopper.

How well can you get to know a chef in just fifteen minutes? 

After more than a decade’s run as head chef of Betelnut, Alexander Ong opted not to coast, but to reinvent the restaurant as Hutong. Named for the Asian alleyways that house the humble vendors who inspired the restaurant’s reimagined menu, at Hutong, Ong aims to deliver those authentic flavors via ingredients that are local to the Bay Area.

If your decision to become a chef could be traced to one particular food memory, what would it be? 

When I was six, I was crying after being teased by my older sister, and my mom pulled me aside and said, let’s go to the kitchen. I was standing on a stool helping her stir the curry paste in the wok. Slowly. She taught me nice and gentle, slooooowly stir it so you don’t burn the bottom of the pot. That was the first memory of me involved in food and kind of sparked the interest of what good food is all about. 

As far as being a chef, let’s just say that I had nothing better to do. Right out of high school, I was working at the Shangri La hotel in Malaysia and looking in the kitchen and saying, wow that looks like fun, those guys in all whites and their hats and everything; I want to try that. And I never looked back. 

You have guests at home you want to impress, what’s the go-to meal? 

A good roast chicken, a nice bottle of champagne, you can’t go wrong. 

If somebody could eat here only once, what should they order?  

The braised lamb belly, the stone pot noodles, the prawns with bacon and chili jam, and any one of the salads. I love all five salads on the menu. 

What’s the best dining experience to be had in the Bay Area, other than here, of course?

That’s a loaded question. It’s hard for me to define what’s best in the Bay Area because it’s so different from the way I grew up eating. You can go to a place like SPQR with Matt cooking the pastas that he’s making and just fall absolutely in love with it, or a place like Don Pisto’s; it depends on your mood. I think what classifies a great dinner is not just great food; it’s also the company. 

What’s the most outrageous thing that’s ever gone down in the restaurant? 

Union Street Fair. Every year. [Laughs.] Crowbar… Prying people off the wall… Cold water.  

You killed a waiter and are on death row. What’s your last meal?

I’d say my mom’s curry. 

What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without? 

Salt. It’s such a crucial thing. Oversalt it and your dish will be not good. Undersalt it and likewise. Perfectly salted means a lot. 

What’s your favorite food city? 

Panang. 

Fill in the blank: People might be surprised to see me eating ___.

A lot of people know that I eat everything, like silkworms (they actually taste pretty good). 

Bacon: awesome or overrated? 

It’s overrated when the media keeps writing it over and over and over. Then, the restaurant owners and operators are like, we gotta put bacon on the menu, we gotta put bacon on the menu! Bacon bacon bacon bacon bacon! 

The media’s to blame. That’s why one thing I don’t look forward to is when the media asks me, "What do you foresee the trend to be next year?" Good food never goes out of style, like a good apple pie, you know?