The Father of Springfield-Cashew Chicken
By Ettie Berneking I Photos By Jessica Spencer
Featured in the March 2015 issue of
There it was. Scribbled on a small sign near the entrance to one of the many bustling restaurants in Hong Kong, David Leong spotted the words: Springfield-style cashew chicken. But when one of his sons asked if he wanted to try it, David said no. Father and son lingered in front of the sign for a minute, taking in the significance it carried for their family and their home back in Missouri.
Almost 50 years before, David created Springfield-style cashew chicken. Back then, he had no way of knowing the dish would one day make its way onto restaurant menus across the world.
Ladled onto plates, Springfield-style cashew chicken almost looks like chicken-fried steak – except instead of a thick slab of breaded beef that’s been doused with peppery white gravy, bite-sized morsels of juicy chicken are fried and smothered in a rich brown sauce. The breading is crispy, and the meat inside is tender. But the real standout is that sauce – the salty, savory brown gravy that coats each bite. Topped with a sprinkling of chopped green onions and crushed cashews, David’s cashew chicken has become one of Springfield’s most well-known dishes.
You’ll find versions of Springfield-style cashew chicken on menus across the city and in Chinese and pan-Asian restaurants across the country – often simply called cashew chicken. Its origin is in Springfield, though, when David whipped up the first batch in 1963.
THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGEND
Even at 94, David is a force to be reckoned with. After nearly seven decades working in kitchens around the world, he has no interest in slowing down. Sharp and quick with a joke, he’s a focused cook – if something is wrong with a dish, he knows immediately and doesn’t hesitate to tell you. Or rather, he’ll tell his son, Wing Yee Leong, who is now executive chef at the family’s successful restaurant, Leong’s Asian Diner, in Springfield. Wing Yee is one of seven children, and each of his siblings play a different role in the kitchen.
Wing Yee was just 7 years old when he started cooking in his father’s kitchen. “I joke that other kids had square blocks and toys, and we had chicken and flour,” he says. “Little did we know what our dad was preparing us for.”
The first thing Wing Yee learned to make was rice. “If you screwed up the rice, you heard about it all day,” he says. “We learned to wrap the wontons and make the crab rangoons and pick snow peas.” David’s children grew up watching their father run a tight ship where hard work was rewarded. And no one worked harder than David.
David grew up in Guangdong, China. His father was a butcher, and his mother was a talented home cook. At age 19, he immigrated to the U.S. with plans to bring his young bride and firstborn son with him. But those plans changed in 1940, when the Japanese government allied with Germany in World War II. David and his wife were separated for 10 years, with neither knowing if the other was alive.
After enlisting in the U.S. Army, David was assigned K.P. duty (kitchen patrol or kitchen police) and spent the duration of the war cooking meals for the troops. That’s where his name, David, came from. “His drill sergeant couldn’t pronounce his given name, Yin Wing, so he renamed him David,” Wing Yee says.
After the war, David was reunited with his family and they settled in Pensacola, Florida, where he opened a Chinese restaurant. By chance, a Springfield-based neurosurgeon vacationing in Pensacola wandered into the restaurant one day and enjoyed it so much he returned several times. He was so taken with David’s cooking that he made him an offer: If David moved to Springfield, the doctor would make him head chef of his new restaurant, Lotus Garden. David accepted the offer, and he and his family moved almost halfway across the country. But while David was ready to make Springfield feel like home, it seems Springfield wasn’t quite ready for the Leongs.
“I might be the first Asian born in Springfield who was not run out of town,” Wing Yee says, only half-joking. “All the way through high school, there were no other Asian families in Springfield.”
By 1963, David had saved enough money to open his own restaurant, Leong’s Tea House. But a few weeks before the big opening, the restaurant was the target of an attack – vandals tossed 10 sticks of dynamite through the main dining room window. Luckily, damage was minimal, and the opening was only delayed by a month. “How many other restaurants have overcome [obstacles with] that kind of perseverance?” says Wing Yee.
David isn’t the kind of person to be dissuaded. Now in his 90s, Wing Yee says his father has a boyish strength and determination that his family admires. This was underscored recently when David went fishing along the shores of Lake Springfield last summer and hauled in a 17-pound catfish. The humongous catch broke David’s line, pulled him to the ground and gave him a black eye, but he still managed to wrestle the catfish to shore. So when life in Springfield popped him one, David kept fighting. And in 1963, he created the dish that would seal his family’s place in Springfield’s history.
“My dad wanted the tea house to be authentic Cantonese cuisine,” Wing Yee says. “There were white tablecloths, bus boys… The service was impeccable.”
In the kitchen, David cooked seafood, calamari, braised pork belly and savory noodle dishes. “Our favorite meal was stewed or roasted duck,” Wing Yee says. But demand for authentic Cantonese fare was limited in Springfield in the 1960s, and David needed a way to draw more customers into the restaurant. He looked for ways to blend Ozark flavors and traditions with those of his Cantonese heritage. The result was Springfield cashew chicken.
“When he started working on the dish, it was an unbreaded stir-fry,” Wing Yee says. “But he knew the style people here liked – lots of country-fried steak.” With his sleeves rolled up, David got to work deboning the meat, breading it and developing the signature sauce. It was an instant hit.
“We were serving shrimp and lobster, but everyone wanted the cashew chicken, even then,” Wing Yee says. “It just took off.”
Other friends wanted in on the cashew chicken craze, and David welcomed them into his kitchen with open arms. “He would share a recipe with anyone,” Wing Yee says.
New Chinese and pan-Asian restaurants slowly started opening around town – some of them launched by David’s friends – serving the popular Springfield cashew chicken. Wing Yee says his father never questioned whether sharing his recipe was a smart business move or not. Often these new restaurant owners joined David and his kitchen staff at Leong’s at closing time, when everyone would gather and enjoy a family-style meal. “All of his friends from other restaurants would show up, and we’d cook for everyone,” Wing Yee says. These meals were where Wing Yee saw flavors from different cultures mix and become one.
“There’s Sichuan and Hunan, and then there’s Springfield,” he says. “I look at it like another province of China. There’s a culture and ingredients specific to Springfield that have worked their way into Asian cooking.”
He says the most obvious differences are the vegetables – in place of fresh bamboo and snow peas, the Leongs use asparagus and broccolini, or whatever is available locally. But he says there is one constant: “The chicken is the same.”
For the Leong family, the chicken, like the rest of the ingredients, has to be fresh. Wing Yee still laughs about how his dad would work out trades with farmers and swap meals at the restaurant for carloads of chickens, ducks, quail and squab.
“I remember on Sundays, we’d drive out to the country and come back with a load of birds,” he says. “One day, we had a bunch of squab in the garage, and my brother and I let them loose. We had squab everywhere. My mom had to throw things at them to get them off the roof.”
By the 1980s, the restaurant was thriving, but instead of staying in the family business, Wing Yee headed to California to study photography.
“I saw what the restaurant business did to my family,” he says. “On my dad’s day off, he just wanted to sleep or go fishing. He was never that dad who took you to a ball game. He was too busy running the restaurant and keeping a roof over our heads.”
Even thousands of miles away from Leong’s Tea House, Wing Yee still found himself working in kitchens in Santa Barbara. “I saw a different environment from the mom-and-pop restaurant I was used to back home,” he says. “It was just amazing – the culinary [experiences] I got to see.”
Back home, the business was starting to struggle as Wing Yee’s other siblings followed his lead and, one by one, left the family business. In 1997, David closed Leong’s Tea House.
Ten years after shuttering the restaurant, David took a trip to China, where he fell deathly ill.
“We thought this was it,” Wing Yee says. “He couldn’t even walk.”
The family brought David back to Springfield, where his health steadily improved, and in 2010, David – 90 years old at the time – and Wing Yee opened Leong’s Asian Diner and found themselves together in the kitchen once again.
“When I came back, it had been awhile since I had eaten cashew chicken,” Wing Yee says. “I never thought I would have cravings for it. I’ve probably fried enough chicken to go to the moon, but I did have cravings.”
Wing Yee wasn’t the only person craving the dish. Since opening the new restaurant, David’s cashew chicken has remained the best-selling menu item. In fact, it makes up nearly 60 percent of the business at Leong’s. And one of the key reasons customers still haven’t stopped ordering plates of piping hot Springfield cashew chicken is that rich and savory signature brown sauce. Wing Yee says the key to the sauce is from-scratch chicken stock, which cooks overnight. In the morning, a smattering of ginger, salt, pepper, oyster sauce, light and dark soy sauces, sugar, cornstarch and water are added to the stock, until just the right flavor is achieved.
After years of customers asking the Leongs to sell the sauce, the family finally started bottling it in 2013, as well as its sweet-and-sour and General Tso’s sauces. Jars are sold at grocery stores in the Springfield area, including Hy-Vee and Price Cutter. The family even gets orders from out of state, and that’s exciting for Wing Yee.
“We’ve seen Springfield cashew chicken in Seattle, New York and even Hong Kong,” he says. “But most people still don’t know about it.”
But in the Ozarks, the story of Springfield cashew chicken is well-known. Back at Leong’s, Wing Yee smiles as he talks about it – the dish he grew up with, the dish his father built a business on, the dish that continues his family’s legacy today.
“I think my dad was a pioneer,” he says. “I don’t think he realizes that. He just did this because it was what he loved to do.”
Leong’s Asian Diner, 1540 W. Republic Road, Springfield, Missouri, 417.887.7500, leongsasiandiner.com