Leong's Legacy: Remembering the father of Springfield-style cashew chicken

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David Leong will be remembered by many for his perseverance and work ethic, but above all, he will forever be known as the father of Springfield-style cashew chicken.

The inventor of the dish, an Ozarks twist on a Chinese food classic, gained international notoriety throughout Leong’s career, beginning in the 1960s in Springfield. The dish – made of fried chicken, a rich brown sauce, cashews and green onions – has become a staple in restaurants across the United States and has appeared on menus in other countries as far as China, according to his sons.

One month before his 100th birthday, David Leong died July 20 from pneumonia.

“He never let anyone or anything get him down, and I think that’s the most important attributes of my dad,” said Wing Yee Leong, who is the executive chef at Leong’s Asian Diner. “From being an immigrant to being a soldier to creating a dish at a restaurant that no one wanted to eat at – they thought he was serving cats and dogs, but he persevered.”

David Leong immigrated in 1940 to the United States from the Guangdong province of China, previously known as Canton. He served in the U.S. Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was in the fourth wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach during D-Day, according to Springfield Business Journal archives.

He served as an Army cook, and after finishing his service, he later opened Leong’s Tea House in 1963 on West Sunshine Street. That’s where Springfield-style cashew chicken was born. The Tea House closed in 1997 following his wife’s death, and in 2010, the Leong family returned to the food scene with its diner at 1540 W. Republic Road.

Wing Yee said the restaurant has been inundated with condolences and orders from Springfield customers since his father’s passing. David Leong could be seen working at the restaurant daily until he died.

“He was there every day,” said Wing Wah Leong, another son who is a partner in the business. “He was always working in the restaurant and greeting people. He made friends with everyone he met.”

Trailblazer
David Leong changed the trajectory of Asian cuisine in Springfield.

In the 1960s, there weren’t many Asian-owned restaurants in the Queen City, said Wing Yee, and it was an uphill battle for his father.

Leong’s Tea House was damaged in the ’60s after someone threw 10 sticks of dynamite into the shell of the restaurant, according to SBJ archives. During an SBJ 12 People You Need to Know live interview in 2013, David Leong said some people didn’t like that he had opened a restaurant in the largely white community, which later grew to love his cashew chicken.

“At that time, you didn’t dare open an Asian restaurant. It wasn’t until the ’90s that you saw Vietnamese or Korean restaurants,” said Wing Yee. “A lot of them had worked for my dad at one time, and to help them survive, he helped them create the cashew chicken and put it on their menu.”

James Clary, local restaurant consultant and a former restaurateur, said his family knew the Leongs when he was growing up. He’s seen David Leong’s impact on Springfield firsthand.

“David started to grow his business in the ’60s, and then you saw all of these other Chinese restaurants open up, and the majority were started by people who worked for David,” said Clary. “An entire culture of Chinese food in Springfield grew out of one man and one dish.”

Now, some 300 area restaurants feature the cashew chicken dish, according to past SBJ reporting, plus an international reach. Wing Wah recalled a trip to Beijing, China, with his father several years ago where they saw a sign outside of a restaurant advertising the Springfield-style dish.

“I asked him if he wanted to try it, and he said, ‘No, I already know what cashew chicken tastes like,’” Wing Wah said, with a laugh.

Iconic recipe
The East-meets-West dish is among the ranks of Bass Pro Shops and Brad Pitt in putting Springfield on the map, said Kay Logsdon, former editor of The Food Channel.

“When The New York Times did an article on Springfield-style cashew chicken in 2009, people in the industry started paying attention,” said Logsdon. “David Leong gave us something that has made Springfield distinctive.

“There are very few recipes that have that kind of claim – to come from one person and have that documented in one city. That’s a little bit unusual.”

Logsdon said she’s seen many versions of the dish from other famous chefs and restaurants that have added different styles to Leong’s basic recipe.

Traditional cashew chicken is stir fried and served with a light brown sauce. Clary said the Springfield style has had longevity that most new creations don’t see.

“It’s simplistic, but sometimes those are the best dishes,” he said. “I’ve come up with a lot of dishes that I think are really good, but they just don’t take off like cashew chicken did.”

Wing Wah said his father’s recipe even inspired a multibillion-dollar fast food restaurant in the 1970s – McDonald’s.

“They came to our restaurant because they were trying to mimic the sauce, and that’s how they came up with their chicken nuggets,” he said.

Today, Leong’s Asian Diner does over $800,000 a year in cashew chicken sales. That’s half the total annual revenue at the 35-employee restaurant, said Wing Yee.

Leong’s signature cashew chicken, sweet and sour, and General Tso sauces also are available at local grocery stores, which Wing Wah said represents minimal revenue each year.

Wing Yee said he plans to continue the Leong legacy at the southwest Springfield diner. “I want to try to make more of a tribute to my dad and my mom,” he said. “I’d love to see this place carry on the tradition.

“The restaurant gave him something to live for, and I think that’s what gave him the longevity. We tried to get him to 100, and he was just one month shy.”

Web Editor Geoff Pickle contributed.