Springfield, MO

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12 People You Need to Know in 2013: David Leong

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David Leong may be the most influential businessman Springfield has ever known. While others such as Johnny Morris or John Q. Hammons may have made more money, and Brad Pitt may be more famous, it would be hard to find anyone who has had a greater cultural impact on the city.

The undisputed father of Springfield-style cashew chicken, Leong’s influence can be felt not only in the estimated 300 area restaurants that serve his most famous dish, but from coast to coast and beyond. On a 2010 trip to Beijing, China, Leong says he was proud to see Springfield cashew chicken on an outdoor menu of a restaurant catering to tourists. He’s been featured in The New York Times, on PBS and around the globe with a recent piece by a national publication in China for his contribution to American Chinese cuisine. In fact, The Smithsonian is working with the family to create an exhibit honoring the dish that will undoubtedly seal his legacy.

Before becoming an iconic chef, Leong immigrated from the Guangdong province of China – previously known as Canton – in 1940. A year later, he signed up to serve 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. Serving as an Army cook, Wing Wah Leong, David’s son, says his father has seemingly always been known for his cooking ability.

“His Army buddies always said if (David) would have been a girl, they would have married him,” says Wing Wah Leong, who helped explain much of his father’s story.

However, not everyone first embraced David Leong. Before the now famous Leong’s Tea House opened on West Sunshine, someone threw 10 sticks of dynamite in the shell of the restaurant, damaging the building. Undeterred, Leong and family opened the fine-dining tea house in October 1963. The original menu featured Chinese and American fare. However, to persuade patrons to try Chinese food, he created a version of boneless fried chicken, covered in gravy. Springfield-style cashew chicken was an instant success.

In 1997, David Leong closed the restaurant after his wife’s death, but not before he saw the dish he invented become a mainstay at eateries across town. Leong suffered a health scare in 2010 and decided to open Leong’s Asian Diner with his family. In the opening months, Wing Wah says lines were regularly out the door, and the diner still serves more than 500 guests on Friday or Saturday nights, with the famous cashew chicken accounting for about 40 percent of its revenues. Now, sons Wing Yee and Ling help to continue the cashew chicken legacy.

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