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Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Tracy Kimberlin presents David Leong with the Pinnacle Award during the Travel and Tourism Awards banquet. Leong invented Springfield-style cashew chicken, a tradition his son, Wing Yee Leong, right, carries on at Fire & Ice restaurant.
Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Tracy Kimberlin presents David Leong with the Pinnacle Award during the Travel and Tourism Awards banquet. Leong invented Springfield-style cashew chicken, a tradition his son, Wing Yee Leong, right, carries on at Fire & Ice restaurant.

Annual awards recognize tourism supporters

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At the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau’s 2008 Travel and Tourism Awards Feb. 28, the top honor was reserved for David Leong, 88, the father of Springfield-style cashew chicken.

Leong received the Pinnacle Award, an honor reserved for individuals who have been active in travel and tourism for many years and have made substantial contributions to the betterment of the area’s travel industry. During the awards banquet, he also was recognized with proclamations from the Missouri House and Senate.

Local residents may not realize that Springfield-style cashew chicken appears on menus in New York, Chicago, Santa Barbara, Seattle and points in between, said Leong’s son, Wing Yee Leong. His father, now retired, is currently visiting China, which he does for three or four months each year.

The dish that’s traversed the nation began as a combination of traditional Chinese cuisine and Ozarks comfort food at David Leong’s restaurant, Leong’s Teahouse at 1036 W. Sunshine St., in a building that’s now home to Mexican eatery Los Portales.

Stir-fried cashew chicken had been around a long time, but in the United States, it was typically prepared with chicken on the bone, Wing Yee Leong said. His father’s first innovation was deboning the chicken.

“He did stir fry with that at first, and then a customer said, ‘This would be better if you battered and fried it.’” Leong said.

His father subsequently developed a breading process that allowed him to deep fry the chicken nuggets, which he served with oyster sauce and cashews, and in 1963, Springfield-style cashew chicken was born.

At one point, Leong’s methods even drew the attention of McDonald’s Corp., which was developing the Chicken McNugget. McDonald’s sent representatives to Springfield around 1969 to see his process for breading and deep frying, Wing Yee Leong said.

Immigrating to America almost 70 years ago, David Leong became a citizen at age 19. He was almost immediately drafted into the U.S. Army, and was among the U.S. soldiers who invaded Normandy at Omaha Beach on D-Day, Wing Yee Leong said.

After the war, David Leong was cooking at a Pensacola, Fla., restaurant when he met top Springfield neurosurgeon Dr. John Tsang, who wanted to start a Chinese restaurant in Springfield and asked Leong to serve as chef. Leong moved to Springfield in 1955.

Wing Yee, one of seven Leong children, carries on the family culinary tradition as executive chef at Fire & Ice restaurant at the Oasis Hotel and Convention Center.

And yes, diners can order original cashew chicken by Leong.

The CVB is working with Fire & Ice on a campaign to pitch stories about the 45th anniversary of Springfield-style cashew chicken, targeting travel and food shows on the Travel Channel and Food Network, as well as some travel publications.

Ambassador Award

Presented to an individual or organization that generates significant economic impact for the area by encouraging tourism or securing a major convention or event in Springfield, the 2008 Ambassador Award went to the Greater Ozarks Bowling Tournament.

Now in its 50th year, the bowling event is owned and operated by the Iseminger family and David Buff, according to Liz Iseminger, tournament coordinator. She and husband Danny, his brother Ronnie and Buff have been running the tournament for the last 16 years. Danny and Ronnie’s father and Buff were among the tournament’s founders.

The event brings roughly 12,000 people to Springfield between mid-February and mid-June each year for tournaments at Sunshine Lanes and Enterprise Lanes. Iseminger said the event is so popular that bowlers schedule play up to 18 months in advance.

“They always stay at least one night,” she said, noting that many also will find time to play golf, dine out or travel to Branson during their visits.

Spotlight Award

Urban Districts Alliance received the Spotlight Award, which recognizes an individual or business not usually considered part of the travel and tourism sector that makes noteworthy contributions to the industry.

UDA was recognized for its role in downtown redevelopment and the emergence of center city as a regional destination for art, dining and entertainment.

In the last year, Tour of Missouri and Art Train joined Artsfest, First Night Springfield, Cider Days and Taste of Springfield to draw thousands to center city, according to UDA Executive Director Rusty Worley said. Also, assets such as Double-A baseball at Hammons Field, Jordan Valley Park, the Gillioz Theatre and the Discovery Center provide entertainment options for all ages.

Susan Wade, CVB public relations manager, noted that she recently worked with travel journalists from Kansas City, “and they were so impressed with the dining options downtown and the art galleries.”

Other honors

The Oasis Hotel and Convention Center was tapped for the Hospitality Award, which recognizes an attraction, lodging facility or restaurant that demonstrates outstanding hospitality to the traveling public and demonstrates a team spirit in promoting area travel and tourism.

“They’ve really established a fine, high-quality facility and a great restaurant,” said Wade, adding that the Oasis staff bends over backwards to accommodate groups and visitors.

City Manager Bob Cumley received the Diplomat Award, which honors a government official, organization or employee who had provided significant support to the Springfield area travel industry.

Cumley provided assistance to the CVB with major groups and events, including the Gold Wing Road Riders Association, Wally Byam Caravan Club International and the Tour of Missouri bike race.

Seven volunteers with the CVB were recognized for 10 years of service: Don Bechtel, Don Hawkins, Helen Hurt, Bill Palen, Betty Palen, Bill Wright and Marilyn Wright. A total of 47 volunteers have served the CVB for 10 years or more. Since the volunteer program started in 1990, 168 volunteers have provided a total of 82,000 hours of service to the CVB.[[In-content Ad]]

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