Stuff of Legends: William Wongso – The Reluctant Master (The Foodie Magazine, Dec 2013)

It took quite a while to find the office of Indonesia’s busiest culinary luminary deep inside the narrow maze of streets around Melawai. Finding the office was one thing, but getting him to stay put for an interview was the challenge. This man is busy. Luckily, we were able to pin him down just before he left for a tour of The States.

I skipped the first floor of the building which seemed to be some sort of kitchen with huge ovens and bustling activity inside. Upstairs I entered an office filled with people drowned in discussions, then the secretary led me to The Man. There, I found William Wongso sitting behind a huge Tasmanian ancient oak meeting table. Behind him, was framed image of himself with the word ‘tradition’ inscribed on it. This was going to be a good interview, I thought to myself.

‘Hi Rian, how are you? I hope you don’t mind that there will be a small cooking activity over there shortly’, he greeted me while pointing to the kitchen just beside the meeting room. ‘I’m currently devising a menu for my client’s restaurant’, he said while preparing me an espresso to jumpstart our morning conversation.

The Foodie Magazine - William Wongso 2

Beginning with a quick flashback of his long-standing career, William said, ‘What you did in the beginning does not always relate with your dream career’. It is well-known that William was a university dropout and has survived through times of trial and tribulation in search for the real calling. He paused to light a cigar and continued, ‘You know, I used to be involved in a printing business, worked in advertising agencies, and even became a radio announcer. Until I finally realized that food had always been something  I was in awe with, thanks to my father’.

‘He came from mainland China, but he had this cosmopolitan palate that encouraged our family to be adventurous with food’, he paused to suck on his cigar and proceed, ‘That’s why I decided to develop new hobbies of food tasting and learning more about produce mostly from traditional markets’.

William Wongso - The Bund Market, Shanghai (1994) 3
The Bund Market, Shanghai (1994)
William Wongso - The Bund Market, Shanghai (1994) 1
The Bund Market, Shanghai (1994)

‘With all the experience working in different fields, my confidence quickly grew and I grew familiar with public speaking and face-to-face communication. My father who was a film producer and a field photographer, he taught me a thing or two about his trade also’, he reminisced.

With his love of photography, William has been able to capture great images from his travels around the globe. It is almost impossible to miss William’s daily photo uploads to Instagram or his tweets about his epic foodie saga. ‘Come to think of it, perhaps I have widest collection of photos from local markets than anybody else around!’, he laughed as he made the realization.

William Wongso - Pasar Sidoharjo, East Java (1993) 1
Pasar Sidoharjo, East Java (1993)
William Wongso - Pasar Sidoharjo, East Java (1993) 2
Pasar Sidoharjo, East Java (1993)

For many years now, William has been championing local cuisine through events and his knowledge of the food and beverage industry. Recently, with the support of from the Ministry of Tourism & Creative Economy, together with comrades Bondan Winarno and Vindex Tengker, William has helped identify the 30 Iconic Indonesian Traditional dishes. This will serve as a stepping stone to further introduce the country’s diverse cuisine and to standardize the local curriculum for culinary and tourism schools.

‘It’s such a shame that because of the Western curriculum, many Indonesians talents have forgotten their roots and choose to excel in French or Italian cuisine instead. But through this effort, we will define our national cuisine and empower people to appreciate their roots more’, he said convincingly. With William’s encouragement, Indonesian dishes are now regularly served in state dinners or even at international meetings like APEC which was held in Bali very recently. You can see the passion in his eyes as he shares his culinary advocacy with me.

Pasar Apung Banjarmasin (1993)
Pasar Apung Banjarmasin (1993)

Before we parted, William shared his words of wisdom regarding what one should expect when entering the culinary field. ‘If you experience failure, it doesn’t mean that it’s a complete failure. There’s 95% of mortality rate in this business and you need to be creative all the time’. William admitted that he has not worked in restaurants recently, unlike in the past. He now enjoys his time sharing his experiences with everyone, especially with younger chefs. But he quickly interjects that he may have a project in Bali opening up soon.

Last but not least, he conveyed an important message to all of us, ‘One thing that you have to remember solemnly – do not forget your roots. One day, you will be one of those who represent the country and the future of our national cuisine might be in your hands’. Wise words from the legend.


Featured in THE FOODIE MAGAZINE December 2013 edition

Download it for free here via SCOOP!

Photos by: Dennie Benedict and personal collections of William Wongso


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