A Malaysian couple has found fame in the Big Apple, selling traditional Asian delicacies at their bakery called Lady Wong.
The business, which started in 2022, is now one of the most popular eateries at 9th Street in New York. They offer a range of delights like seri muka, mooncakes, angku kuih and cendol cake.
Lady Wong is owned by chefs Mogan Anthony, from Sungai Petani, Kedah, and his wife, Seleste Tan from Kulai, Johor. What started as a pop-up during the pandemic has organically transformed into a thriving business, earning accolades from renowned publications like Forbes and The New York Times.
The unexpected recognition, including being labelled "the hottest bakery in NYC" by food website Eater, has been a source of pride for the couple.
"This was very unexpected and surprising since those magazines are focused more on European bakeries. We are really proud about how our bakery has turned out. This has also helped us to spread a growing love for the flavour of pandan (screwpine leaves)," said Tan in an email interview recently.
The idea for Lady Wong sprouted during the challenges of the 2020 pandemic, as the husband-and-wife team, unable to travel to Malaysia, channelled their homesickness into creating homemade kuih.
"Mogan is a savoury chef and I am a pastry chef focusing on French patisserie. Everything around us was closed during Covid-19, and we had too much time on our hands. Back then, Chinese New Year was around the corner, and we missed home. This inspired Mogan and me to make some homemade kuih and pastries. We just wanted to share traditional delights with our fellow New Yorkers from South-East Asia."
Anthony shared: "We first created Lady Wong as a pop-up, initially giving away our home-baked delights for free." Little did they know that their impromptu venture would evolve into a successful business.
Anthony revealed that Lady Wong didn't require a significant financial investment.
"We painted and designed (the bakery) ourselves. Organically, we managed to grow the business to where it is now. Our staff comprises a diverse group of people who love our flavours. The most popular items are seri muka, kuih lapis and kuih talam. We have a huge Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian community supporting us," said the father of three kids, Laxmi Kim, nine, Lavin Yang, six, and Liya Kim, three.
Lady Wong has since expanded its presence, recently opening a booth at the Urban Hawker food hall near iconic landmarks like the Rockefeller Center and Times Square.
Regarding their bakery's name, Anthony joked: "The name was supposed to be Lady Ong (lucky in Hokkien) but we added the letter 'W' so it would flow well on our business card."
The go-to place for Asian kuih
The couple first met when they were both working at Four Seasons Singapore. Lady Wong's journey began 17 years ago when the couple had the opportunity to set up a restaurant in New York. Although that restaurant underwent management changes after their departure, it set the stage for their eventual foray into the world of kuih.
"We never planned to leave Singapore. It just happened to turn out that way," said Tan.
Tan has worked in wd~50, a now defunct molecular gastronomy restaurant in New York City, while Anthony served as the executive chef at New York City's Village Social Kitchen + Bar.
Their expertise did not initially include traditional kuihmaking, but they embraced a learning journey from social media platforms.
"We learned from YouTube and Instagram, as well as recipes online. We also turned to family recipes. We made many mistakes along the way and slowly improved our skills.
"Kuih techniques evolve around steaming, which is less precise than baking. There's no clear direction or instructions, since you need to touch and feel to make good kuih. Unfortunately, no amount of 'Google university' info will save the kuih," Tan shared.
Importing ingredients from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, Lady Wong stays true to tradition, creating an authentic experience in the heart of the Big Apple.
"Our mainstream customers took notice of unique flavours like pandan, calamansi and coconut. They have love-hate relationships with durian, of course.
"We are very popular for our pandan mooncakes, pineapple cake and tarts. Also, we have created baked nian gao (a sweet Chinese New Year delicacy) which is unique to Lady Wong," said Anthony. The couple has garnered an increasing following on their Instagram, boasting nearly 20,000 followers.
Last December, Eater named Lady Wong as Best Bakery in NYC’s 2022 Eater Awards.
Its editor Melissa McCart said in the article NYC’s 2022 Eater Awards Winners, "Whether it's the Rothko-esque colours of seri muka pandan, the primness of Malay rose cake, the springy simplicity of pandan chiffon cake, or the spiralled cuteness of an ube roll cake, there’s no denying Lady Wong makes desserts that are as stunning as they are delicious."
As for the future, Lady Wong remains on an organic growth trajectory, despite numerous expansion offers. "We've yet to decide, as we run with a tight bandwidth," Tan concluded.