Karen O'Brien, of South Toledo, center left, Diego Cortez, of Perrysburg, center, Paula Bueno, of West Toledo, center right, and Kate McCain, right, listen as Ching Leong, left, instructs them in Chinese cooking at the 577 Foundation.
A recent Chinese cooking class at the 577 Foundation had all the ingredients of a family get-together.
For about 17 years, Ching Leong has shared her love and knowledge of Asian cuisine with groups of about 15 eager students at the Perrysburg nonprofit.
“It’s always a new experience,” said Karen O’Brien of South Toledo. “I don’t know how she does it.”
Ms. O’Brien said she’s taken almost every class offered by Ms. Leong in the past three years.
And Ms. O’Brien isn’t alone. Several participants at a class focusing on Chinese New Year’s celebration (they referred to themselves as “Ching’s groupies”) called her classes “a family.”
“I got hooked not on the cooking, but on her,” said Donna Bogan of East Toledo. “I just love Ching telling her stories. She is a smart lady.”
Another longtime student, Jackie Ankenbrandt said of Ms. Leong: “She’ll answer any question or go into any detail. We all enjoy each other’s company; it’s like a social thing too.”
Ms. Leong, who grew up in Malaysia, said her interest in cooking began in childhood. He father, who she said was a successful businessman, would often take her to restaurants and encourage her to ask questions about the dishes she liked.
“I have a good memory,” Ms. Leong said of recalling the details for recipes.
The first recipe she learned was for shrimp toast, but many others followed. “That’s what brought out my interest in cooking,” she said.
During a recent class, recognizing the Year of the Snake, Ms. Leong demonstrated the preparation of braised red beef noodle soup, rainbow seafood salad, chicken with glutinous rice, roast duck, and Chinese golden coins. A traditional New Year’s food made of fried batter, the coins are symbolic of the money celebrants will receive in the coming months.
“I don’t think I’ve ever cooked much of this at home, but I just adore her,” Ms. Bogan said. “She’s just the neatest person.”
Once the food is cooked, participants sit down to a family-style meal from which they rarely leave hungry.
“You get hooked, and you’ll never eat Chinese out again,” Ms. Ankenbrandt said.
But Ms. Leong touched on far more than cooking, answering questions about Chinese, culture, herbs, history, and even her childhood in Malaysia.
“Cooking, chatting, eating,” she said of her classes.
Ms. Leong first became involved with the 577 Foundation when she volunteered during the construction of the biodome, a year-round greenhouse that uses solar energy. It wasn’t until the volunteers held a potluck dinner that the extent of her skills was recognized.
She brought along a tofu dish. At the time, Ms. Leong said, tofu wasn’t yet common in the United States, but her dish received rave reviews.
“After they taste it – they said ‘Ching, why don’t you teach us?’” Ms. Leong said.
A tradition was born, but Ms. Leong holds classes far less frequently than she did in the beginning.
She and her husband relocated from Perrysburg to Shelbyville, Ind., because of her husband’s job, making scheduling for the classes a little more difficult.
Ms. Leong’s classes were put on hiatus for about two years, until some of her longtime students convinced her to return occasionally. She now returns about six times a year, usually for a morning and an evening class.
“She’s really informative, and I like to do something,” said Kate McCain of Perrysburg as she helped cook the Chinese golden coins. “She always comes up with something new.”
While many of the classes fill with Ms. Leong’s devotees, newcomers are quickly made to feel welcome.
“I always wanted to come here, but I didn’t get around to it,” said Toledoan Paula Bueno, who decided to sign up for Ms. Leong’s New Year’s class. “Then I retired.”
Ms. Leong also has scheduled the following classes: dim sum cooking, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 22; sushi, 6 to 8:30 p.m. March 22, and authentic Chinese meal, 6-8:30 March 23. A waiting list is in effect for all three classes. The 577 Foundation is located at 577 E. Front St.
“This is like my second home,” Ms. Leong said. “I met so many good people here. I’m very lucky.”
For more information about classes at the 577 Foundation, visit 577foundation.org/takeaclass.asp.