Her staff treated her like an outsider because of her lack of experience. So Angelina trained herself to become a capable chef, a caring manager, and a respected boss. Here’s how she started The Flying Squirrel.
Having cut her teeth in various fields, Angelina Leong had successful careers in the aviation, hospitality and finance industries. But it was only seven years ago that she found her calling in the food and beverage industry. Along with musicians Jack Ho and Rai Kannu of the popular Singapore rock band Jack & Rai, Angelina opened a Japanese restaurant, The Flying Squirrel.
“I have always had a passion for food,” explains Angelina, who is married to Jack. “It was not at all surprising, considering how I grew up watching my parents run their own Kopitiam back in Kelana Jaya, Malaysia.”
The decision to leave her stable job in the finance industry was a spontaneous one. The trio, who are close friends and now business partners, had always discussed setting up and running their own dining establishment, but never put their plans into motion.
As fate would have it, a chance listing on CommercialGuru reminded Angelina of those conversations and her dreams of wanting to strike out on her own, which spurred her to take action.
“When Jack and I went down to view the location, it was perfect. It was exactly what I envisioned it to be. I studied in Melbourne, and this is like those eateries located in between alleyways,” Angelina says. “We wanted something small and something not so intimidating to start with.”
“That very same night, we brought Rai over, after our little gathering. He knew we had made up our minds and he said, ‘Okay lor, you on, we on lor’.” And just like that, the three went into business.
Hidden away on a side alley on Amoy Street, the humble 30-seater Japanese restaurant is reminiscent of the cosy and casual “hole-in-the-wall” eateries commonly found in Melbourne, Australia. Its menu offerings run the gamut from traditional cuts of Japanese sashimi and sushi to Japanese fusion dishes, such as Truffle Ebi Fry.
For the uninitiated, The Flying Squirrel is the kind of restaurant that makes you want to stay. The staff is gregarious and engaging. The food whets the appetite of both the eyes and the palate. On some occasions, you would find Jack & Rai jamming away. And on others, you would see Angelina, by the bar counter, happy to bend your ears about anything, often after a tipple or two.
“I guess you can say we are friendly, warm, and very tongue-in-cheek,” Angelina jests.
Sacrifices and being disrespected
But before Angelina could enjoy the fruits of her labour, she, too, has had to weather the storm.
Running a restaurant is demanding work. In the beginning, Angelina, who knew nothing about the nuts and bolts of running a fully-furnished kitchen, had to familiarise herself with kitchen operations, conjure up a menu, hire her staff, and manage the front-of-house. On many occasions, she had to call off precious get-togethers with her friends to focus on The Flying Squirrel, or as she calls it her “baby”.
Even so, Angelina pays little heed to those absences. Deep down, she knew she wanted to spend time nurturing her dream and developing the space into something greater. “(Running a restaurant) demands a lot of your attention, you see. I have to manage my time properly and it can be difficult trying to strike up a work-life balance,” Angelina admits.
In many establishments that serve Japanese cuisine, patriarchy is deeply embedded within the kitchen; women are rarely seen navigating about the testosterone-driven and male-dominated terrain. And it is perhaps this long-standing, toxic mentality that spelled trouble for Angelina in the earlier days.
“I was young then and had little experience in managing people and no experience in kitchen operations, I felt like I was looked down upon.”
At The Flying Squirrel, Angelina’s authority was frequently undermined. The head-chefs she had hired were men who had worked at reputable Japanese restaurants in Singapore, and unbeknownst to her then, they were manipulative too.
According to Angelina, kitchen politics were aplenty back then. The head chef would indirectly compel new hires to take his side in arguments, pay little heed to her comments, and come to work late. Sometimes, they would suggest other staff to follow suit and clock in late too. “I’m quite soft-spoken,” Angelina confesses. “It was very hard for me to make myself heard and argue with them. I was worried that if I argued, the staff would leave and I would have no one making the food.”
Perhaps it was Angelina’s lack of culinary experience, or perhaps she had yet earned her stripes as a superior that allowed those toxic behaviours to surface. Needless to say, all these took a toll on Angelina and she would see herself occasionally getting a burn-out. When that happens, her business partners, Jack and Rai, would step in and manage the space on her behalf and she would take time off to rest.
Fed up and annoyed, Angelina was determined to act.
More precisely, she decided to enroll herself in Tokyo Sushi Academy and learn the skills needed to be a sushi chef. “So while the business was running, I was taking up courses at the institute,” she said. “I was training myself from the ground up.”
There, Angelina met a Japanese chef, who heard and sympathised with her story, and gave her additional training privately. Whenever he travelled to Singapore, he would teach her techniques that he knew and had refined in a traditional Japanese sushi bar. To learn how to make sushi, prepare sushimeshi (or sushi rice in English), slice a fish and other traditional skills, Angelina was gradually building up her confidence.
“At one point, I wanted to gather even more practical experience and I told the ex-head chef then that I wanted to work in the kitchen,” Angelina reminisced. “He couldn’t deny, of course. It was, after all, my kitchen.”
For Angelina, to be able to gather real-life experience in her own kitchen is empowering in many ways. On one hand, she felt that she is now better able to bond with her staff. On the other, she felt more secure because she knew that if anyone walked out on her, she could hold the fort.
Blessing in disguise
As the behaviour persisted and things began getting more out of hand, Angelina reached a tipping point and decided to rid the toxicity and rampant disrespect for good. She had to let go of head-chef, and as a result, many others followed suit. With only three staff left, it seemed like the restaurant was heading toward a gloomy prospect.
On their dismissal, Angelina expressed regrets. “It was quite painful to see them leave because of politics. I questioned my identity as a boss, wondering from time to time, why I could not resolve this issue before it became so bad. I sometimes wonder if I should have been more hands-on and discover the politics earlier.”
But to Angelina, it was also a blessing in disguise. “That allowed me to start anew. I hired more people and trained them from scratch. Look at how far we have come.”
Fast forward to today, the three staff are still working at The Flying Squirrel, which is gradually picking up from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Angelina, who is now a mother of one, shares that motherhood had made her even more empathetic and patient toward her staff.
She remains eternally grateful to both Jack and Rai, her staff, and her Japanese teacher. If anything, her seven-year-long experience running The Flying Squirrel has empowered her to be unabashed, forthcoming, and most importantly, herself.
Beyond fresh sashimi and warm bento boxes, The Flying Squirrel is a place where diners are encouraged to strike up a conversation and be open about food or life. The inconspicuous eatery, hidden in an alleyway, is a testament to how Angelina has transitioned and evolved over the years. But more importantly, it is where Angelina will continue growing, as a chef and as a mother.
Angelina Leong is Managing Director of The Flying Squirrel; open for reservations and delivery.