On the Line: James Leung Of Cross Roast

James and the giant pig
James and the giant pig
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

When Edwin mentioned Cross Roast in his Now Open column, I was dying to check it out. While James Leung follows a quick service model that's become tried and true, his personal twist fits right in to our county's diverse ethnic backgrounds. Even more cool: crossing paths with someone who graduated from the same college with the same major. 

Please explain what distinguishes Cantonese BBQ from other regional BBQ styles.
Cantonese BBQ's traditional name is Siu Nap. The literal translation is roast and cured. Most proteins are prepared as a whole in Cantonese BBQ, such as a whole hog, duck, goose or chicken. This means that the skin of the animal has to be cured perfectly before roasting. There are specific methods to cure the skin of each protein, which is quite different from other regional BBQ styles. A good example is the roast duck. Most people had Peking duck, which is very similar to the Cantonese roast duck. The skin of the duck is the highlight of the dish.

My challenge at Cross Roast was revamping the recipes to eliminate any artificial color and flavoring that was called for in traditional recipes. Red symbolizes luck and festivity in Asia, and this influence can also be seen in food. That's why you would see many traditional BBQ has a red tone. However, having a very allergic child changed my view on food greatly. It made me very conscious of what we put in our food. So I turned away from that aspect of traditional Cantonese BBQ and carried on the same awareness in developing the recipes for Cross Roast. I am proud to say that I don't use any coloring or MSG in our cooking at Cross Roast.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
In my opinion, the most challenging part about cooking at home is the equipment. You need to understand their limitations before deciding what to cook. Recipes that require low heat and slow cooking will get you the best results at home.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the city of Alhambra, which is about 10 miles east of Los Angeles. My previous job prior to the restaurant is located in Orange County. After working in Orange Count for more than eight years, I fell in love with the area. I love the ocean, so Orange County is definitely the place!

How did you decide on your specific concept?
The fastest growing segment today is the fast-casual concept. And the build-your-own-meal platform is the most successful within that segment. Customization is what customers want. It also allows us  to streamline the operation at the service counter instead of at the back of the house. It worked out perfectly for our size. 

What is your guilty pleasure food?
There are several, but there is one in particular I am not too proud of. Growing up, I used to like instant noodles with the spice pack as a snack. It was one of those deep fried, instant noodles that you could crush up and eat right out of the bag after adding the spice pack. The sodium and MSG levels were definitely off the chart.

You spent many years working in foodservice procurement. Could you elaborate on some of the responsibilities that included?
Procurement is a part of the overall supply-chain strategy. My primary goal was to maintain cost and to ensure no interruption in our supplies. A huge part of my time was to build our relationships between companies and suppliers. That also included working with our team in product ideation, improving food quality and improvising ease of production. In recent years, our focus and resources had increased tremendously on food safety. This was driven by both the consumers and globalization of food supplies. This had increased my responsibilities to include quality control and risk management.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Talent! Orange County has some of the most innovative chefs in the country.

What do you recommend for first-timers?
I would definitely recommend the Roasted Pork Belly over Ginger Rice. For a customer who has never had Ginger Rice, he/she would be pleasantly surprised by it. Roasted Pork Belly with crispy skin, and can't ever go wrong with the fragrant Ginger Rice, topped with scallion and cilantro. It might sound simple, but definitely is craveable. 

Favorite places to eat (besides your own).
Scott's in Costa Mesa. Great food, exceptional service and always consistent. Unfortunately, it's closed after 26 years of service. Eat Chow in Costa Mesa is also a great joint to visit; small place, but great menu.

You grew up in a family of restaurateurs. Tell us about the dim sum establishment.
The name of the dim sum restaurant was Casa de Oriente. Using a Spanish name was quite nontraditional, but the meaning "House of the East" was perfect, considering it matched nicely with the Chinese name. The restaurant's property was an investment by my grandparents back in the 70's, before they even set foot in America. It was quite a remarkable decision that my grandparents made in search for a better future for all of us. This decision to invest overseas from Hong Kong created so many opportunities for our families and definitely had a direct influence on who I am today.

Casa de Oriente was the biggest dim sum restaurant in Alhambra, with room to host 40+ banquet tables. It first opened its doors in 1985, and was considered one of the best dim sum restaurants in Southern California. Our restaurant was known for the varieties of dim sum and traditional high-end Cantonese dishes during that time.

Recipe for success
Recipe for success
Brian Feinzimer

What's your favorite childhood memory?
I always enjoyed walking through the street market after school. My mom used to buy me and my brother street food for snacking while we walked home from school. In Hong Kong, walking was the main form of transportation. There was a lot to see and many interactions with people around you. Good times.

Favorite meal growing up:
My favorite is my mom's steamed ground pork with diced shiitake mushrooms. My mom is a great cook. She is the second oldest child in her family with seven siblings, so she did most of the cooking growing up. Her dishes are traditional Cantonese-style, consisting of mostly steamed and stir-fried items.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
Since I've been involved with foodservice procurement, one stereotype is keeping food costs low means larger profit margins. This is not entirely true. Profit goals should be determined by dollars and not just percentage. The key is to drive sales on menu items that help you generate the highest revenue. Food cost percentage is one metric to evaluate how well you procure over time, but not a profit driver.

We both graduated with Hospitality Management degrees from Cal Poly Pomona. How do you think having the degree aided you in the industry?
Cal Poly Pomona's Hospitality Management Program is consistently ranked the best hospitality program on the West Coast. From my own personal experience, being a graduate from this program definitely provided me with many opportunities in the past.

You mentioned not taking credit for your interior. Who is responsible for the decor?
My talented wife Shirley is the one who came up with all the design elements for the restaurant, including our logo. She has a fashion merchandising background, so she definitely has a good eye on selecting materials and colors

You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Porridge cooked with salted pork and century eggs, topped with scallion and white pepper. Be sure to pick up some Chinese donuts, which are the must-have pairing with the porridge.

When you're not in the restaurant, what are you doing in your free time?
When I am not in the restaurant, I try to spend as much time as possible with my family. Foodservice requires long hours, so finding time for the family is a challenge. 

Hardest lesson you've learned:
In my younger days, I guess the hardest lesson was being hindered by the fear of failure or fear of making mistakes. But actually, making mistakes is necessary to becoming successful. This is even more true in the culinary world; every great recipe only comes after many trials and errors. The key is to learn from the process and build upon the experience. Never be afraid to fail to become better.

Last thing you looked up online:
First Bronco opening season game highlights.

Tell us something most people don't know about you.
Since I was in the procurement field for more than 15 years, most of my past colleagues did not know I cook. They were quite surprised about me being the brain behind Cross Roast's offerings. They were even more surprised when they saw me tossing woks and roasting in the kitchen.

With experience in family-run operations as well as brand name chains, what takeaways from them did you find most useful when creating Cross Roast?
Being involved with so many brand name chains allowed me to think big when creating Cross Roast. From finance, design, construction, operation to training, the question of how to scale has never left my mind. On the other hand, having the experience in a family-run restaurant allowed me to appreciate people resources. Foodservice is indeed a people business, and creating a culture of happy employees is the key to excellent service.

Do you have any skills that have nothing to do with food?
I have not discovered any skills outside of food that are worth mentioning. I recently made a table top for the restaurant which passed inspection. Does that count?

What would you like to be doing if you weren't in this business?
I would like to teach cost controls or other culinary-related classes in college. The older I get, the more I want to share and pass on what I have learned.

Tell us about your children.
I have two kids; Ethan is 11 and Maiya is 8. They are the fuel behind the hard work Shirley and I are putting in. I hope Cross Roast will inspire them to follow their own dreams one day.

Cross Roast is located at 401 S Magnolia Ave, Anaheim, (714) 236-5766; www.thecrossroast.com.


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