Mogan Anthony and Seleste Tan are the husband and wife team behind Lady Wong, a patisserie in NYC’s East Village that specializes in Southeast Asian treats such as colorful kiuh and deliciously light cakes made of pandan—a leafy green that transforms into Indonesian vanilla. When the pandemic brought restaurants to a halt, the Malaysian-born chefs started making desserts that reminded them of home as a way to pass the time. Lady Wong was born soon after.
Here, they reminisce about their sweet engagement story (including an impromptu trip to Cartier), the significant meanings of their desserts, and how they plan to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
How long have you guys been together?
Mogan Anthony: A long time. I met Seleste when she was a pastry cook in a Four Seasons Hotel, and I was the front-of-the-house captain. So I had to deal with her a lot.
Seleste Tan: Yeah, he was very good at making sure my dessert was up to the standard.
MA: I was a pain in the ass, just say so. [Laughs] She made pastries and I would pick them up, and deliver them to the customers. Then one day we went out for drinks.
ST: No, he’s lying. He doesn’t drink. [Laughs] I drink once in a while. We went to a movie and after that, I said, “Would you like to grab a drink or something?” And what did you order? Bourbon?
MA: A Jack [Daniels] and Coke. I was just holding it. I was too embarrassed [not to have a drink]. Eventually, we would go to these semi-fine dining restaurants and I’d ask the waiter for a chocolate milkshake and the waiter would look at me like I was crazy.
What’s your engagement story? MA: We moved to New York around 2006 and decided to get married around 2010. By that time I had gone from working in the front of the house to working in the kitchen. I had worked at a bunch of Jean-George’s restaurants like Perry Street and Nougatine. Seleste got a job at WD-50. But even still I was a broke cook. I had, like, no money. [Laughs]
ST: My parents started to bug us, “Hey, when are you guys getting married? You are not young anymore.” So we decided on a very small wedding. We stripped it down, no engagement, nothing because we had already been together for many years.
And yet here is a gorgeous Cartier ring. MA: Seleste had told me that she didn’t really need somebody to kneel down and propose. And I thought, “I’m probably not the most romantic guy, but I’ve got to figure it out.” So without her knowing, I figured out her ring size and I went to Cartier because I knew that she loves a good natural diamond ring. The saleswoman at Cartier was super nice and did not judge me even though I was still in my chef outfit. I said, “Listen, I don’t know anything about buying rings or natural diamonds. Just teach me because I’m buying this for my future wife.” And she explained that the cheapest ring was probably going to cost $8,000-$10,000. That was not within my budget. [Laughs] And the lady, she was really sweet, she said, “You know what, Mogan? Maybe you should just apply for the Cartier card.” And luckily it was approved.
So the saleswoman recommended this really high-quality natural diamond ring and I was very happy. I put it in my pocket and I went home. I was Googling the best place to propose and it was this spot that is under the Brooklyn Bridge.
ST: So we went to The River Café and we ordered a small appetizer to share and a glass of wine just to enjoy the view since we were outside. Then he said something very touching. He said, ”I’m not a romantic guy. I am a cook, and you are willing to marry me. And this is for you.”
MA: I said, “Listen, I got no money, and you moved here, and we’ve gone through thick and thin. This is probably the best I can do to impress you. Maybe at least you will have a memory that somebody proposed to you.” So that was a wonderful feeling that both of us are really grateful for.
ST: [Starts crying at the memory.]
And now look at you! So, Lady Wong started by making cookies at home? Mogan Anthony: Yes, pineapple cookies are really precious for Malaysians and especially for Singaporeans because they represent prosperity, good health, and longevity during the Chinese New Year. Usually, Seleste and I would fly home to Singapore and Malaysia for the New Year. Since we couldn’t go [during the pandemic] we said, “Let’s do some sort of traditional pastry to celebrate.” We ended up making a lot of them. We could only eat so many so we gave them away to other people to test out. From there, more and more people asked, “When are you guys doing a pop-up?” So we did a pop-up for the first year and then we said, “Hey, this might be a great opportunity to start our own business.” We built such a strong community, so we just figured it out.
What’s the story behind the name, Lady Wong? MA: When we first started, I told Seleste, “We should call it, like, Java Club.” Seleste was like, “What are you talking about?”
Seleste Tan: We couldn’t connect.
MA: We couldn’t connect. [Laughs] In Chinese, the word “ong” means pineapple and also longevity and we thought Lady sounded pretty, so we added a “W”. There is no “Lady Wong.”
ST: [Our logo] is a pineapple and if you look closely in the middle part there is a Chinese coin. It is a good luck coin.
MA: We designed the store [on 9th Street in the East Village] ourselves. Actually, a lot of the decorations are from our house.
ST: Yes, from my collection. Every time we fly, I have at least four empty pieces of luggage [to fill after going shopping]. I brought every single thing that you see here [from home]. Mogan always asked me, “Why are you buying all this?” And now we have the store.
MA: I was like, “just get everything down from the attic!”
What are some of the pastries that you are making for the Lunar New Year? ST: There is the Angku Kuih (a red tortoise cake with mung bean filling), the Seri muka, which is the pandan custard cake, an Indonesian rainbow cake with all different layers that has a strong coconut flavor. We also have pandan panna cotta, baked Nian gao, and pineapple jam tart. Plus our famous matcha pandan tart, and the calamansi passion fruit cake.
MA: We wanted to stay true to our roots. We use pandan, which is an Indonesian vanilla, in everything we cook. It is very underrepresented in New York. Every cake here has some sort of meaning. In Malaysia, during the Chinese New Year or a wedding, every single food has to represent something. The color, the food, the auspicious time.
ST: So for example, the Angku Kuih is in the shape of a tortoise. The name itself has a lot of meaning. The tortoise or the Ang Ku, basically lives 400 years, and that means you have a long life. So the pastry is made for weddings and when a baby arrives.
MA: The rainbow kuih has layers. Each layer represents that every year you’re going up the ladder, you’re doing well, and you celebrate your small successes.
ST: Nian gao is a New Year’s cake and we can eat it throughout the year as well. It has a mochi flavor.
MA: It is the most celebrated cake in Southeast Asia. Usually, when I go to my in-law’s house, they buy this cake a week or two in advance. They just leave it at home for the prayers. The cake literally means prosperity and advancement. Progress.
What love stories have blossomed at Lady Wong or over Lady Wong pastries? MA: We have couples coming in all the time who want to order pastries for their wedding or proposals. When we first opened, a couple wanted to celebrate their wedding in the style of the movie, Crazy, Rich Asians. They really wanted to mimic the movie. With the colors and loud music.
ST: Lots of dancing.
MA: Lots of dancing. At the time, we were so new, we couldn’t cater to them because we just opened the place, but when I listened to their story and they showed me the vision that they had it was fantastic.
How do you plan to celebrate Chinese New Year? MA: We are planning to celebrate at our store since we will be open. We are super excited.
Photographer: Andrew Werner Video Creative Director: Brian Anstey