Chef Sophina Uong has made quite a name for herself in the culinary world. Crowned the “Grand Champion Grill Master” on the Food Network’s series Chopped, the Cambodian-American chef has used her 25 years of experience in the kitchen to launch one of the trendiest restaurants in New Orleans, Mister Mao.
While one may assume that Uong always wanted to work in the culinary arts field, it wasn’t until her early adulthood that she realized food has the power to bring people together.
“I didn’t grow up eating at the dinner table like normal American families,” Uong shares with BrownStyle Magazine exclusively. “My mother wasn’t around, and my stoic father worked all the time to support my brother and me. I learned to cook at an incredibly young age out of necessity. I was the remaining dutiful female in an Asian household, and it was my role to cook.”
Although Uong modestly shares that she wasn’t always great at cooking in her youth, she confirms she was an expert at reading and following any recipe on the back of a hamburger helper box or her favorite potatoes au gratin.
It wasn’t until her early 20s that she realized food had the unique ability to spark a conversation and unite people from different walks of life.
“I had a serious boyfriend whose family was incredibly close and supportive,” she shares, noting she always felt loved, accepted, and seen whenever they sat down at the dinner table. “It was my first time sharing meals at the dinner table, swapping stories, laughing, and eating simple, yet incredible home-cooked meals by a doting mother. Helping to set the table, picking vegetables from the garden, learning to make another family’s heirloom recipes, and eating together made up for everything I missed as a child.”
Fast-forward to today, Uong still holds onto these memories as an anchor to why she started cooking professionally in the first place— to make people happy.
The owner of Mister Mao admits that although there are challenges that come with the territory of owning a restaurant, it’s all worth it when she sees someone enjoying the dishes she created.
Building Confidence In The Kitchen
According to Uong, confidence is a big part of mastering the kitchen. She learned to be more confident in her cooking skills under the wings of her favorite San Francisco chefs who would often allow the line cooks who shined in the kitchen to create new dishes for the menu.
“Your dish would need to thoroughly be vetted by him, his chef de Cuisine, sous chefs, and the entire kitchen,” she explains. “You had to be confident in how it was executed and know your costs. The dish didn’t have to have a story behind it, but you did have to know where the protein came from, how the animal was raised, where the produce was grown, and so on.”
She continues, “I learned how to cook with an open mind, let others cook for me, and understand that I cannot control others. I can only ask them to be their best selves when working with me.”
Mister Mao— A Restaurant That’s Creating A Space At The Table For Everyone
At Mister Mao, Uong fearlessly juggles the spices of Laos, Cambodia, and the Asian Pacific islands, with the soulful traditions of Southern technique. The result is a menu filled with bold and flavorful cuisine that leaves customers satisfied and full of joy.
The success of the NOLA restaurant, which launched in 2021, has given Uong the platform to uplift and celebrate others who may also have dreams of building a restaurant empire.
“I’ve been lucky throughout my career and given many opportunities that have helped me get to the place of opening my restaurant. I want to be able to provide other chefs with that same opportunity,” declares Uong. “It’s important to build each other up.”
To help others find their shine in the culinary world, Uong created the Guest Chef Pop-Up Series, an opportunity for local and regional talents handpicked from food trucks, catering companies, and unconventional culinary realms to show off their cooking skills and raise money for their businesses. The pop-up series has raised close to $50,000 collectively.
“Giving back has always been a key component of who I am as a restaurateur, and something I will continue to do as long as I’m still open,” she affirms. “There are a lot of talented people cooking in New Orleans who may not have the funds to open a brick-and-mortar or need someone to help them get the exposure. By opening up Mister Mao to have them come in and take over the kitchen for a night, I hope to give them some recognition they deserve and hopefully new customers.”
As a WOC, Uong is especially an advocate for helping fellow women get a seat at the table that’s not always open to newcomers in the industry. “It’s nice to know that other women have your back. We’ve all experienced struggles along with way—whether it’s discrimination, not getting those opportunities we’re striving for, or feeling disconnected from the community at large. Having a community can make things feel a little less daunting.”
To our BrownStyle readers who want to pursue a career in culinary arts, Uong offers this simple advice: “Be true to yourself, don’t take any sh*t from others, stand up for what you believe in and remember, you’re in charge of your destiny.”
Keeping Self-Love And Unity Top Of Mind
Outside her busy restaurant schedule, Uong admits she doesn’t have a lot of “me time.” However, she always makes time to reconnect with her husband. “Whether it’s a cozy meal at home or checking out a new spot for dinner, that self-care means a lot to me,” she reveals.
The entrepreneur adds that she also enjoys thrifting, traveling, and seeing new places while exploring new ethnic neighborhoods.
To learn more about Mr. Mao’s delicious menu or how to participate in the Guest Chef Pop-Up Series visit: www.mistermaonola.com.