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Sophina Uong On Making Waves While Treading Lightly At Mister Mao

Sophina Uong is chef and (with her husband William “Wildcat” Greenwell) owner of Mister Mao restaurant in New Orleans. Uong previously cooked in several high-end restaurants in San Francisco and the Bay Area, before an interlude at the troubled Lucky Cricket in St. Louis. She and Greenwell then relocated to New Orleans to figure out their next move.

Back in Oakland, California, I worked for a man that had a Southern restaurant called Picán. He used to send me to New Orleans in 2010 and 2012 to stage at August. And then I made a bunch of friends in Lafayette and Nunez, Louisiana. I made a bunch of barbecue friends. God, that feels like so long ago.

We left California in 2018, and I moved to Minnesota to work for Andrew Zimmern, because they had an emergency. They were opening Lucky Cricket and something happened to their chef. Then interesting things happened in everyone’s life in Minnesota.

We hightailed it here to New Orleans because we Californians needed some sunlight. We came to figure out what we were doing. I decided to bartend for a year, just because Minnesota was a long experience. We needed a cleanse.

Sophina Uong. Photo: Cory Fontenot.

And then I was going back and forth to San Francisco doing projects. We wound up doing some pop-ups here, and then COVID hit, and then we found this location. We just settled down because our kids are in college.

I always wanted to open up a restaurant back home in California. I had a restaurant there in 2006. But I never really had a chance to bloom there because other people were involved. So we would have really liked to go back, but we had an opportunity to change. COVID made us stay put.

We were looking for a house in New Orleans—something a little more Mission District, like back in San Francisco. Then our realtor said that this restaurant had closed, and it came with an apartment next door, so we were like, “Okay, we could live next door and da da da da.” We signed, and then just freaked out. We were like, “Oh shit. We’re stuck now.” But we didn’t end up living next door, because that is insane! I don’t recommend that.

We took over this 20-year-old Creole restaurant in an uptown, more affluent neighborhood. We completely gutted it. In the beginning, it was received really well by the neighborhood—though we still get naysayers who are like, “What happened?” And I’m like, “Well, it was 20 years ago.”

Photo: Cory Fontenot.

Originally, with our pop-ups, we were working in breweries. We were making a lot of stoner food—or COVID comfort food, which translated into stoner food to me. We basically cooked the stuff that my husband likes. Our demographic is the 38-to-42-year-old guy.

That’s how Mister Mao came about. We wanted to cook the food that we like to eat, and the stuff we miss having. Heavily spicy, South Asian flavors, just a mashup of whatever. At first, I spent a lot of time worrying, “I don’t know if people like this, or if it’s too weird, or not New Orleans.” I still don’t tell people I’m from California. I tell people I’m from Minnesota. I’m a snowflake. We tread lightly here.

The thing that southern food taught me is the simplicity of what you can get from the ingredients you’re working with. You don’t need a lot to cook off the flavor. It teaches you how to work with an ingredient like okra, which is pretty hard. That’s not a forgiving vegetable if it’s bigger than the size of a pinkie.

I do think that the South is probably ready for some new flavors and change. With COVID and social media and YouTube and everyone working from home, there’s a new hustle of like, “I’m going to teach you how to cook African food, so watch my channel.” That lends itself to what’s happening in the food scene now.

Photo: Cory Fontenot.

A lot has changed in the world—BIPOC chefs and Food & Wine and James Beard. It’s a really interesting time. I’m a lot older than people think, so I have seen so many changes. Everyone thinks I’m young, and I’m like, “I’m almost 50, so it’s my time.”

But it’s funny, I just started making friends with the older chefs—the people my age, the old guard. All the pop-up chefs were younger friends—like at Turkey and the Wolf and all the little hipster people. Now, I just hung out with Sue Zemanick from Zasu on an oyster boat. We were doing an ecological tour of what they’re doing with oyster shells and making the new shoreline. I felt like a cool kid. I’m like, “We’re the same age and I’m finally speaking to you!”

I don’t know how people view us, but it’s nice that we have friends in the community, and that we’re making more friends because it’s a small town. We’re in a bunch of different cohorts that are helping with equity, and we work with the Made in New Orleans Foundation. We’re trying to compost, and do the recycling. Hopefully all that works out someday for New Orleans.

COVID forced everyone’s hands to make decisions—mostly financial decisions. For people in the restaurant industry, I was like, “Holy shit, no one’s working, but people need to eat.” It definitely made us decide to just go for it and do something different, culinary-wise, to get some attention. Now I feel like everyone’s ready to come out of their homes and celebrate.

And I feel like in my community, and in my friend community, we are looking for smaller places to eat. Because the past two years have been so hard, we’re looking to support different food people—whether they’re ethnic or not—because it’s just more interesting and because everyone’s struggling. I think people consciously try to put their money into places they want to support because it has been so hard, but I also think that New Orleans has better access to food, to local stuff.

Photo: Cory Fontenot.

I can only speak to knowing New Orleans by coming here for 10 years. It’s like the uncle that you love to come visit and party with and learn from. But then you live here and you’re like, “Wow, this is so different.”

Older, more established restaurants already have relationships with fishermen and farmers. And that’s what we’re doing now. I’m not knocking the old guard. Brigtsen’s is like 36 years old. That is incredible. That’s what people come for from around the country—the New Orleans cuisine, the Creole and Cajun and everything you can get here. It’s the shit that I don’t know how to cook!

But we have oyster delivery starting soon, and it’s this guy who is fairly young, and his whole fleet is one ship. His boat got destroyed during Hurricane Ida. We’re trying to help him by purchasing his oysters. And then we have another guy in the Seventh Ward who’s growing vegetables. We’re just trying to support them.

We’re one of 20 restaurants in the MiNO Foundation. We sit on a Zoom for four hours one Monday each month. I learn a lot of new words. The salaries and wages are so low here compared to the West Coast. It’s still $2.13 an hour, plus tips, for front of house. We pay our staff $5 to $10 an hour in the front of house, and they’re making $250 to $300 a night. And then in our kitchen, we pay a higher hourly, we give them tips, we also give them healthcare. We’ve just opened, and I have no idea how long our savings will last, but that’s part of business. That’s the risk you take by taking care of people.

We’re on a waiting list to recycle glass, which is super foreign to me. But it teaches you to not take things for granted anymore, like the people who came to pick up your cardboard. Now my husband and I drive around looking for cardboard recycling dumpsters at 10 o’clock at night, arguing like, “This is some bullshit.” We would rather pay to compost vegetables and food scraps and give back to the Earth than pay for a dumpster for cardboard. So we’re just like everyone else in New Orleans, driving around.

When it comes to equity, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that I never realized what racism entailed—what deep-rooted, historical racism was—until I moved to the South. I got dinged the other day. We’re having a fundraiser with Touré Folkes and Turning Tables. We have one little pop-up doing the food, and we have another little famous baker around here doing the dessert. I made a flyer and it used the word “charity,” and Touré’s like, “Hey, take that down. We’re in solidarity.” And I was like, “Fuck. Sorry.”

Those are the things that we’re in this cohort for—they’re making us aware of things. I’ve never had to count how many BIPOC people are in the room. I’m brown. But then I sit on this Zoom call with more than 100 people on, and I’m like, “Whoa, there’s actually not a lot of brown management.”

I just look forward to being able to stay open. This will be our second summer. I’m hoping there’s not a hurricane, because that sucked. We have a bunch of pop-ups coming through, so I’m trying to have this restaurant as a community space for people that can use our platform to get a leg up. Everybody needs a little help.