Ask the Chef
Sophina Uong of Picán
When Sophina Uong took over the stove at Oakland’s most upscale Southern dining destination, Picán, the self-taught, Cambodian-born chef knew it wouldn’t be an easy undertaking.
“People just like to say a lot of things,” says Uong, 39 and who lives in Emeryville when she’s not heading the show at Picán. “The existing staff was a little macho; it was a bit of a boys’ club, so it took a while to build the trust and friendship. I didn’t come in here, like, ‘I’m going to change all this, and if you don’t want to be here, well, leave!’ A lot of restaurants are like that. I wanted to hone in on who excelled at what, and I’m really proud right now. I have amazing cooks in their own right, and an amazing staff.”
Uong, whose parents moved from Cambodia to the United States when she was 2, knows whereof she speaks. Though she’s self-taught, that mainly means she didn’t spend gobs of money on a culinary degree. Instead, after graduating from Cal Berkeley in 1996 with a degree in horticultural science, Uong’s worked in the finest of restaurants — from the front of the room to behind the kitchen doors — in the Bay Area over the past 15 years. You name the job, she’s done it. Installed flowers at Scala’s Bistro? Check. Worked as a server at Restaurant LuLu? Check. Bartended at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar? Check. Helped open 900 Grayson — oh! the burger! — in West Berkeley? Check. Hired as executive chef for Betty Zlatchin Catering in San Francisco? Check.
And now, Picán. We decided to check in with Uong.
Q: So, let’s get this straight: You’re a native of Cambodia, your mom owned a string of doughnut shops in Southern California, and your brother is the beverage director at Morimoto in New York. It doesn’t sound as if you were surrounded by grits and fried chicken growing up, so what was it like taking the baton from Dean Dupuis at Picán and diving head first into the deep fryer?
A: Well, going back to my father … we lived by a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Does that count? Seriously, though, I lived mostly with my dad, and he didn’t cook, so a staple for us was fried chicken, rice and fish sauce. But it has been a little interesting. Dean was here a long time, and the transition was rough. I am a little leaner on the fats and stuff, and I’m having to adjust some of the recipes and some of the cooking habits and changing some of the oils we used, like grapeseed oil instead of canola, that kind of thing.
Q: Is there any comparison at all between Picán’s cuisine and what you grew up with, KFC notwithstanding?
A: My mom (who was separated from my dad) would cook Asian food, but pretty much I grew up with American food, and I like to say I learned to cook from a box: I literally learned how to cook a potato gratin from the instructions on the side of the box it came in. But now, I appreciate the spice I grew up with and a lot of the acid that Cambodian food and Southeast Asian food have. There’s a lot of balance with sweet and salty and vinegar.
Q: You’ve worked in amazing kitchens and restaurants, but Southern cuisine can be tricky to master. Was there a steep learning curve?
A: I’m learning a lot about the different regions. New Orleans’ food is totally different from Alabama food. There’s more refinement. I’m learning from [owner] Michael [LeBlanc] about the differences across the South. It’s interesting, though. I’ve had a lot of advice, and there are a lot of surprised faces to see me behind the line. I’m
a little self-conscious about that. But it’s fun. It’s kind of a trip. The smallest details can get pointed out, like some think my crust is too flaky on the pecan pie. There is a learning curve, but I think when people actually eat the food, they can’t say much.
Q: You’ve had such a variety of jobs in the business: Flower installer, server, bartender, executive chef. Which has been the most challenging?
A: Maybe being a server, but cooking, too. I’ve learned that it’s not about your ability to cook or communicate as much as it is wrangling the personalities together and making sure everyone is cohesive. It’s about keeping people happy and together. Without your staff, you’re nothing. I’m very appreciative of everyone here and the support. It’s a good house. I don’t miss serving though. And I think I liked bartending the best. It was like, “I can stay right here behind the bar and you can come to me.”
Q: What was the best piece of advice owner Michael LeBlanc gave you before you took over the kitchen?
A: Michael said, “Just cook from your heart. And be ready.” He taught me a lot about going for it.
Picán, 2295 Broadway, Oakland, 510-834-1000, www.picanrestaurant.com. Serves lunch 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon.–Fri. and 10:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Sat. Dinner served 5–9 p.m. Mon.–Thu., 5–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat. and 4:30–9 p.m. Sun. Brunch offered 10:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun.