Chef Uno Immanivong on Learning from Anthony Bourdain and Growing Chino Chinatown

Categories: Interviews

Immanivong_courtesy.jpg
Courtesy of the restaurant
Chef Uno Immanivong, with fellow TV chef Tiffany Derry.
Since her appearance on ABC's popular cooking show The Taste, Chef Uno Immanivong has been on a pretty wild ride. Just a year and a half after filming the show alongside mentor Anthony Bourdain, Immanivong is three months into owning her first restaurant.

That restaurant, Trinity Groves' Chino Chinatown, serves up Latin-Asian fusion dishes that are as interesting as the chef that created them. Chef Uno sat down with me to talk Bourdain, her background in business, and how she's handled her warp-speed introduction to the culinary world.

I'm sure everybody asks you about being on The Taste and what hanging out with Anthony Bourdain was like, but I'm most curious about how the show helped you in opening Chino Chinatown?
I think that it gave me this validation as a home cook. I think my food is great, my family thinks my food is great, but to have these celebrity chefs as mentors who taste my food and say "this is some really good stuff" was what I needed. Of all people, Anthony Bourdain gave me that encouragement.

Were you expecting that? Or were you kind of expecting him to be a jerk?
I wasn't sure what to expect, but I went in thinking that he [Bourdain] was going to be a hard ass and give us tough love, but in actuality he was very nurturing. He gave us the tools that we needed and guidance to make the best dishes for our team challenges. It was just a surreal moment. It's been a whirlwind, my life has turned upside down. In a good way.

What food have you incorporated from the show on the menu here at Chino Chinatown. What can people see on TV and then come in and eat?
Everyday something in that kitchen comes from what I learned on The Taste. On the show, I think I displayed how I take inspiration every day from my childhood and the way my mom cooks. The flavor profiles are the same at Chino.

The one dish that was so popular on the show was the larb gai, or lucky chicken. We had it on the menu at one point, but ultimately decided to take it off. Our kitchen is so small that it wasn't efficient, and we wanted to focus on making all these other things that people will love.

How difficult has it been to adjust to the scale of a restaurant when you're used to cooking at home?
It's a lot more work than I thought it was going to be, and I'm learning every single day. It's been trial and error with my kitchen staff and in the front of house. This is my first restaurant, we've been open for three months. We've been blessed with great business and being part of this Trinity Groves project, but the transition was tough.

I came from this 9 to 5 job where if I was doing catering after, I would do that for a few days and then have a few days to sleep. Now my schedule is flipped upside down - I'm here at 10 or 11 am, and leave at midnight. I was working seven days a week, but I'm getting days off now. I'm happy tired, though. I'm exhausted, but in the big picture, I'm doing the things I love and I'm not burned out yet. Knock on wood.

That's such a crazy trajectory - going from the corporate world into food, one of the most creative industries. Has that been overwhelming?
It is a little stressful to put something out for people to try. I love the food, and other people love it, but will everyone love it? Dallas is as much of a foodie town as Austin is, but I wasn't sure that this was going to work. This Latin-Asian fusion. It's new. I think there's 3 restaurants total in the country that claim to be Latin-Asian fusion, and we're the only one, I think, here in Texas. It's nerve wracking to create something and try to make it popular.

Where does the blend of Latin and Asian cuisines even come from? I don't think it's a connection that many people would make.
My business partner is Adrian Verdin and he grew up in a Latin family, and I'm Asian, and we melded our traditional family recipes together in a somewhat non-traditional way. I think some of the flavor profiles match each other. There's a lot of use of cilantro, fresh herbs, and spices.

Typically, I would use a fresh Thai chili or a dry red chile for a dish, but in Latin America you would choose guajillo or chipotle pepper. That really adds a depth of flavor to the dish. One of the first dishes Adrian and I did together was our "phozole." I made a traditional pho broth, and Adrian brought the pozole accoutrements - hominy instead of rice noodles and a braised oxtail. It turned out really well, so that was the first spark of creativity. I would love to get into some more modern food, but we're doing around 500 covers a night on the weekend. It's hard to get those dishes out quickly.

So many people want to start a restaurant because they love to cook, but maybe they're not so good with the numbers. How helpful has your past life, 16 years in the mortgage banking world, been with the business side of running a restaurant?
If I hadn't been in banking first, I don't think I would have been as successful. Being in the banking industry taught me a lot of great leadership skills like knowing how to manage a team, and choose the right people to build your business. I know what drives people. No matter if you're in banking or cooking or what, it all comes down to your people and what you're putting out there. Being able to do the math helps, but the numbers will fall into place once you've cultivated a great business and a great place to work.

I don't think people expect for someone to work at a buttoned-up bank all day and then come home and be so creative with food. What drives your creativity?

I think about that every day. I want people to experience something that they haven't experienced before. That drives me. I want to see their face when they take that first bite. The other piece of it is to say that anything is possible. I may think of some hairball idea that turns out well, but I might need to explain it. You might think something is too weird to try, but I want to create a craving for you after the first bite.

I think our duck fat fried rice does that. It's weird, but so good. We use duck fat instead of regular oil, Chinese barbecue, and Chinese sausage, which is like an Asian bacon. Then we put a fried egg on top and that just makes everything luscious. I don't want to put parameters on what I can and can't do. If it fails, I'll just fail better next time.

It seems like you've been really good at navigating environments that are traditionally very male-dominated. First banking, and now the culinary world. Has the dynamic been different from the board room to the kitchen?
I definitely went from one man's world to the next. My kitchen is dominated by male chefs and cooks on the line, and it was an adjustment. I'm still trying to prove myself every day. Not having the culinary background or going to an accredited school is somewhat of a deficit for me in the food world. Everybody knows somebody, and I knew nobody in this industry. But these guys see how hard I'm working, and they respect me as an owner and chef. I'd never ask them to do something I haven't done.

What about your education? How did you learn all these flavor pairings and cooking techniques? Google?
It's all YouTube! And Food Network! [laughs] Growing up, kids would grow up and play school or play house. I have a younger sibling, and I would play cooking show. We would watch The Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child and Martin Yang. My family grew up kind of poor and we would have ramen noodles and pretend that it was chicken or whatever else as we were playing cooking show.

As I grew up, my cuisine became more Americanized and I would use some of the ingredients my mom used to make my own version of spaghetti and meatballs or whatever dish. I would find a recipe and improve on it in my own way. I met other chefs along the way and picked their brains on techniques and their secrets. I asked a lot of questions and experimented a lot.

Sometimes when I'm cooking, I build up this perfect dish in my mind and it turns out awful. Can you think of any examples where you've done that?
When we first started cooking here, I had to make some major changes to how I prepared some of these dishes. When I first started making our second most popular dish, the drunken noodles, they just turned into mush. It took probably 20 tries to work out the process of making that dish to get the steps in the right order. In that time, we burned a lot of garlic. But now we've got it all worked out. Trial and error, you know.

How much cooking do you actually do here on a day-to-day basis?
I don't do as much as I used to. I'm doing a lot more paperwork these days. I spend a good 10 hours a week doing research in the kitchen. I don't want to change the menu too much, but our daily specials still give me the autonomy to be creative and try different things and see if they work. If it works, it may end up on the menu. But really, I'm in the kitchen all the time. If you come in on the weekend, I'm running expo or if someone takes a day off, I'll go run a station. At any point, I could be doing something in the kitchen.

Do you enjoy that work in the kitchen?
That is the adrenaline rush. After you've done, say, 500 covers and turned out that food so quickly, at the end of the night, you feel like you've accomplished something. I'm so busy, but I'm happy.

Are you still doing a lot of cooking at home?
No. I go home to sleep.

Do you miss it? Do you miss cooking for your family?
I do miss it. I miss evenings at home watching movies and just doing nothing. Or just doing homework and catching up with my daughter. Now that things are stabilizing a little bit, those nights are getting a little more routine.

I hesitate to ask this question because I feel like it's kind of sexist to ask a female chef how they balance work and family. We never ask male chefs, but as a single mom, you're in a unique situation. Has it been difficult?

It is hard. Being the single mom of a 9 year old who is a model and an actress is busy. We talk about our dreams. She's very interested in food and wants to be a food critic one day. She so understands everything what I'm going through because we go through it together.

Her dad is very involved, so if I have a late night at the restaurant, he's more than willing to take her for the night and do all those parent things that I would be doing. When I do have time off, it's completely dedicated to her because your life can get out of whack really, really quickly.

Does your daughter critique your food?

Yes, yes she does. She'll ask "Mommy, are you sure you want to serve that?" When she says something is good, it's good. Kids are so honest. She told me the first day that our fried rice was going to be the top seller. I don't think that I would be sitting across from you if it wasn't for her.

My whole food journey started when she was 3 years old. I asked myself what I wanted to teach her, what I wanted to leave for her. That's when I opened my own Foodie Couture [Immanivong's catering company] and started trying to get on a cooking show. The last two years, the velocity of change for us has been huge. Hopefully it kinds of tapers off for at least the next six months.

What about after that, do you have any plans for the next year?
I would love to expand the Chino brand if it works out that way. I would love to create cookware and build on the Chef Uno brand. At the end of the day, I just want to inspire people to do what they love. Even if it's part time, it makes the world a better place.

So you're literally trying to take over the world.
I hope so. No, actually, I'm not. With a name like Uno, there's high expectations there. It's so funny because my parents named me after the United Nations Organization, it's weird that I'm an Asian with a Spanish name who owns a Latin-Asian restaurant. Somebody had a plan for me.

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