Newly crowned winner of American cooking show ‘Chopped Grill Masters Napa,’ Cambodian-American Sophina Uong sets her eyes on the Kingdom
Grilling stems of cacti and chili peppers over a fire stove, barbeque master and chef Sophina Uong sports a grin in the high heat within the kitchens of Mexican restaurant Calavera in Oakland, California. Dolled up for a magazine photoshoot later that day, Uong was blinking glitter eyeshadow out from her eyes as she concentrated on finishing her dish before the dinner crowd rush. She barely finished placing the last cactus stem on a plate before she was called away to greet a family who had recognized her from TV.
As this year’s winner of TV show competition ‘Chopped Grill Masters’ Napa, Uong is now a recognizable face to many. After an intense finale of the grilling competition, Uong’s style and palate beat the three remaining male contestants in creating three courses from a set of mystery ingredients. In the last round, Uong finally beat out runner-up Daniel Sanchez by impressing the judges with her novel twist of a brownie created with the required ingredients of chocolate babka and goat cheese.
Starting her career from the bottom, she worked her way up from service work to the head of the kitchen, adding a list of trendy bars and restaurants to her belt. She’s worked at Picán in Oakland, Revival Bar and Kitchen, 900 Grayson and Maritime East in Berkeley, as well as Waterbar, Absinthe and Zare in San Francisco.
“Part of being a chef is how you manage people and not just cooking,” Uong explained. “I did start in pastries, which is where many women start, but I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into just being a pastry chef.”
As “best in show” in the San Francisco’s Lamb Jam grilling competition and as a representative of the Bay Area in the American Lamb Board National Cook-off for the past three years, Uong has now become a household name in grilling. Her name has drawn in even more foodie fans to Calavera since the finale of the show, which aired earlier this month.
Uong’s biggest supporter is her 14-year-old daughter. After surviving a battle with Leukemia when she was nine years old, Uong’s daughter is now a healthy teenager and was eagerly cheering her mother when she took on three male chefs in the final battle of the competition.
“When I am in competition, I did not think about that,” Uong said, explaining that she never saw herself as being the only woman and person of color in the final four. “I did not even realize I would be representing Cambodian-Americans until I saw on Facebook that there was a big community [who supported her]. I thought that was pretty cool.”
She added that her daughter was “pretty stoked” about how many Cambodian-Americans showed pride in the familiarity they felt when they saw Uong’s face in the media. Uong admits she forgets to remind her daughter, who is part Jewish-Italian – that she is also Cambodian.
Although Uong is more known as master of the grill, she is not recognized for her Cambodian cuisine besides from members of her family. Memories of eating lettuce-wrapped pork with fish sauce and other dishes like grilled fish, are the few things she remembers as a child.
“My father and brother would get the body and meatier portions of the fish, while I would always get the head with the eyeballs,” she recalled with a frown. “I wish I knew more.”
Uong’s parents separated when she was nine years old and she took on the responsibility of making dinner for her father and brother. She would experiment with processed food using a microwave cookbook, admitting that macaroni and cheese and hamburger helper were her best friends in the kitchen. Born in Cambodia, she left before the war with her family and settled in Long Beach, California. She then moved to the bay area at 18 years old. Her father, who was part of the Royal Air Force, never talked about his time in the Kingdom. The only person who talked to Uong about her Khmer heritage was her step grandmother – a lady who reprimanded Uong’s use of Cambodian slang.
“I’ve never been back to Cambodia, but have tried to go each year,” Uong said, adding she usually had no extra funds to travel. “That’s part of the reason why I went on that show.”
Now with the winning prize, Uong plans to introduces her teenage daughter to the country she left as a child as well as finalize her wedding arrangements with her fiancé who bartends at the same restaurant.
She expects her brother, who returned to Cambodia years ago, to welcome her with open arms. Already a Phnom Penh local, Patrick Uong has made a nice niche for himself in the city with a few establishments, like bar Hangar 44, the brand management studio Branderz, and a customized motorcycle shop called Moto-Cambodge.
His tempting offers of a joint restaurant with his sister in Phnom Penh have very little sway on Uong at the moment because of the unfamiliar surroundings.
Although she hopes to reconnect with her Cambodian roots and looks forward to tasting and experimenting with the flavors of the Kingdom, she can still be found standing over charcoal to keep her grill master status as the BBQ Queen.
Chef Sophina Uong working at the Calavera restaurant in Oakland, California. KT/ Sotheavy Nou