Mister Mao chef-owner Sophina Uong.
All photos by Paprika Studios, courtesy of Mister Mao

Resy QuestionnaireNew Orleans

20 Questions with Mister Mao’s Sophina Uong


In the Resy Questionnaire, we play a game of 20 questions with the industry folks behind some of our favorite restaurants. What’s your most memorable restaurant experience? Your favorite food movie? What restaurant would you want to time-travel for?

In this edition, we speak to Sophina Uong, the chef-owner behind Mister Mao, a raucous restaurant where the self-dubbed “unapologetically inauthentic” menu packs a ton of flavor and fun.

The Resy Questionnaire

1. Favorite thing you’ve ever cooked?

Hand-pulled noodles with Xi’an-style cumin lamb. I’d never imagined Chinese food to have cumin, which is one of my favorite spices — plus, it was a recipe with so many tingly chiles, so I was thrilled. I had always been taught to use flour when you make noodles, yet this recipe called for a bit of oil, and it was quite a revelation for me to see how it helped the noodles pull and stretch.

The Chuck Wagon at Mister Mao is wheeled out during brunch service on Sundays and features dim sum-style small plates.
The Chuck Wagon at Mister Mao is wheeled out during brunch service on Sundays and features dim sum-style small plates.

2. Kitchen tool or equipment you couldn’t live without?

A Vitamix blender, for all the amazing sauces you can make!

3. What pantry items would you bring on a desert island?

Dried Morita chiles, Red Boat fish sauce, Sardinian olive oil, salted and roasted peanuts, and Have’a corn chips to scoop up ceviche that we’d make after fishing.

4. What’s your favorite place to get a po’boy in New Orleans?

Parran’s Po-boys. I love their pastrami, dressed (that means lettuce, tomato, and mayo). Gutted that they moved further away from the restaurant, so now, if I’m in a fix for a po’boy close by, I’ll share the half-oyster and half-shrimp seafood po’boy from Domilise’s, dressed, of course, with extra mayo. But the truth is, I’d actually rather have a muffaletta from Napoleon House.

5. Favorite cookbook?

Amuse-Bouche, by Rick Tramonto. When I first started cooking, this book taught me what it meant to make a flavor impact in only one or two bites. I always remember and try to teach our cooks about the little bites that delight and leave lasting impressions

Escargot Wellington with preserved lemon and horseradish.
Escargot Wellington with preserved lemon and horseradish.

6. Your drink of choice?

When I’m out, feeling fancy and polite, I will order a Botanist Gin martini with a hint of vermouth and a twist. However, I usually crave a post-work salty dog, which, essentially, is a greyhound with a salted rim. The best are from the infamous Cafe Van Kleef in Oakland, California.

7. Favorite food movie?

I can’t decide but they both have chocolate as a theme, if that says anything: “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Chocolat”! Both of these movies use food to make people swoon in love, cry, heal, and ail at the same time. Imagine having so much power in your cooking to make people cry! Both are somewhat corny with romanticism, but who doesn’t love a young Johnny Depp as a gypsy?



8. Your ideal dinner party guests, dead or alive? 

It would be a late afternoon beach cookout on Morro de São Paulo, a tiny island off the coast of Bahia, Brazil, and I would cook with Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart. They love to cook, have cannabis, and Martha knows how to make killer tablescapes. And I’d love to cook with Gordon Ramsay for all of the banter and conversation I know would be extraordinary.

9. What restaurant industry person do you admire the most?

José Andrés — he’s got boundless energy and is the true definition of a chef-influencer, with amazing restaurants to aspire to. He cares about the world, humans, climate change, immigration, and stewards of the land. He walks the walk.

10. What’s the greatest restaurant experience of your life so far?

The Beatrice Inn in New York City — sadly, it is now closed. I’m a fan of Angie Mar, she’s the queen of RBF, damn gorgeous, a devil in the kitchen, and is quite outspoken. The dinner I had was just after I’d won “Chopped Grill Masters” and I took our producers for dinner. I had just won $60k, so we celebrated like big hotshots, over-ordering a cacophony of hedonistic delights. Martinis, foie gras, duck flambéed tableside, $200 steaks, hunks of cheese, ridiculously opulent but done so well in hipster New York style. Angie has a new restaurant now, someday I will get there.

11. Your greatest professional achievement?

I suppose I should say opening up Mister Mao, but I really love it when past cooks I have mentored message me and update me on their lives and careers. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy that I helped make a difference.

12. What single dish best describes your personality?

Pani puri, I’m a lot to swallow in one bite! I’m spicy, tangy, crunchy, and full of herby liquid you will love or hate, and I pack a wallop of flavor.

Pickled mulberry pani puri. Photo by James Collier/ Paprika Studios, courtesy of Mister Mao
Pickled mulberry pani puri. Photo by James Collier/ Paprika Studios, courtesy of Mister Mao

13. If you could go back in time, which restaurant would you dine at?

I would go back to Medieval Times. I would be 15 years old and flirting with a hot little blonde boy I crushed on in high school because he thought I was “exotic.” [laughs] Have you ever been to Medieval Times? It’s dinner and a show with knights, wenches, and giant turkey legs where you eat everything with your hands. Who doesn’t want to be a princess saved by a knight of the realm?!

Second answer: I love House of Prime Rib in San Francisco. I miss it so much. My time machine would take me back to my 20s and I would be drinking my first dirty martini, because that’s what 24-year-olds drink after a Stoli cosmopolitan, thinking martinis were more sophisticated. Order a King Cut (because you get another slice of Prime Rib if you finish it all), eat all the horseradish, devour the creamed spinach, and show lots of cleavage to your date who is paying, of course.

14. Your favorite meal from childhood?

A bowl of white rice, tuk trey or Khmer fish sauce, sometimes with lime, chiles, sugar, and Kentucky fried chicken, crispy — definitely not the original recipe. Once a week I would skateboard to Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner, it was our first American meal I can remember.

15. Your wish for the restaurant industry?

Bring back the career-minded cooks!

16. What do you wish you did better? What do you do well?

I’m learning to let go of control, step back, and let the managers manage. I’m learning not to do everything for the cooks, the chefs, the FOH, and clearly communicate my expectations.

I’m good at details, remembering things, and I pretty much have a photographic memory of where things are, so you can never lie to me that we are out of something.

Kashmiri fried chicken.
Ssam-style charmoula octopus.

17. If you could eat through a city for a day, where would you go?

I would love to be lost in Marrakesh, to eat clay-pit lamb, sip mint tea, coffee cooked in sand, bisteeya [a Moroccan chicken pie], couscous, tagine, briouat [a sweet or savory Moroccan puff pastry], and who knows, maybe even some camel.

18. The one thing you can’t resist splurging on when you go out?

Side dishes! I am a sucker for sides, especially vegetables — there is not one vegetable I don’t enjoy, and not a french fry I will refuse.

19. What do you value most in restaurants?

Genuine hospitality. It starts at the door with a simple hello and a smile, and says a lot about the service you are about to receive.

20. It’s your last meal on earth, what are you eating?

Crispy pork and wood ear mushroom spring rolls, with pickled daikon and carrots, and with mint, cucumber, lettuce wraps, and a ridiculously spicy sweet-and-sour fish sauce. You can’t forget the mint, which goes best with the fish sauce.

The dining room at Mister Mao.
The dining room at Mister Mao.

Mister Mao is open for dinner Thursday through Monday from 5 to 9 p.m. (and until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays), and for brunch on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Noëmie Carrant is Resy’s senior writer. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy on Instagram and Twitter, too.