Mike Ponluang, owner and executive chef of Coco Asian Bistro & Bar, has traveled the world, learning and teaching elegant Thai food preparation.
He attended Siam Business School and worked as a cook at the Chaopraya Hotel, the open mess for United States Army officers stationed there during the Vietnam War. In 1980, Chef Mike moved to south Florida, working at various restaurants and eventually branching out on his own.
The chef has also served as a Thai food instructor at Chef Jean-Pierre's Cooking School and has studied at a sushi academy in Venice, Calif. We caught up with Chef Mike recently.
Clean Plate Charlie: Chef Mike, when did you move to south Florida?
Chef Mike Ponluang: Around 1980. My cousin had a restaurant on Oakland Park Boulevard in Sunrise, Yum Yum of Siam. I came here to work with him. It's been closed for a long, long time, but it was the start of my cooking career here in Florida. I then worked at Mai Kai for a while.
Have you been formally trained as a chef?
Actually, I trained in Restaurant and Hotel Management. After a graduated I worked in the kitchen. I worked two jobs at the same time for a club - I cooked and did inventory and management duties.
So you decided in the kitchen was where you wanted to be?
I love cooking because when I was younger I helped my family do festival foods. We would cook and sell food at stalls. We used to have a small restaurant on the first floor of my family house. Before that, I never knew I would cook as a career, but you learn by helping family. When my mother passed away and I cooked for my dad, I knew that this was what I was meant to do.
In Restaurant Management school did they teach you kitchen skills, as well?
When I graduated from restaurant management they put me in the kitchen, too. I started as a chef's helper and I worked up to being a chef. I moved to London and continued my education. I started to work as a dishwasher and in three months I learned everything. I moved up to being the chef.
You worked your way up from dishwasher to chef in three months?
Well, I knew the basics of cooking. When I started as dishwasher, I told the chef that I could help him with anything. So he taught me everything he knew. I was young. When you're young, you can do everything.
What about now? Do you still do everything? Do you have that chef's schedule of working nonstop?
Let's just say I work almost eight days a week. I tell my son, he's fifteen, don't become a chef. Study and do a professional job.
You don't want him to take over the family business?
He said he might come and help me. Maybe he'll study business and franchise out my restaurant. That's what he has in mind, I think.
You mentioned that your family did street food in Thailand at festivals. What do you think of the street food and food truck movement that's starting to work its way to Fort Lauderdale?
I heard about them but I haven't seen them. I'm just concerned about the health department. In Thailand they don't think too much about sanitary conditions but people are used to it. But over here people might get sick. A few years ago, someone talked to about doing a sushi boat on the Intracoastal. That was a thought that never went anywhere.
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That would be awesome!
I think it's a good idea but I don't know if its practical or not.
Stay tuned for part two of our interview, coming soon.