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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The accidental chef

By Denise Neil
The Wichita Eagle

Anny Amphonephong didn’t mean to become a chef.

He was perfectly content with his job as an aircraft machinist when the economy started to struggle and he was laid off from his job.

His search for a new career lead him to a restaurant kitchen — a place he realized he’d always felt at home.

“It was an accident,” said Amphonephong, a 34-year-old father of three. “But it was a good accident.”

Today, Amphonephong is an executive chef who oversees Melad Stephan’s Empire Catering and leads the kitchens at Oeno Wine Bar and Caffe Moderne, where he is charged with turning the popular lunch destination into a place that will draw dinner crowds, too.

Amphonephong, who was born in Vientiane, Laos, and immigrated to the United States with his parents at age 2, grew up in Garden City, where his father landed a job at a beef packing plant.

He was a popular football player at Garden City High School and earned extra money by working as a prep cook at a Chinese restaurant.

Post-layoff, Amphonephong took a job as a server at George Youssef’s Nouvelle Cafe, which operated until 2010 at 3101 N. Rock Road. He quickly rose through the ranks, earning a spot as Youssef’s sous chef.

That’s when Stephan noticed Amphonephong’s talents and asked him to head the kitchen at Uptown Bistro, which he did until shortly before the restaurant closed. After a stint in the Rolling Hills Country Club’s kitchen, Amphonephong was lured back to help revamp Caffe Moderne, which Stephan now operates with original owner Janet Rine.

Recently, Amphonephong took a break from planning a wine dinner to talk about his unintentional career.

How did you first become interested in food?

“Our culture is big on food. It’s how my family greets people — with food. All our social events revolve around food. That was my main motivation. My mom always cooked traditional Lao food like lap, green papaya salad and traditional red and green curries.”

Besides your restaurant, where do you like to eat out in Wichita?

“I like the Thai Lao Cafe (2433 S. Hillside). It’s very hole-in-the-wall, but it’s great traditional Lao and Thai food. I also like Tacos El Tapatio (1721 N. Broadway). I have a thing for traditional, don’t-cut-corners Mexican food, and this is one of the few places that serve intestine tacos and brain tacos. I took one of the Oeno regulars there, and now that’s the only place he goes for Mexican food.”

What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?

“My knives and my tongs. Without good knives, you can’t cut things the way you want it done. I don’t like a heavy knife. My favorites are Shun knives.”

What’s your most indispensable kitchen ingredient?

“I would say my spices, although it depends on what dish. I also love different types of garlic — black garlic, elephant garlic. Everyone needs a little garlic in their lives.”

What do you cook when you’re at home?

“I do a lot of traditional cooking. My mom taught me to do a lot of traditional Lao food, and my kids love it.”

What’s your favorite dish?

“Green papaya salad. I love the freshness of the ingredients. It takes me back to childhood. Those were my favorites growing up, and my mom is still only a phone call away if I want it.”

Are there any foods you don’t like?

“Sweets, like cake and ice cream. I don’t have a sweet tooth. I’m more into salty and savory.”

What’s the best thing about the dining scene in Wichita?

“I wouldn’t say Wichita is behind in the dining scene, but I’d say there are a lot of opportunities for cuisine innovation that Wichita hasn’t seen yet. There’s a lot of room for giving Wichita dishes they’ve never seen before and never experienced.”

What’s the worst thing?

“The market. We’re flooded with restaurants. And the chain restaurants have a stronghold on Wichita diners.”

Reach Denise at 316-268-6327 or by e-mailing dneil@wichitaeagle.com.

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