Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local chefs.
Sourcing fresh and sourcing locally have become vision quests for modern restaurants. Ming Pu remembers when the fresh-and-local mantra just meant it was Tuesday. Or Thursday. Or any other day.
Growing up in Taiwan, Pu cooked with his mother almost daily, preparing the family meals. Much of what they cooked depended on what was available at the open street markets. Sure, there were grocery stores for household items and some food items, but the main focus of the meal usually was fresh.
“It was amazing,” Pu recalls. “There were a bunch of vendors, one for pork, one for chicken and other things. The fish was literally still alive. The meat was butchered that day. There was no refrigeration. The vegetables probably were picked within the last few days. It was like a farmer’s market, but, like, every single day.”
They cooked in a gas wok, and Pu recalls his favorite meal growing up being Chinese long bean — like long green beans — and beef. And his experiences with this kind of sourcing and preparation have followed him through his career, during which he has graduated from Sullivan University’s Culinary Arts program and worked at numerous restaurants around Louisville, from Volare to the Brown Hotel to Jack Fry’s.
In 2016, he was named executive chef at Prospect’s 502 Bar & Bistro, and his career has been on a precipitous rise ever since. But make no mistake: Even though his family lived in Vancouver for two years before moving here, Louisville is home.
Pu, now 28, moved to Louisville when he was 9 because an older brother got a scholarship to attend the University of Louisville. His parents didn’t want him to be alone in a new city, so everyone moved with him.
They now had access to large grocery stores, but the chef inside him still preferred doing things the old-fashioned way.
Today, he sources as much as possible from area farmers — not quite the same as sourcing from street vendors, because he enjoys creating lasting relationships with those providers. He knows he can trust in the quality and freshness of the food.
And his cooking still brings with it some flairs of the Taiwanese cooking he grew up with, along with southeast Asian styles he learned while working with Peng Looi at Asiatique.
That informed his fusion style of cooking that blends Southern American fare with his Asian cuisine and other international styles.
One special he offered recently was lu rou fan, which traditionally would have been braised pork belly over white rice. He replaced the rice with risotto, blending Italian styles with Taiwanese flavors. Much of that skill came from Looi’s mentoring after Pu’s graduation from Sullivan.
“I didn’t know which way to go” after he graduated, Pu says. “I knew going back to my roots would be best, but I also wanted to learn Eastern cooking from somebody else. He taught me a lot about southeast Asian cuisine, Pacific Rim. I give him a lot of credit for where I am now, because he taught me a lot about running a restaurant and basic Eastern techniques.”
If Pu didn’t know which way to go then, he sure has his bearings these days.
Last year, he was a featured guest chef in the 2018 Charleston Wine + Food festival, Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair 2018, and Atlanta Food & Wine 2018, and this year he will return to Charleston and Atlanta.
In addition, he has cooked at the James Beard House in New York City multiple times, an honor for any chef. He will go back there for another guest stint in July, and as part of the deal, he’s taking a team of young chefs to expose them to the experience.
“I try to rotate chefs I know or who are up-and-coming,” Pu says. “Louisville is a small community, so you might as well grow together.”
Of course, his first experience there was at age 22 when he and Looi joined the late Dean Corbett at the Beard House. Pu is just sharing a gift he was given by other chefs. His first James Beard experience as the head chef was in 2015 when he called his team The Young Guns.
That moniker didn’t stick since, obviously, he rotates each time — and because everyone is a few years older.
“Now we’re the not-so-young guns,” Pu says with a chuckle.
Like many of his peers, Pu is being a chef even when he isn’t being a chef. He and his girlfriend, Courtney, enjoy traveling to other cities, and the trips usually revolve around food. Part of this is for market research, but it’s also about the culinary experiences.
He says during his last New York trip, the couple hit three or four restaurants in a day.
“I said, ‘You have to experience this,’” Pu recalls. “She said, ‘I can’t eat anymore!’”
Of course, they enjoy the cuisine here in Louisville whenever possible. And here Pu says he plans to stay.
“I like Louisville a lot, and I plan on staying here forever,” he says. “I’ve established myself here, especially within the chef community.”
He says he also loves the proximity to the farms, which a larger city might not have. He also hopes to someday open a Taiwanese-fusion restaurant that he describes as “east meets west Taiwanese with a Southern influence.”
And then he adds, with a chuckle, “Plus, I love bourbon.”