Under luminous streetlights with the swish of traffic behind him, Chef Michael Young, 31, creates en plein air cuisine in his 22-square-foot “kitchen,” the Rusty Wok. The other night he was located in front of Sidney's Saloon on St. Bernard Ave. He was cooking pork belly pad thai and Thai fried chicken.
Young started his pop-up restaurant several months ago with an investment of $600. He’s open twice a month and averages 20 to 25 customers a night and even has a few repeat clients. He gets the word out about “when” and “where” he’ll be through his Facebook page, Rusty Wok.
“I love handing the people their food, watching them take a bite and seeing them smile. At my other job, I cook the food, hand it off and I never know if the client really enjoyed it.”
His other job is at Besh Steak at Harrah's Casino, where he’s chef de tournant, working all stations. Growing up in Wheeling, West Virginia, Young began his cooking career at his parents’ restaurant, Young’s Cafeteria.
“It was an old-school family restaurant. I started working there because my dad jokingly said I needed to pay my rent."
At age 20, Young became a bit of a vagabond chef. He traveled the country learning a wide variety of cuisines, techniques and flavor profiles.
“I’d pick out what food I wanted to know more about, find the best restaurants and work for free until they paid me. I’d learn the cuisine, then I’d move on.”
After traveling from Florida to Colorado, Young decided it was time for a bigger challenge. So with a one-way ticket in hand, he embarked on a journey to Thailand.
“I love the food and culture but I quickly found out I needed a work visa not a tourist visa. I couldn’t find work anywhere.”
Down to his last dollar, fate presented an opportunity to cook at David Anichowski’s The Duke’s restaurant in Chiang Mai.
“It wasn't Thai food but it was great pizzas, burgers and ribs,” he says.
He was even voted one of the Top Four Chefs in Chiang Mai. Though he didn’t cook Thai food for a living, he soaked up the flavors, learned the techniques and experienced some of the best street food he’d ever eaten. He spent two years abroad and returned to America in 2016. Now he wanted to learn to cook Creole food, so New Orleans was his next stop.
Young enjoys working at Besh Steak but says he wanted a place where he could use his Asian flair, hence setting up in front of Sidney's Saloon last Friday night. The bar offers a variety of chefs a chance to share their wares.
“We have a list of chefs we work with and a schedule,” says Michael Brooks, Sidney's bartender. “The menu changes constantly. One night you get empanadas, the next its pierogies; our customers love it.”
Young wants to pop up at some festivals soon and hopes to change his schedule at Besh to working four 10-hour days. On his days off he’d work the Rusty Wok.
“One great thing about pop-up restaurants is the freedom it affords chefs to try out a concept before investing the sort of money it takes to open a brick- and-mortar operation,” said food critic Robert Peyton. “Not all popups end up as fixed restaurants, but those that do start out with the advantage of experience.”
One thing Chef Young is extraordinarily good at is gaining experience. This vagabond chef says he’s finally found a home in New Orleans. He now believes a stationary Rusty Wok will be the start of his next culinary journey.