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September 27, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Southeast Asia an inspiration for Seattle chef Chris Kong

For Christopher Kong, spring 2010 began a year of living dangerously. It included months of grueling work bussing tables in an open-air dining room in Malaysia, and prepping vegetables and sauces in the adjacent sweltering kitchen. It meant living and working with Nepalese and Bangladeshi contract-crews sleeping four on the floor; sharing a single bathroom with 20 men and no hot water; washing clothes by hand and drying his stained apron over Chinese steamer-baskets in the restaurant’s kitchen.

“It was a reality check,” says the 24-year-old chef. “There, nobody knows where you came from or what you’ve done.” Nor do they care. “You have to fend for yourself.”

Where he came from is Seattle, where his father David (born in Malaysia) and his mother Lily (raised in Thailand) have been feeding their many loyal customers an abbondanza of Italian food for 20 years at Perché No, first at the restaurant’s intimate Lower Queen Anne digs, later at the tri-story paean to bella Italia they built near Green Lake.

Christopher Kong lends a hand at Perché No Pasta & Vino, his parents’ Italian restaurant near Green Lake. [Seattle Times/Mark Harrison]

Coming from an ethnic Chinese family whose idea of home cooking is spaghetti alla carbonara wasn’t always easy for the Roosevelt High School grad. Kong was 6 years old when his parents opened Perché No (translation: “Why Not?”). While his mother ran the dining room, her boys played in a hallway behind the kitchen, a small TV for entertainment. “My dad could peer out and watch us when he was cooking,” Kong recalls.

“You sacrifice a lot, from both perspectives, as parent and child,” he says, about growing up in a restaurant. “As a kid you want the freedom of a social life.” But as a family member, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

At 12, he was prepping salads and desserts. At 16, he represented Washington in high-school culinary competitions and was ranked nationally. Culinary school was an option; instead he heeded his parents’ advice. “You can always learn how to cook and be a really good chef,” they told him, “but at the end of the day, you’re still running a business and have to make a profit.”

Lesson learned. During four years at Western Washington University, he studied marketing, working weekends and summers at Perché No. The self-avowed workaholic recalls, “One summer I had part-time jobs at Trophy Cupcakes, learning how to bake, and at a Ballard fish market, learning to fillet fish. I hardly got any sleep.”

Chris Kong, competing for his Roosevelt High School team at the Art Institute of Seattle in 2003.

[Seattle Times/Greg Gilbert]

Which, as it turns out, was good practice for his post-graduation year in Southeast Asia.

“It was amazing,” says Kong, of the year in which he got back to his family’s roots. At first he cooked beside his Malaysian aunties and worked in a village roti shop. In the end, he met up and traveled for two months with his younger brother, Alex.

“My plan was to stay as long as I possibly could, find a job cooking — just get away from home and my comfort zone,” he says. “It was a test to see if I could hack it on my own out there. I definitely could, and I definitely learned a lot.”

After months living in a shanty, Kong landed a job at an urban resort in Kuala Lumpur, cooking contemporary Thai and Burmese food.

“The food was really posh and pretentious for Malaysia,” he recalls. “It was all about technique, and how the food looked on the plate.” He loved it. “I was learning, and whenever I’m learning it’s always fun.”

There, he solidified his wok-skills, learned organization and management, and something every bit as important: “The biggest thing for me was working with so many people of so many different backgrounds, so many cultures coming together.”

After working in Malaysia and eating his way through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia, Kong is sharing what he learned at Perché No’s monthly “Malaysian and Thai Nights.” (The next ones are slated for Nov. 28, Dec. 19 and Jan. 30).

But he’s not yet done traveling. The restaurant will close Oct. 9-26 for a family vacation in Italy, a tradition his father instituted to keep their creative juices flowing. “You can work all the time, but you have to enjoy life as well — that’s one of my dad’s biggest philosophies,” Kong says.

He hopes to continue his culinary education in Japan and eventually find work in New York or San Francisco. Does he hunger for his own restaurant someday? That’s the goal, he insists. “It’s just a matter of time and more experience. And when I do it, I want to do it right.”

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