Imagine moving to a new city, starting a business, and bringing a specialized menu to the masses who may not be familiar with the fusion you are passionate about creating.
Those are exactly the odds that Sarah, owner of The Wandering Wonton, faced when moving from Jacksonville to Orlando to open her own business.
Her background is Cambodian and French, and she grew up like many of us that had first generation parents that immigrated to the States. The fridge was not always fully stocked and that meant learning how to be creative with what was available. Her mother encouraged her to have free range in the kitchen and explore different tastes and create her own dishes, so even at the young age of five she was in the kitchen experimenting. Sometimes this meant that non-staple items got mixed with old standbys. Watermelon, rice and condensed milk could be all that was available and she had to find a way to create a meal out of random flavors.
It hasn’t been extensive culinary training that formed her palette and penchant for interesting combinations, but an upbringing where necessity birthed invention. This story seems common among many artists that I talk with. Nothing was handed to them, but it was how they responded to life’s struggles that dictated the path their lives would take.
For Sarah this meant an adventurous journey awaited her, not only in how she lived her life, but also how she approached food.
That bold take on life took her to Orlando when she opened up her own space within the Plant Street Market. That is where I first met her and fell in love with her warm and inviting demeanor, not to mention her wontons.
She has since moved on from the market and is now staying true to her namesake and "wandering" around Orlando.
If I had to match Sarah to a mantra, "not all who wander are lost" would certainly be fitting. Don’t mistake her wandering spirit for a spacey gypsy; this woman knows business and has a methodical plan behind what may look like to some as hippie madness.
She followed her heart when she made the move to Orlando, and continued to listen to her instincts to stay true to her original concept by exploring the different neighborhoods in Central Florida's sprawling urban footprint, bringing her food to new people and new places.
“The wandering is a great way to meet new people and explore different parts of the city that I am still relatively new to. The plan and hope is to see where I can eventually lay down some roots from how the different areas receive me and my food. Once that is clear I can build a real experience for them.
I love the idea of newness and discovery, and not allowing things to become stagnant. People are often scared to try new things and they lack that adventurous spirit when it comes to dining. My concept came to me not only out of my love of cooking, but from wanting to introduce people to Cambodian cuisine. Asian food is much more than egg rolls. It can be healthy, unique and complex. I just wanted to bring more options to the world.
In my heart I have always envisioned being more of a wanderer so I could bring a new perspective to people through food. It was also important for me to stay true to that concept so people could see that these items are being made fresh with local ingredients."
Since she is not a local I asked her what she thought the greatest misconceptions about Orlando is to outsiders.
“Coming from Jacksonville, the perception there is that Orlando can be summed up in a few words. Disney, mass-production, hipsters, and traffic. People didn’t understand why I would move from the beach to the concrete. What they didn’t realize, and what I didn’t even know at the time, was there is a real sense of community here and a huge push to make the city better with food and arts all while caring for the environment and focusing on a more sustainable way of life. We have great farmers markets, vegan options, community programs like Fleet Farming and Compost Orlando. There is a lot of support for small businesses here. You don’t know all that Orlando has to offer until you get to experience it firsthand. It’s a lot more innovative than it gets credit for. I’d never seen a non-profit coffee shop in Jacksonville like we have here. Orlando really does not suck.”
Starting a business might be one of the scariest things I can imagine diving into, well other than child birth, so Sarah has accomplished both my greatest fears. I asked her what obstacles she has had to overcome not just as an entrepreneur, but as a female business owner.
“There are so many odds against you as a female. You aren’t respected for your business sense, and it’s very hard to get any credit for all that you have accomplished. Sadly sometimes there can also be female-on-female hate. Women have a lot of say in the buying power in their household and decisions can be made on judgments based on how you look without ever tasting your food. As a male your product is on display first, but as a female you are on display first.
I can only be true to myself and try and spread love through my food. It’s not always easy, but I’m thankful that there is a wonderful group of supportive women in Orlando who also own their own businesses and so many of them have each others back."
Sadly my culinary skills are still reliant on crock pots and an embarrassing amount of cereal, so I asked her what her favorite thing to create in the kitchen is.
"I love wontons, but I think my favorite is actually spring rolls. It's an event. We get newspapers and spread them on a large table filled with different ingredients. Green beans, sprouts, herbs, sauteed meats, lemon grass and peanuts. There is so much variety and we create a huge feast that we make by hand. We have a glass of wine and enjoy our creations and the possibilities are endless. I hope to have Spring Roll parties in the future, they are a lot of fun."
I am always interested to know where people who can easily make spectacular meals for themselves love to eat in Orlando, so I asked Sarah what her favorite spots in town are.
"I love Ta-Ke Sushi, Ming's Bistro and the Mediterranean Deli on Fairbanks. Prato is always consistently delicious, and I love going to Dandelion and Beans Bikes & Bordeaux as well. I still have some places on my radar like The Strand, Ravenous Pig, and Imperial that I am eager to try.
Check out The Wandering Wonton by keeping track of her pop ups around town. She may even pop up at times as a guest chef for The Dinner Party Project where she has the freedom to really flex her culinary muscles.
Follow her by subscribing to her events on her Facebook page or follow her on Instagram @thewanderingwonton.
Look out for her upcoming at Tasty Tuesday's, her first appearance will be on December 29th, as well as the Audubon Park Farmer's market on Monday nights at Stardust.
If you are interested in having her cater an event, or just ordering food to pick up at any of her pop up locations email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.