By Stephanie Burt
Chef Manolack Vongsouvanh is used to people stumbling a bit at his name, so as he’s moved up to his role as executive chef, he’s happily adopted the moniker “Chef Lock.” He’d rather those at the chef’s counter feel comfortable chatting with him than feel worried that they might mispronounce his name. It’s that same accommodation, that same desire for guests to feel comfortable, that keeps him coming back to amici 30a Italian Kitchen daily, continuously tweaking a menu that changes every other month.
“We really want to keep traditional flavors – and we have – but our focus is that this is a place for everybody,” Chef Lock said. “That’s really why we have gluten-free pasta options. It’s important to me that everyone feel comfortable here, that they come in and there is something that they can eat.”
Chef Lock knows a thing or two about feeling comfortable. He and his family migrated from a war-torn Laos when he was just a child, and the family settled in Utica, N.Y., in a neighborhood full of Lebanese and Italian immigrants. Although Lock describes himself as “not really involved in cooking at home as a kid,” he spent a lot of time in his friends’ homes, and it was the food – especially Italian food – that really started to anchor him in his newly adopted country.
Although he did a lot of other jobs, cooking eventually found him, and he dove into the precise work with gusto, moving up through the kitchen ranks, then moving to the 30A area a couple of years ago for a change of pace.
“I love this place,” he said. “It’s so laid back and it’s great to be around the water. This is the place to be to reflective and enjoy life a little.” He worked at Seacrust Pizza in Seacrest and as a private chef before the Corchis family tapped him to open amici last year as its executive chef.
Spend any time at the restaurant, and you’ll notice that the chef’s counter is the place to be, namely because Chef Lock loves to interact with his guests. He believes that food is about building community, and he really enjoys seeing the people he cooks for eat the food that he has prepared with his staff.
“Our kitchen is totally open, so I’m right there with the guests,” he explained.
Sure, it might be a little unusual to find a first-generation Laotian American cooking traditional Italian with local Florida ingredients, but to Chef Lock, it just makes sense. He’s drawn to the way Italian cooking places an emphasis on letting the ingredients shine, and the simplicity of fine ingredients creates a base where fresh and flavorful become the standard.
Take for instance, his love of the warm green salad, something he says “is so simple but one of my favorites. We do this kind of spin on collards, but with Italian greens, and we add some parm[esan] and a little chili flake for heat. It’s kind of a wow factor because it’s so simple that people don’t always go for it, but when they do, they are wowed by the amount of flavor in this dish. It’s what we like to do: wow people with fresh.”