COMPLIMENTS OF THE CROSSING
Thu Rein Oo went from washing dishes to leading the kitchen at the Crossing.
Thu Rein Oo laughs when he thinks back to his disastrous first night working the fish station at the Crossing (7823 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-721-7375)
"I'd been watching the fish station every day, and when it wasn't busy, I would practice," Oo recalls. "One day, Jimmy [Fiala] asked me if I thought I was ready, and I said yes. It was a crazy busy Friday night, and I got an order for tilapia that I made the best I could. Everyone was teasing me, saying, 'This is supposed to be pan-seared, not poached.' I didn't know. I went back to the salad station and the regular fish guy had to come in and take over. It's been many years since that, but people still tease me about it all the time."
Oo has come a long way since that fateful day, but the journey is nothing compared to the one he took to get to the Crossing in the first place. Born in Myanmar (previously Burma), Oo fled civil unrest for Malaysia when he was fifteen years old. He lived there for two years before being accepted as a refugee into the United States in 2007.
Oo and his uncle made the journey from Malaysia to Indiana, where they lived for about a year before moving to St. Louis. Oo needed a job, and his uncle knew someone who worked at the kitchen at the Crossing. He encouraged his nephew to apply.
"They needed a dishwasher, and Jimmy asked me if I was sure I could do it," Oo recalls. "I said, 'Sure, I'll work any job. I don't care.' I didn't speak any English back then. In fact, I learned English at the Crossing."
At first, Oo admits he was put off by the unfamiliar style of cooking, especially the smells produced by the liberal use of wine and other alcohol in dishes. Still, even amidst that initial aversion, he was mesmerized by what was going on in the kitchen and took it upon himself to soak up every bit of knowledge that he could.
"I'd go around to all the stations, and on slow days I would watch and learn," Oo says. "It started with the salad station, then desserts. I finally learned the fish station and did that for two years before I learned the grill station, which is where all of the grilled dishes and pastas come from. I was scared, but I would watch and learn every night until Jimmy asked if I was ready. Finally, I said yes."
As he worked his way along the line, Oo was tasked with creating the evening's specials for his stations and became a trusted and valuable employee who knew the ins and outs of the Crossing's kitchen better than anyone. It was natural, then, that when Fiala needed to find an executive chef, he would look to Oo.
"I'm not a trained chef, so I was a little surprised when he asked me," Oo admits. "However, I was already doing the job, so Jimmy knew I was ready to step up. I was worried that I don't speak English very well, but he told me, 'Don't worry about that. You take care of the kitchen and I can take care of that.'"
A year into his role, Oo is thrilled with his unlikely journey into the world of classic Italian and French fine dining, one he feels infinite gratitude for having the opportunity to pursue. And even though he has now mastered the food that once seemed so unfamiliar, he can't help but bring a little bit of his homeland into the dishes he cooks for the staff, like his soon-to-be-famous Burmese fried rice.
"I make it for Jimmy and his friends and they all tell me it is the best in the world," Oo laughs. "When I make it here, everyone is happy."
Oo took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on Burmese sports, his not-so-hidden musical talent, and his plea for a good Burmese restaurant in St. Louis.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I play a sport called sepak takraw. It’s kind of like volleyball. It has a net but we use our feet, legs and head to score. It’s very physical.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Working, then going home and playing guitar.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
A Burmese restaurant!
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would play guitar for my church.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Porcini mushrooms. I am highly allergic.
What is your after-work hangout?
Home, watching movies with my wife.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Shan noodles. It’s a Burmese dish with noodles, broth, chicken and a few veggies.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Pork, cooked Burmese-style, which we call "sipyan." It is made with garlic, ginger, onion, lemongrass, turmeric and chile powder, cooked in peanut oil.
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