Wok’n in Memphis’ Spencer Coplan.

Food — in one form or another — has always been a part of Spencer Coplan's life.

"Right from the get-go, food was my thing," says Coplan, 28. "My parents say that, as a child, I used to play with the cups and stuff in the bathtub, and I would put on my own little cooking show. I'm sure I made 'spinach' and other vegetables and maybe baked a 'cake' or what have you."

Coplan now is owner of Wok'n in Memphis, a pop-up restaurant that serves Coplan's non-traditional take on Chinese food. Locations include Saturday at the Cooper-Young Farmers' Market and the second Sunday of each month at Porcellino's Craft Butcher.

In addition to bathtub cuisine, Coplan was fascinated with food in general. "My parents would take me out to eat as a child, and I'd get rambunctious and restless," he says. "They would just pick me up, and the closer I got to the kitchen, the more I'd calm down. When they would take me out to eat, they had to take me over to the window so I could see the kitchen and, apparently, I'd stop crying."

click to enlarge Spencer Coplan - MICHAEL DONAHUE
  • Michael Donahue
  • Spencer Coplan

When he was 15, Coplan got a garde manger job at a restaurant. He liked the "instant gratification" of making something and a guest enjoying it. He was "a 15 year old who couldn't do well in school and was always told 'No,' and 'This is wrong,' and 'This is not how you're supposed to do it.'

"And I never really was good at math or grammar, geography, things like that," says Coplan. "So, to have someone say, 'That salad looks really good,' was kind of helpful to me as a teenager. To be like, 'I can do something and not be scolded for it.'"

Coplan briefly went to culinary school for a year at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. "But I felt I could learn faster getting paid at a restaurant than paying lots of money to learn at a school."

He got a job working for Tom Douglas at Etta's Seafood in Seattle. Every year or so, Coplan changed jobs. He helped open RN74 for Michael Mina and Le Petiti Cochon, a little offal restaurant. He also worked at John Sundstrom's Lark restaurant.

"I don't know if it just comes easy to me, but I can understand flavors. Something about food really calms down my anxious brain."

Coplan moved to Memphis after Teach for America placed his girlfriend, Jordan Ayers, in Memphis. "I said, 'Well, I'm a cook. I can go anywhere.'"

His friend told him Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen was one of the top restaurants in Memphis. "I like pretentious fine dining because my first job was pretentious fine dining. I've always done it. I like the tweezers. I like the big white plates. The small amount of food."

Coplan got a job at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, where he began experimenting with his own style of Chinese food.

He's captivated by Asian food. "I spent a lot of my after hours in [Asian] restaurants in Seattle. I would go eat late night Chinese food or ramen or Korean food and really liked that kind of food."

Coplan's expertise in Chinese cooking was a result of "a lot of cookbooks and a lot of time messing around making staff meals for my colleagues. Just kind of being like, 'Well, how does this taste? Does this taste like General Tso's chicken?'"

But he doesn't want his Asian food to be made exactly like Asian cooks make it. "I don't want to be authentic. I want the ketchup, the sugar, lots of hoisin sauce. And not authentic Chinese food."

Americanizing it? "Definitely," he says. "I have no problem admitting that."

For instance, instead of chilis and other fancier ingredients, the sauce in Coplan's General Tso's chicken includes "orange juice and sugar and ketchup and hoisin sauce."

He wanted to "open up something that is cheap and casual and something that is accessible to everyone. Everyone knows what fried rice is. Everyone knows what beef and broccoli is."

Coplan indulges his love for white tablecloth cooking by working a few nights a week at The Gray Canary. His goal is to one day open a bar that sells Chinese food. "Like Slider Inn. Just the same except instead of sliders, beef and broccoli and such."

So, do people think Coplan is Asian? "Well, I have a Vietnamese man that works with me. And now we make the joke if anyone asks, 'He's Spencer.'"

Vegetarian Mapo Tofu from Michael Donahue on Vimeo.

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