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Chef is on mission to elevate Vietnamese cooking

NHA TRANG, Vietnam — The street-side seafood restaurant — long metal tables, plastic chairs, beer girls in short skirts — is the last place one would expect a classically trained French chef to give a cooking lesson.

But there was the unassuming Bay Area-based Khai Duong, one of America's most acclaimed Asian chefs, giving intricate instructions. For one dish, Duong ordered the restaurant to grill fresh sea urchin with scallion oil, chopped peanuts and lemon. He then sent it back for more grilling when it didn't meet his exacting tastes.

"They don't like cooking it this way because it's too labor-intensive," Duong, the longtime executive chef and owner of San Francisco's Ana Mandara restaurant, said patiently.

So why is the chef who graduated first in his class from the world-renowned Le Cordon Bleu Academie d'Art Culinaire De Paris — and once cooked at Michelin Guide three-star Le Bernardin in New York City — sitting at a restaurant where blue-collar workers sling beers all night, chanting: "Mot hai ba zo!" or "One, two, three, cheers!"?

Numerous Vietnamese-Americans have returned to their homeland to chart new careers, start a company or invest in the growing Southeast Asian nation's economy. Duong is back on a mission to help create a new generation of Vietnamese chefs, who don't always garner a lot of respect as professionals in their own country. And he hopes to help transform the nation's culinary culture by promoting new approaches to traditional Vietnamese cuisine, elevating it to rival the fine cooking found in Europe and the United States.

Duong hopes to achieve those goals mainly through his role as the main judge in "Iron Chef Vietnam," an adaptation of the Japanese and American cooking game shows. It launched earlier this year to give rising culinary stars a much-needed spotlight.

"The competitors sweat," he said. "There is intensity. It's not just entertainment. It helps to inspire artistic cooking and creativity."

Duong, 52, who fled the country with his family as the communists defeated U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1975, explores the varied food of his homeland for his own inspiration — even in restaurants where beer is the most popular item on the menu.

He is preparing to open two new restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City and is engaged in philanthropic efforts here, including supporting a cooking school for girls and women formerly involved in the sex trade and developing a culinary scholarship program. In the Bay Area, he recently closed Ana Mandara and plans to open a string of smaller restaurants, including one in San Jose, Calif.

His desire to bridge two culinary worlds keeps him crossing the Pacific.

"Chef Khai is bringing a modern approach to Vietnam," said Martin Yan, a San Mateo, Calif., resident and host of the popular "Yan Can Cook" cooking show. "He is one of the most creative, most talented Vietnamese chefs alive today. He is a culinary artist."

Yan, in Vietnam recently to film shows on the country's food scene, believes the Southeast Asian country is on the cusp of culinary change. Vietnam, whose love for food is displayed along most city sidewalks packed with vendors selling everything from bowls of grilled meats and rice noodles to freshly baked bread, is more open to foreign influences than ever before.

Cooking in this country, though, has long been viewed as a chore for "women in the kitchen" — not a profession young people should aspire to, Duong said.

"The Vietnamese chef is considered second-class — blue-collar, no respect," he said. "They are viewed on the level of a maid. Now that is changing."

But the shift in attitude is not coming fast enough for some.

As a chef, "you are at the low end of the echelon of life," said David Thai, executive chef of Le Steak de Saigon Restaurant in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City's high-end District One who participated in "Iron Chef Vietnam."

Duong's journey to his homeland is a return to his food roots. He spent his first 12 years in a modest home in Nha Trang, where he grew up with 11 siblings and was constantly chased out of the kitchen by his sisters. Duong, though, developed a photographic memory of meals served during his childhood. He recalls his sisters excitedly talking about the meals they were eating, how they were prepared and what could be done to make them better.

Duong himself delayed pursuing his passion for cooking as a young man by heeding the wishes of his family to study engineering, though he dropped out of the program during the last year of college to pursue life as a chef.

In Vietnam, he is as comfortable serving up his own versions of the local cuisine — seared sea bass with leek and passion sauce or soft-shell crab in tamarind sauce, each dish infused with multiple, subtle flavors — as he is squatting on a plastic stool to eat fish soup from a street vendor. He prefers to travel by overnight bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang — a 10-plus-hour journey, local style — than fly first class.

But when Duong cooks, he dazzles. Locals, upon tasting his creations, have been known to blurt out, "I didn't know Vietnamese food could taste this good!"

In the spring, he enthralled Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung with a nine-course meal made with birds' nest, a high-protein delicacy that comes from the saliva of birds found in Asia. Most chefs in Asia know how to cook only two birds' nest dishes — a soup and sweet dessert, he said. Duong served up birds' nest in dishes such as spring rolls, steamed sea bass and roasted lobster.

"He had goose bumps on his arms," Duong said of the prime minister.

In June, Duong won the gold medal at the International Beijing Culinary competition, beating 200 other chefs with a "simple" tomato consommé dish made with birds' nest, further enhancing his reputation in Vietnam.

The chef said his goal is to elevate simple dishes found in remote regions around Vietnam into meals that "will blow your mind."

While he zips around Ho Chi Minh City on his blue Honda motorbike, it's not unusual for strangers to approach him to ask about cooking classes. Young chefs physically bow to him.

"Before Chef Khai came to Vietnam, there was no one else like him," said Vo Tung Lam, a 31-year-old chef at the Novotel Hotel in Nha Trang. He refers to Duong, who on a recent evening agreed to review a multicourse dinner Vo served up, as "my master."

"He is the star," Vo said. "All the chefs in Vietnam look up to him."

Chef Khai Duong, right, smells and reviews Sea Bass With Green Chili during a multicourse meal prepared by Vo Tung Lam, executive chef at the Novotal Hotel, who is mentored by Duong. - MCT