Vinh Nguyen is the executive chef and partner of Stay Lucky, a restaurant offering craveable Chinese classics opening late 2018 in LA. After getting his start in the culinary world at Sang Yoon’s Father’s Office in the early 2000’s while a student at UCLA, Nguyen moved to New York, where he was a vanguard in building the dining scene in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, opening beloved restaurants the critically acclaimed Silent H and Café Colette. He built a following for his mastery of Vietnamese flavors at Silent H, which served food inspired by his mother’s recipes, before turning his attention to exploring the Chinese half of his heritage. He moved to Shanghai, where he opened The Grumpy Pig, a restaurant highlighting Shanghainese people’s love for all things pork, and Trotter Bar, it’s sister cocktail bar. After a stop back in New York to help open the modern Chinese restaurant, Fung Tu, and serve as executive chef of critically acclaimed Balinese restaurant, Selamat Pagi, Nguyen returns home to LA excited to share a new Chinese dining experience.
Please share an off-menu family recipe (or description) or a personal intergenerational food story
My (Vinh’s) mother, Anna Hong, was the eldest of seven children. After her grandfather passed when she was 9, money became tight and she had to drop out of school to sell street food to support her family. She became an apprentice to a fellow Chinese Vietnamese woman; together, they sold dishes like Cha Gio and other snacks on pedestrian roads in rural Rat Gia Vietnam. Her food was loved, and years later she had her own little food stall.
A lifetime of cooking for both customers and her family made her an expert chef in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine. She is still the best chef I know, and even at age 75 is always testing out and learning new recipes. She was my first and still most important teacher.
One of my earliest and fondest memories was squatting on the floor with my mom helping her out in the kitchen. Old habits die hard; she still prefers squatting for some of her prep. We would lay down newspaper and she would give me a pile of spring roll skins to peel apart. This was the setting for my earliest cooking lessons: she taught me the nuances of making the perfect spring rolls; for example, that there was a smoother side to the skins that she preferred to be the exterior of her shiny fried spring rolls.
At her side, I learned the importance of balance and harmony in ingredients, even in the humble spring roll. Everything had a purpose – slivers of wood ear mushrooms and steamed mung beans were critical for texture. She taught me to chase umami even in the simplest recipes like that of the dipping sauce, nuoc cham. I am saddened when Vietnamese restaurants serve diluted nuoc cham absent of flecks of garlic and chili, and I applaud the cooks that actually deliver crowning touches like fine minced aromatics and pickled carrot and daikon to their finished sauces, much like my mother’s, which became my benchmark.
Those lessons set the foundation for how I cook and inform the approach we take with all our dishes at Stay Lucky.
What does participation at LUCKYRICE signify to you?
We’re psyched to be here amongst so many other talented chefs and teams. It’s a great collective celebration of what we’ve learned and are honoring from our past, as well as the potential and opportunity we all have for pushing Asian food forward. Breaking Bao feels like an encapsulation of what a lot of us are trying to do – internalizing what we’ve preserved and saved from our upbringings and heritage and using that to speak with our own unique culinary voices for today.
What do you think of the Asian food moment right now?
We think it’s a super exciting time for Asian food. There’s a wave of first generation Asian American or Asian American immigrant chefs and restaurateurs that came up with their feet in two culinary worlds – the Asian food of their upbringing and the continuously evolving American food landscape. Those worlds have collided with increasing frequency throughout our lifetimes and never more than now. The Asian American food scene of today is and will continue to be a reconciliation of those worlds, as the voices for Asian American food grow in representation in the overall culinary world. And that’s a great thing – unlike what much of the political climate would have you believe, American culture is immigrant culture and nowhere is that more true than the food world.
Join Chef Vinh Nguyen at our Los Angeles #LUCKYRICE18 “Breaking Bao Intergenerational Feast” on July 26th.