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
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.”
Photo by LiPo Ching of the Mercury News