CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with LILY HOA NGUYEN
Vietnam gave me some of my most memorable holiday memories, but the one thing that always stood out was the wonderful Vietnamese people. So a self-taught Vietnamese lady chef who had as recently as 6 months ago opened her very own restaurant in the extremely competitive restaurant neighbourhood of JLT was someone I would be foolish not to want to meet up with. She comes across almost zen like (very very opposite to me) and yet, when she speaks you can feel the iron will of an entrepreneur, the love for her home country, the passion for her craft and the gentleness of a mom (she is a mother to two young boys aged 2 and 4). She learned to cook at the tender age of 5, and by 13 was responsible for the kitchen and yet it was not a profession she thought of. It was in Turkey that the seed got planted when she started offering cooking classes which she continued to do when she moved to Dubai. Lily is an amazing lady who got to where she is one step at a time… each step more assured, motivated and ambitious than the last.
Name: Lily Hoa Nguyen
Restaurant: Vietnamese Foodies
From: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Culinary School: Self taught
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I think I was born at a time when we were lucky if we had something to eat. It was just after the war so we were not choosey – so we did not mind if it was vegetable, rice or meat – as long as there was something to fill the belly.
What did you want to be when you were growing up and how did the culinary path unfold?
When I was growing up I had many different dreams which changed as time went by. My first wish was to be a tour guide because I used to enjoy introducing people to Vietnam and enjoyed meeting people. When I was in high school I wanted to be a trader was Vietnam had just opened up and we had started exporting quite a few of our agriculture products. After university I spent 8 years doing marketing and business development at Unilever and L’Oréal.
Growing up I was the one who cooked for the family. From about the age of 5 I used to help in the kitchen and by the time I was thirteen I was responsible for cooking at least one full meal a day. We are a big family and everyone was busy so we all had all our household chores divided up and since I enjoyed cooking and I cooked well I was given the task of cooking. I really liked to replicate food that I had tried elsewhere, for example, if I went out with friends and had something that was tasty I would try and make it at home for everybody to try. I only started to seriously cook after I left Vietnam.
I got married and moved to Istanbul with my Turkish husband, which is where I started teaching people how to cook Vietnamese food. When I had friends and family over, they were really curious about the food I cooked and often asked if I could teach them how to make a particular dish. That is how I started teaching how to cook Vietnamese food in partnership with Miele once a week and those classes got really popular. So, when I moved to Dubai, I decided to continue to teach here.
Growing up I knew I liked cooking and treated it more like a hobby, cooking at weekends but it is only in the last few years that I thought it could become my profession. It was about a year after I started teaching at the cooking school that I realised that my skill in cooking was valuable and it was something I could build up on.
What did you have for dinner last night?
I had food from the restaurant – beef fried rice and a papaya salad.
Place you eat most often on days off?
Actually, we don’t eat out much. On my days off we will be buying meat and vegetables and we will cook at home for our friends and family. The food we have at home is a mixture of Vietnamese and Turkish food – a bit of a fusion.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
This happened in one of my classes. In Vietnam we sometimes mix salad with dry fish or shrimp. On the day I decided to introduce that dish to my students. At one point I was stir frying the small shrimp to get it ready to mix into the salad and when I looked at my students they had this strange look on their faces. Not everybody is used to eating the dry seafood especially those where you have the full head and legs on them. That is when I realised that it might be something my students may not enjoy, so I decided to put it on the side and invited them to add it to their salad if they so wished to.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
My favourite condiment to work with is Nước chấm which is a type of a fish sauce condiment made from fresh fish coated in salt and fermented for anywhere between 12 – 18 months. So, this can vary a lot depending on the source of ingredients, the way that it is extracted. But if you can find very very good fish sauce you can use it many dishes and mix it in so many different ways that would give you completely different flavours and different levels of spiciness and saltiness.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
If it was my last weekend on earthy I would want to be on one of the islands – I don’t mind where it is – it could be Bali, Syechelles or even Phu Quoc island in Vietnam. I would be eating a lot of seafood and a lot of grilled meat.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I haven’t really through about it so can’t say for sure. But I would love to be in one of the European cities and cook Vietnamese food. I am sure I will find people who will enjoy Vietnamese food there.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for and what would you cook them?
I think I would most like to cook for my parents because I don’t think I get enough chances to cook for them. My mom, The, had a skin disease due to which she cannot eat any seafood, red meat or anything that is high in cholesterol. I would cook vegetarian dishes which were light but flavourful. One of her favourite dishes is tofu and eggplant clay pot – I am sure she would love that. Usually she is not bothered about what she is eating, so quite often the allergies would play up. So where ever she is in Dubai or I am in Vietnam I would cook for her healthy and safe dishes. My dad, Mon, will eat anything – he is very easy – but he loves pho and that is what I will cook for him.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I probably eat the green papaya and prawn salad. It is made with green papaya, carrots, cucumbers mixed with herbs and prawns and then mixed with nước chấm (fish sauce), lime juice and sugar, garlic and chilli pepper. It is very crunchy and flavourful. For me this dish is what I would recommend as this represents what Vietnamese food is all about.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Firstly, food should be very tasty. Secondly, it should be very healthy. There are so many alternatives, that you should be able to choose to eat something different within a cuisine every day without getting bored of it.
How do you cope with failure – when something doesn’t go the way you’ve planned?
In the restaurant business people and teamwork are really important. Soo to cope with failure I think we would sit down as a team and discuss the issues and find a common solution.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
I would probably be a cucumber. Because I think I can be the base, I am very resourceful, and I am calm and cool. I am not one of those with a fiery temper.
Best culinary tool? Probably be a Spiralizer and a mixer. The spiralizer helps me to deal with most of the vegetables where I can bring them to an edible state. And the mixer would help me with the baking and also in the making of ham.
Favourite cuisine? It would be Japanese because it is also very light and rich in texture and is very well presented and excites you in all the senses. I really like sashimi and I believe it is the right way to eat fish.
What’s your favourite comfort food? Pho because is hot bone broth which fills you yet leaves you feelign light and the herbs, the beansprouts and meat will help energize you. So if you feel low at any time of the day, one bowl of pho will cure you.
Would you rather be a waiter or a dishwasher? I would rather be a waiter because I enjoy the interaction with people and I enjoy serving people. And when I see that the food they are eating is making them happy, I would be very happy too.
Worst thing about being a chef is… The worst thing is that you cannot predict when people are coming in and what they are going to eat. You can sit and twiddle your thumbs for the whole day, and then all of a sudden 50 people walk in at the same time and you have to feed them the different orders they have placed.
Best thing about being a chef is… You can decide whether the dining experience of your guest is going to be a good one. It gives you the power to make people happy.
What is the one cooking tip you swear by? Be organized so you are ready for whatever comes your way.
THIS OR THAT
Curly fries or regular fries?
Hot sauce or barbecue sauce?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Rice or Mash?
Soup or salad?
Lunch, Breakfast or Dinner?
Fried egg, omelette, or scrambled?
Crème brûlée or molten chocolate cake?
Ketchup or mayonnaise?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!