Noticed the new Chino Latino billboards? No, they're not as outrageous/enraging as its past campaigns. These billboards feature the supersized eye of the restaurant's new executive chef, Tuan Nguyen. Nguyen, Chino Latino's first Asian executive chef, joins the restaurant 25 years into his career. He started as a teenage dishwasher at a local Pannekoeken Haus, then cooked and managed his way to executive chef positions at restaurants such as Wolfgang Puck Café in Las Vegas and the California Cafe in Bloomington. Today, Nguyen talks about his cooking mentors, including his Vietnamese mother and professional chefs in the Twin Cities and in Las Vegas. He also shares plans to tweak Chino Latino's menu in the coming months.
How did you get interested in cooking? I was raised in an American and Vietnamese family. My mom was Vietnamese; my dad was American. Every night we had Minnesota's meat and potatoes and a variety of Vietnamese cuisine. I had a choice of either one. My mom would cook a lot. I never thought I would be a chef, but I went into hotel and restaurant management and fell in love with the whole business side of it: meeting people every day, learning their positives and their negatives and how to motivate them. Then along came the cooking part of it. I enjoyed handling food, the science of food. Every day I'm learning something new. I guess that's what really got me intrigued and excited about it.
I've worked in many places. Once I set it up and I get it to where it needs to go, then I look for new adventures.
Where was your first restaurant job? Pannekoeken Haus back in 1985. I was 15, and I got a job as a dishwasher. It was probably one of my longest tenures I've had. I worked there about seven years off and on. I did every aspect you could think of at that job, from dishwashing to house manager. First place is washing dishes, learning what the business is all about. I have an appreciation for every position.
What qualities do you require in kitchen staff? Consistency. The biggest thing is passion. If you come work for me, care about what you do. That's always been my philosophy. That's been taught to me through the years. Care about what you do, or don't do it. Don't do things half-ass is the model I've always been told by other chefs. Have the same passion and desire as I do. If you do, then we'll be successful together. If not, you'll be looking for a new job.
Who have your mentors been? Here in town, Mark Haugen [most recently of Tejas] and Tim Anderson. I haven't worked for Tim, but he's a friend of mine. He was a chef at Goodfellows and various other restaurants. In Vegas, I worked for Wolfgang Puck, so he was one of my mentors, and then another chef by the name of Cindy Hutson who ran a Caribbean restaurant, Orantique. She was a self-taught chef, didn't go to school. She owned three restaurants. When I worked for her, she taught me how to be an owner and how to care about your business. She taught me a lot about Caribbean food also. Those are my mentors I worked for.
Some of the people I would've liked to work for--Gordon Ramsay is one of them. Anthony Bourdain is another one. I love his travels, and he's down to earth. Enjoy all of his books. Gordon --I see a little of myself in him--the fieriness and the passion, the way he goes into a restaurant and points out the obvious. That's why I enjoy watching him. And his food. You've worked at restaurants in the Twin Cities, Las Vegas, and California. Of those three, where is your favorite place to work? To eat? California. When I was in Vegas and worked for Wolfgang I did some stints in California. My wife is also from there. I enjoy what California has to offer. It seems like they and New York are always a step ahead of everybody in terms of food. I love the laid-back California style of living, the accessibility ot the ocean, fresh fish, the weather. I'd rather be in the warm tropical weather than on the Minnesotan tundra.
What is your favorite dish on the menu? Our Korean bulgogi, because of the marinade and the spices put in the meat and the kimchi. I love kimchi. It's lettuce, kobe beef, kimchi, and red onions. I like to throw a twist in it and add a little nuoc cham [a traditional Vietnamese garlic-lime dipping sauce].
If you could put any dish on the menu, what would it be? Something goofy would be my cousin's chicken feet. It's something different, and I think it would fit Chino Latino. It is pushing the envelope with the suburbanites. You can go to Vietnam and walk down the streets and find them everywhere, but here in comfort-level Minnesota you definitely wouldn't find that dish on any menu.
Growing up my mom had an egg roll business. To this day I still think she has one of the best egg rolls, so I would like to put that on the menu.
What do you bring to Chino Latino? I'm the first Asian chef they've had. What I've learned from my years of cooking is not to stick with one cuisine. One of my fortes is Asian cuisines. Growing up eating a lot of authentic Vietnamese food, I want to try to put more street food emphasis, smaller dishes, so people can order more to try more items.
We're revamping our menu to have Uncle Pho's Satay Corner. I'm going to increase the satay items we have on our menu. Little Dishes will be condensed down a little bit. Pepe's Taco Bowl--we will offer more varieties of taco bowls. We're going to have a wok station. Asian wok items will come out from that, from fried rice to noodles to different beef dishes and fish dishes, and then our big dishes. I want to go away from the extravagant big dishes we have. I still offer those, but the clientele we have here is two to four people who are sharing. I want to make dishes they feel comfortable ordering, then upgrade from there.
That's the kind of direction I want to go. The sky's the limit here, because we have so many opportunities from different hot zones we can choose from, not just Latino and Asia. We have Africa, we have India, we have Polynesian dishes we can do. I want to exploit those, and bring a lot of that to Chino.
Our talk with Tuan Nguyen continues tomorrow.