Cooking legend Duong Huy Khai has been a trailblazer in his field across four decades. After graduating from renowned French culinary school Le Cordon Bleu, he went on to work for high-end hotels and restaurants across the US, won several international competitions and is now a TV cooking judge. Bao Chan caught up with the kitchen hero one afternoon on Nha Trang beach.
Duong Huy Khai was born in Nha Trang in 1959. He topped his year at France's Le Cordon Bleu, a leading culinary school, in 1989, the first Vietnamese student to graduate. He also studied bakery at the Le Notre school. After graduating, he worked for many high-end hotels and restaurants in the states of Florida and Hawaii.
In June last year, Khai beat 200 chefs from 30 nations with his dish bird's nest soup, added with lemongrass and tomato flavour.
As the first Vietnamese to be in the Cordon Bleu Hall of Fame for his contribution to the culinary profession, he was founder of Asian Chefs Association and World Association of Chef Societies. Khai is now one of the judges of the Vietnamese Iron Chef television contest.
Inner Sanctum: Could you tell us why you gave up your mechanical engineering degree to pursue a career as a chef?
I am the 10th child in a family of 12 children. When I was a little kid, my mum was a genius in cooking. We all learned to cook from her. As a boy, I was very excited every time mum told me to go to the local market. Half my siblings became chefs or opened their own food businesses. My parents wanted me to become a mechanical engineer, so when they learnt that I had decided to become a chef they were very sad and disappointed. I knew that but I couldn't do anything else. I only feel happy when I stick with the kitchen!
Thinking back, while studying for my future as an engineer I realised I was trapped in a completely strange world to which I did not belong. How could I spend my entire life doing things that did not inspire me? You only live once, so live your life. When I was 20, I thought that I had to be responsible for my own life. And now I am content with my decision to quit mechanical engineering studies and be the chef of my brother's restaurant in San Francisco.
Inner Sanctum: Why did you choose to attend Le Cordon Bleu school? Tell us about that experience?
Each food has its own charm, making up the common language of food. My five sisters and a brother are excellent chefs in San Francisco restaurants. I admire my brother so much since he is very good at Vietnamese traditional food. In 1989, learning that I wished to come to France to attend Le Cordon Bleu, he told me that a chef did not need a degree and that the tuition fee was very high, while our financial condition was limited. However, my deep aspiration kept pushing me to move on and prove to my family that I tried my best. No matter what you do, knowledge is the key!
When I practised cooking at my brother's restaurant, I read many books and bravely tested several Vietnamese popular dishes in European and American styles, and they were passionately welcomed by gastronomers.
Yet I always wondered why Americans always refer to Vietnamese dishes of cha gio (spring roll), cha cuon (meat roll) and pho (noodle soup), while we have a vast ambrosia to create nutritious and luxurious dishes. I always yearn to make a collection of high-ranking and fine menus. That is the reason I quit my job to study cooking. And to do so, I had to choose the most famous culinary school in the world.
Inner Sanctum: You have an ability to colour the character of Vietnamese food on the global food map. Have you used that versatile key to bring Vietnamese food to the world?
It is indeed an interesting question. When in France, due to financial problems, I tried to shorten my study from two years to 15 months. After that, I decided to use my savings to study bakery in Le Notre.
The French have been long famous for being gastronomes. I didn't only learn cooking techniques, I also memorised many skills the French applied to their dishes.
After returning to the US, I decided to open my own restaurant in Beverley Hills, Los Angeles, which serves Vietnamese delicacies in the French style. with the addition of American dressing. My only wish now is to miniaturise the Vietnamese food map in my restaurant, so that Americans can discover Viet Nam through each course.
Inner Sanctum: How did you prepare the dish that helped you win the Master Chef competition? Do you have any advice for the youngsters who share your love of cooking?
Once when I came back to Viet Nam, I was fortunate to be given a box of bird's nests with which I had to prepare dish within 48 hours to show the national characteristic. I remembered staying up all night to figure out how to present a menu of swallow's nests. And finally, after many challenges, I finished the menu, which comprised of nine delicious dishes.
Last summer, I hesitated when my best friend Martin Yan, a Chinese-born American, persuaded me to join the World Master Chef competition, which is organised for chefs all over the world in Beijing, China. The competitors were allowed to prepare devices and ingredients. I looked around and realised that I was the only one who went to the competition alone. Thanks to Martin Yan, I was able to borrow the devices. However, a problem occured when the tomato grinder that helped me made the dish was broken down and I had the organising board shift me to a new stove. It was my calmness that helped me survive and continue to finish the bird's nest dish added with lemongrass and tomato flavour.
I want to pass my passion for cooking on to young chefs. When I think about my mum, who has passed away, I feel very proud that cooking is such a noble job, just like a doctor and an engineer. — VNS