Embeya’s Chef/Partner Thai Dang just got back from celebrating the Vietnamese Lunar New Year with his family on the east coast. If the first two months of 2015 are any indication of what kind of a year it’s going to be, the months ahead will be no less than an epic whirlwind.
To date, Dang hosted the Chef’s Social industry voting event for the Jean Banchet Awards at Embeya, bore the filmed stress of a Check, Please! segment [all thumbs up], received the Jean Banchet Award for Best Restaurant Service and successfully sailed through the grueling pace of Restaurant Week and Valentine’s Weekend.
On March 7th, Chef Dang embarks for Vietnam on a “Culinary Journey” he is hosting for R. Crusoe & Son. In addition to sharing local foods, culture and history with the tour, he will also cook for the travelers and take them to his family’s home where one of his sisters still resides today. (Pictured above: Vietnamese Fruit Market.) Follow his journey all next month on Twitter: @ThaiDangEats.
You just got back from visiting with your family, do you cook for them?
I cook for events. It [the New Year] is to give thanks to your parents who gave you life and to your ancestors. We are influenced by Chinese traditions and also add Catholicism to it. I brought my wife, she’s Italian American, for the first time this year. She loved it and was surprised by all the activity – all the kids get envelopes with money inside. I have six brothers and three sisters, and all of them have 2-3 kids. In Vietnam, businesses shut down for three days, and people visit each other.
I get made fun of when I go home because my family says I lost my accent. I was 6 when I came here, but my siblings were in their teens – plus they’re around my parents and the community there. I have the English accent when I speak Vietnamese now – do you see it? When I have an in depth conversation with them, sometimes it’s hard to find the words. They say the words I’m using, are very simple, like what a five year old would choose.
What do they say about your cooking?
They tell me my food tastes like home, but when they go home they can’t do it at home. That’s the best compliment my family pays me. That made me felt so great – that they can’t replicate it.
What was it like to host the Chef’s Social for Banchet voting?
It went well. For me, I was cooking, and we were able to showcase the hospitality we have as a restaurant. We strive to show guests, even industry folks, what we’re about.
It’s not my food in the beginning because when guests come, it’s the experience they have with the hosts and the servers. I want to please the guests – it’s not about the chef and his ego.
How did Check, Please! go?
Great, but it all happened at the same time – during Restaurant Week. We got slaughtered every day; 200 covers a day during the week and 300 plus on the weekends. Then it was Valentine’s Day. It was crazy – we were going through cases and cases of things.
Do you like doing Restaurant Week?
We LOVE Restaurant Week! A lot of restaurants don’t see to put out – the whole point is to showcase you can do great food at this price and give great service. To me, it is a challenge; I don’t get into that mindset of just putting up – some people were serving cookies and ice cream! ‘Cookies,’ really?
For two weeks straight we served a menu we were proud of. You can lose your soul when you do banquet food producing at a high rate like that – we skillet cooked each dish. ‘Don’t stop cooking,’ I told my chefs, ‘we don’t just want to serve people food.’
How important is creativity to your process?
Creativity comes sporadically. It can happen when I’m inspired, or bored with a fish, or because something doesn’t sell. You have to take in feedback from the servers, customers, etc. – that’s where a lot of chefs are triggered by their ego. You can’t tell people they have to have it because you think that’s the way it should be. You have to change it; inspiration comes from the day to day.
If I see things elsewhere, it can give me ideas of how to do things. It’s pure, not based on easy, but the creative mind. That’s my goal. If I’m not creative, I’m not teaching my staff. We [chefs] need to be versatile. Sometimes I bring things in whole and then fabricate it myself.
Do you think self-fabrication has grown in recent years?
Yes, you can get anything today and quickly. I have that freedom to order and get things in. Sometimes I play with the product I get; you have to challenge yourself. I won’t say I can’t do anything – I have to try it out.
What have you fabricated most recently?
James [from Buedel] had the three bone plate split in half for me. Then I split it between the bone, so you can get the texture within the short rib where the meat and the tissues hold it together. The meat above the bone is different from the meat at the end of the bone – I wanted people to be able to taste the difference.
In Korean style, they eat bone on and cut it very thin. In Vietnam, we don’t use short ribs because we don’t use that cut. If it’s tough meat, we cook it until it’s tender.
Braised Short Rib with Grilled Royal Trumpet, Toasted Garlic, and Roasted Pearl Onions (pictured above). I hate braised meat that’s been seared hard, I find it loses its integrity because it’s already braised – it makes no sense.
We put the meat on a roasting rack with oil, salt, and pepper, and roast it at a high heat (500) for 20 minutes, turn it and roast for another 20. Then we make a braising liquid, add palm sugar, and then deglaze it, make stock and return it to the oven at 350° for one hour and then at 300° for 3 hours. We let it sit overnight in the liquid, so it cools it down, and we reduce the liquid by half.
The next day we baste it, deglaze again, add the royal trumpets, shallots, etc. – we fortify it. In Vietnam you cook in one pot; you should always be able to take a light spoon or fork to it to taste. All in all, it takes one day to make.
What’s your take on education?
When I tried college, I didn’t like it, I was lazy and didn’t have a direction then. Once I choose my path, I decided I wanted to be the best at it …better than my colleagues. I chose to put the work in and I learned so much working with Laurent Gras at L2O.
You have to invest in your craft, read cookbooks, go out and taste flavors. Everybody here has an opportunity; it’s up to you whether you want to be great. You have to set goals, instead of partying after work, getting up late and barely making it to work on time, etc. You have to look at yourself and ask, ‘Are you doing what you should be doing?’ No one is going to do it for you.
I also had to change too; I had to raise my maturity level – it had to be above the rest. I was 27 when we opened Embeya three years ago; now I’m 30. Do you want to do great things or not? It sounds simple, but that’s the reality.
It is a struggle to get cooks who are really ready to cook – their hearts are just not there – you have to have passion for it. I can tell how a cook is going to be just by how they handle herbs, how they set up their station. Cooking schools get them in and out, but they don’t teach them the real world. You’re going to get paid less than your servers and work lots of hours; you have to have dedication to your craft.
Whatever you do, even if you’re just selling tickets, why not make it the best experience you can? Everyone has a choice.