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 patiently.
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.”
Duong, 52, who fled the country with his family as the Communists defeated U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1975, explores the varied food of his homeland for his own inspiration — even in restaurants where beer is the most popular item on the menu.
He is preparing to open two new restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City and is engaged in philanthropic efforts here, including supporting a cooking school for girls and women formerly involved in the sex trade and developing a culinary scholarship program. In the Bay Area, he recently closed Ana Mandara and plans to open a string of smaller restaurants, including one in San Jose, Calif.
His desire to bridge two culinary worlds keeps him crossing the Pacific.
“Chef Khai is bringing a modern approach to Vietnam,” said Martin Yan, a San Mateo, Calif., resident and host of the popular “Yan Can Cook” cooking show. “He is one of the most creative, most talented Vietnamese chefs alive today. He is a culinary artist.”
Yan, in Vietnam recently to film shows on the country’s food scene, believes the Southeast Asian country is on the cusp of culinary change. Vietnam, whose love for food is displayed along most city sidewalks packed with vendors selling everything from bowls of grilled meats and rice noodles to freshly baked bread, is more open to foreign influences than ever before.