“The Vietnamese chef is considered second-class — blue-collar, no respect,” he said. “They are viewed on the level of a maid. Now that is changing.”
But the shift in attitude is not coming fast enough for some.
As a chef, “you are at the low end of the echelon of life,” said David Thai, executive chef of Le Steak de Saigon Restaurant in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s high-end District One who participated in “Iron Chef Vietnam.”
Duong’s journey to his homeland is a return to his food roots. He spent his first 12 years in a modest home in Nha Trang, where he grew up with 11 siblings and was constantly chased out of the kitchen by his sisters. Duong, though, developed a photographic memory of meals served during his childhood. He recalls his sisters excitedly talking about the meals they were eating, how they were prepared and what could be done to make them better.
Duong himself delayed pursuing his passion for cooking as a young man by heeding the wishes of his family to study engineering, though he dropped out of the program during the last year of college to pursue life as a chef.
In Vietnam, he is as comfortable serving up his own versions of the local cuisine — seared sea bass with leek and passion sauce or soft-shell crab in tamarind sauce, each dish infused with multiple subtle flavors — as he is squatting on a plastic stool to eat fish soup from a street vendor. He prefers to travel by overnight bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang — a 10-plus-hour journey, local style — than fly first class.
But when Duong cooks, he dazzles. Locals, upon tasting his creations, have been known to blurt out, “I didn’t know Vietnamese food could taste this good!”
In the spring, he enthralled Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung with a nine-course meal made with birds’ nest, a high-protein delicacy that comes from the saliva of birds found in Asia. Most chefs in Asia know how to cook only two birds’ nest dishes — a soup and sweet dessert, he said. Duong served up birds’ nest in dishes such as spring rolls, steamed sea bass and roasted lobster.
“He had goose bumps on his arms,” Duong said of the prime minister.
In June, Duong won the gold medal at the International Beijing Culinary competition, beating 200 other chefs with a “simple” tomato consommé dish made with birds’ nest, further enhancing his reputation in Vietnam.
The chef said his goal is to elevate simple dishes found in remote regions around Vietnam into meals that “will blow your mind.”
While zipping around Ho Chi Minh City on his blue Honda motorbike, it’s not unusual for strangers to approach him to ask about cooking classes. Young chefs physically bow to him.
“Before Chef Khai came to Vietnam, there was no one else like him,” said Vo Tung Lam, a 31-year-old chef at the Novotel Hotel in Nha Trang. He refers to Duong, who on a recent evening agreed to review a multicourse dinner Vo served up, as “my master.”
“He is the star,” Vo said. “All the chefs in Vietnam look up to him.”