Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A Conversation with Chef Que Vinh Dang in Hong Kong

This is part of a series of reports on my recent gastronomical vacation in Hong Kong. Return every Monday and Tuesday to see some of the things I ate at this major Asian city on the other side of the Pacific.

Second of two parts

One of the most interesting dining experiences I had in Hong Kong was my dinner at Tbls, a so-called private kitchen on the seventh floor of a residential building in the Central-Soho neighborhood.

The restaurant was opened a little over a year ago by Chef Que Vinh Dang (pronounced “Kway Vin Dang”), a Vietnamese-American who grew up in New York and went to the Institute of Culinary Education before working in Manhattan restaurants such as Union Pacific (when Rocco DiSpirito was head of the kitchen).

Tbls (the shorthand for tablespoon) seats just 20 people (24 when the weather is warm and they open up the patio) and Chef Dang creates a new menu every month. Needless to say, reservations are required, especially since you need to get the code to get through the building’s front gate.

I was lucky to get a reservation for the counter bar, and I showcased my dinner yesterday. Prior to dinner, Chef Dang was nice enough to take some time to chat with me about his venture, and how a boy from the boroughs of New York winds up in Hong Kong.

The following are edited excerpts from that interview.

Single Guy: When growing up, did you ever think about becoming a chef and owning your own restaurant?

Chef Dang: I wouldn’t say I thought about ever opening up a restaurant. I guess it’s a progression. It all depends on the personality of the person. Some people are just content at just being a pastry chef. Some content being a chef de cuisine. … There’s no knocking any of those positions at all. If you make it there it’s good. But I always feel like there’s always something more.

SG: How did you decide to go to culinary school and pursue a career in the restaurant business?

CD: One of my closest friends actually went to culinary school. I was always interested in food in general, and even back then I might not know it but it was always the pursuit of finding something good. When I was younger, when I went to the supermarket, I would get the Campbell’s clam chowder and I would eat it and think, “Oh this is good. But you know what would be even better? If I added more clams, add some of this, add some of that.” Then you take a normal can of clam chowder and you add all these other ingredients to it and you go, “This tastes really good now.” I always want to see if I can make something taste better.

SG: Sounds like you were very curious about things?

CD: I am very curious about things. I think you cannot be a chef if you’re not curious about a lot of things. If you’re closed-minded about anything in (the food and beverage business), then your growth is very limited.

SG: What was your first cooking job?

CD: It was a small classic French place called Alison on Dominick (Street in New York). I went while I was still in school. I just wanted something more, to get ahead while going to school.

SG: Did you feel you learned anything that you wouldn’t have in class?

CD: Discipline. After I graduated and really started to be in restaurants, one of the most underestimated or underrated thing in the restaurant business as far as being in the kitchen is discipline. Nowadays I don’t think a lot of cooks have that. They watch a lot of television and they see all these food shows, all these cooking shows, and they want a part of that. They want to be the celebrity chef. … What a lot of young chefs lack is the discipline to basically stick it through, and understand what they’re cooking and not just follow a recipe.

SG: I read somewhere that you started off as a pastry chef. What made you start there?

CD: I just think everyone should start in pastry. It’s understanding the measurement part of cooking. I got a lot of crap for being a pastry chef. They think it’s not manly to make pastries. Pastries are for girls, blah, blah, blah. … I always look at it as, if I know pastry, I don’t have to be a master at it, but I think I’m so comfortable at it I know exactly what I want out of it. And so from there I can build a menu from beginning to end.

SG: Sounds like you want to be in control of everything in the kitchen. Do you ever get accused of being controlling?

CD: It’s not the controlling part. Every chef has that control issue just because at the end of the day, nobody gets blamed except for the chef. Whether I’m in the kitchen or not, if the food goes wrong, I’m to blame, no one else.

SG: So how does a kid from New York find his way to Hong Kong?

CD: It’s more the wife.

SG: Oh, so it’s one of those following love storyline?

CD: Yeah, pretty much. I met my then girlfriend in New York and she moved out to Hong Kong for work. And I figured, I guess cooking is one of those things you can do anywhere. And why not Hong Kong? (I figured it) should be an easy transition from New York to Hong Kong. I speak enough Cantonese to get by and most people here speak English.

SG: When did you move to Hong Kong?

CD: 2002 or 2003. I moved out here, worked for a year. Hated it.

SG: What was it that you hated?

CD: I found most cooks out here weren’t serious. I mean, compared to New York. You’d expect everyone to have the same level of drive as you would have, if not more. And it was far less. Everyone out here sees (cooking) more as a job, never as a career. In New York, everyone working in the kitchen strives to one day be a chef, running his own restaurant. Here everyone strives to be the best number two they can be, never to be the head guy.

… I moved back to New York and went right back into the kitchen. That’s the level I wanted to work at. After awhile I was thinking I didn’t give Hong Kong the full 100 percent.

SG: So when you came back to Hong Kong after about a year in New York, you worked for awhile and then decided to strike out on your own. What made you decide to open up Tbls, and in this sort of small open kitchen format? Was it a money issue?

CD: Part of it is definitely financial. But it’s more I want the freedom to do what I want to do.

SG: But as an owner of a restaurant you do have your own freedom. It’s interesting that you chose this type of restaurant that seems a bit hidden compared to a restaurant with a storefront.

CD: Having a storefront cost a lot of money, rent-wise. Ground floor spaces are just ridiculous. Not a lot of restaurants can survive (in Hong Kong) when you’re not part of a restaurant group.

SG: Did you go into developing a restaurant with this concept or did you fall into it?

CD: It’s a combination of everything. Something like this makes a little bit more economical sense. It’s not the same rental as ground floor spaces. For me, this place really did come about because of everything I hate about the F&B (food and beverage) business in Hong Kong. … Everything is so much about making money; they lose sight of why people go out to eat. Everyone goes out to eat for the carnal reason of “I am hungry. I want to go out to eat. I need food.” And then part of dining out is just because you want to go out and you want to go out with friends and you want to eat and you want to have good conversations.

…. The emphasis on money is about turning tables. … One of the things I hate at restaurants is if I make a booking and they say, “yeah I have a booking for you, but I need my table back by 9 o’clock.” … I want to erase that from this place. This place, I fill about 20 seats, maybe 24 depending on the weather. I want to concentrate on the full overall dining experience. I have one seating only. I want to make sure whoever is eating here feels comfortable. And again, I want people to come back and have a completely different dining experience. So the menu changes once a month.

SG: How would you describe this type of restaurant?

CD: Hong Kong is very big on their private kitchens. This has a private kitchen feel but I’m actually a fully licensed restaurant.

SG: What kind of food are you trying to do here? I’ve read some descriptions of your food that sounds like comfort food but with a refined touch.

CD: It is comfort food. (SG: I heard you once made a Sloppy Joe?) For me the definition of comfort food is food that brings back memories of something. And so the Sloppy Joe menu was my little tribute to American supermarket items, where I grew up eating Chef Boyardee and Hamburger Helper. I did my own version of an alphabet soup. Same with the Sloppy Joe. … but with a lot better ingredients and a lot better technique in making it.

SG: So in a way when people dine here it’s like learning more about you?

CD: I’ve always wanted to tell a story through food. This month’s menu is Vietnamese cooking, but it’s the food I grew up eating from my mom.

SG: What would you say you’ve learned about living and working in Hong Kong?

CD: Be open-minded. It’s a good thing I would say I moved out of New York. If I didn’t move out of New York, I’d keep that New York mentality of New York is the center of the universe. Everything we do is the best. … I think a lot of chefs fall into that trap. … Like I think dim sum here is absolutely mind-blowingly good. So when I go back to New York, it’s not the same.

SG: The business can be intense and a lot of people burn out. Working in Manhattan and now Hong Kong, do you ever feel like you’re burning out? (CD: Oh yeah.) What keeps you going?

CD: The guests. The whole reason why I got into cooking was I was curious about cooking. And then it was more that you make food for friends. And then it was like: “Oh my God I really like this.” And then it’s “Oh wow, I made something with my hands that somebody else liked.” And it’s a very addictive feeling. So sometimes as tired or as stressed as I am, you get the customer saying “I love your place,” or “I love your food,” and that makes it so much more worth it.

After trying Chef Dang’s food, I’m sure he’ll be hearing a lot of “I love your food” comments. Special thanks for Chef Dang for taking the time from his busy day prepping for service to sit down and chat with me. In a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong, it’s nice to discover a chef who pushes for quality and innovation as he feeds the people.


ciki said...

great interview! Great stuff and thanks for sharing such insights into Chef Que Vinh Dang!

janet said...

Good interview; Chef Que Vinh Dang sounds like an interesting guy. I especially loved the comment "Oh wow, I made something with my hands that somebody else like.". Just shows how humble guy he is. Wish I can visit HK now. Did you get to meet his wife?

Single Guy Ben said...

Janet, I didn't meet his wife. She doesn't work at the restaurant and is in a totally different industry.

Carolyn Jung said...

How interesting that he thinks all chefs should start out in pastry. I can see his point. You're much more well rounded that way. After all, I think we've all seen how not knowing how to bake can be the downfall of many a contestant on "Top Chef.'' ;)