New recruit: Steven Nguyen
The Indochine DXB executive chef chats to Hotelier about what brought him to his role, his greatest achievements and the future of Indochine
What inspired you to get into the hospitality industry?
I got into the hospitality industry just as I was turning 30. It was a bit of a 180 turn from what I had initially studied at school. After high school I attended art school then went on to advertising, then pursued a BA in Communications. But when the economic downturn happened in 2008 jobs were scarce in my field. So I made the decision to pivot into hospitality- as it was a job I had always had since college. Once I graduated from culinary school, my career started to take off quite fast. I worked my way up in various restaurants, until I took a risk and went on to open a startup restaurant with friends. From the strength of that success I was then head hunted to take a position in Hong Kong as head chef of a Vietnamese restaurant called Chom Chom.
How has your previous work experience inspired you to get to where you are today?
Opening a restaurant for the first time was one the most difficult and rewarding experiences in my career. I had to accelerate my learning and take on the responsibility of running a kitchen only two years out of culinary school. I made many mistakes in that first year- but the best advice I was ever given from a chef was- “mistakes happen, just don’t make them twice” - this is a sentiment I pass along to my cooks.
What are the key skills you possess that make you well-suited to this role?
When I had transitioned from being just a cook to a chef, I had not realised how many other skills I needed to develop in order to be a successful leader. Less and less was I dealing with the day to day work of actually cooking - but what I had to develop was the soft skills of organisation, delegation, and motivation. The kitchen is a chaotic beast- but a well-run kitchen is chaos, organised. You need to plan like a military leader. I also had to realise that I could not do everything myself, that many hands make for short work. Being an effective communicator is an essential skill when it comes to delegation - One lesson I learned - people are far more receptive to being asked to do something rather than being told. Lastly the day to day grind of kitchen work can take its toll on cooks - the chef life is a hard one - and morale and motivation affects not only the environment but also the food. It is the duty of the leader to check in with their staff and make sure that the state of their mental health is taken seriously.
Tell us a bit about the other markets you have worked in and how that compares to your current role?
I’ve had the privilege of working in North America and Asia. In North America there has in the last 20 years been in a strong shift in the ethical sourcing of ingredients- and now that has almost become the status quo. There is strong demand for products that are organic, sustainable, locally sourced or ethically raised. It is a trend that I hope no longer is a trend but the way forward. In Asia the variety and quality of food is staggering. Dubai still has a way to go in terms of working towards getting consistency in sourcing the quality, variety and specialty ingredients needed to grow this market.
What are some of the challenges you foresee, and the opportunities you see crop up from them?
Food intolerance has always been a hurdle for every chef trying to feed a lot of people. As part of our due diligence in creating menus we have to be aware of not only common allergies such as nuts and shellfish - but of gluten, dairy intolerances, and vegan diets. I myself have a peanut allergy, and my nephew has gluten intolerances. This has made me quite empathic and hyper-aware to the needs of guests and consumers that come into our doors, and we try our utmost to not only cater but also educate. I think smart and savvy entrepreneurs and food professionals should see this as an opportunity to not only tap into a new market but really give offer value to those who need it the most.
What would say are a few of your most significant accomplishments so far?
To have opened up two restaurants only a couple years out of culinary school was a huge accomplishment. I believe that risk and experience really accelerated my career to where it is now. I still feel that I’m at an early stage in my career and that is the only the first phase, but having been asked to work in Hong Kong and now in Dubai has been a blessing.
Name three of your favourite aspects of the venue.
Our terrace is absolutely magical - it is like a mini botanical garden. We have these amazing vintage couches in our lounge which I would die to have in my own home. Lastly I would say a good judge of a restaurant is how well thought out the bathrooms are, and I'm proud to say ours are pretty amazing and definitely selfie worthy.
Can you describe any new initiatives or programmes that you are planning to introduce as part of your new position?
Waste is still a massive problem within our industry - especially in the areas of plastics and food waste. As a chef it is our duty to use every bit of the ingredient as we can, not only as a means of respect for the product but it also helps with a business's overall bottom line.
Disposable plastic usage is another area that I hope to make changes in. We use them every day for food containment and unfortunately are tossed out after a single use. But there are companies who are producing high quality reusable plastics that I hope we can partner with.
Steven Nguyen's Goals
- I had to come to terms with the fact that my industry is far from perfect and that my work may directly or indirectly contribute to factors that concern climate change, public food safety issues, public health concerns, mental health issues, and food insecurity From the vast amounts of meat we eat on a whole it is no longer a secret of how mass production of animals meats is a leading contributor to climate change. The answer is simple, we on a whole have to eat less meat if we want to continue on this planet. It is easier said than done. I feel it's always harder to abstain from consumption. So we as food professionals need to provide alternatives. As a chef I would like my future work to help to provide plant based alternatives that are just as tasty and popular as any burger can be.
- Learning to cook professionally wasn’t just about ingredients and recipes - but it added the responsibility of cooking and storing those ingredients to the highest standards. Unfortunately standards or not the status quo around the world. The work not only has to happen on the ground level in the restaurants but needs to but push to the top and petition governments to set up and enact strict policies to raise these standards hold producer accountable I hope my work can push me to a platform that can help address these concerns.
- The link between food and obesity is undeniable. Our ability to eat whatever we want whenever we want has come at a price. My work needs to give better alternatives to processed fast food and to educate the general public about balanced diets.
- Kitchens have always been a powder keg environment. They compound already stressful situations in the name of getting food at whatever cost, working long hours, at great intensity. Not many people can do it. And those who do sometimes have to put on a bold face to say, “this is how it is”, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”. That was the old guard mentality - macho, chauvinistic and patriarchal. We need to be more aware of how much mental toll it can take. Mental health is being talked about in other industries but is rarely spoken about in the food industry, where I feel most are susceptible and at risk.
- Finally the biggest concern is the distribution of food itself. Nothing breaks my heart or angers me more than having food returned or wasted in a restaurant for whatever reason. My family grew up poor as refugees from the Vietnam War, and my mother never let me forget the sin of wasting a single grain of rice. At the end of the day I feed people, that’s my main value, it’s the base of what I do, and I feel that sometimes it’s over glamorised. I hope that one day my work brings me to a place that can help to close the gap between the richest and poorest and bring food to those who need it the most.