Most of us have an image of professional kitchens as being something of a male-dominated boy's club, despite women traditionally doing most of the cooking in private homes for centuries. Whilst women still account for a relatively low portion of professional chefs globally, there are more women enrolling for training and a number of female chefs rank among the best in the world, earning major accolades and awards.
As Vietnam’s foodie landscape grows and evolves, more international and Vietnamese restaurants are opening and drawing in big talents, both local and foreign. Among these rising stars are several talented female chefs who are shaking up Vietnam’s culinary scene with their unique take on Vietnamese and international cuisines, often drawing influence from their diverse geographical backgrounds.
Here are four of the best female chefs in Vietnam right now, and where to eat their food.
Tam Le - Saigonita Concept Rebstaurant in Saigon
Tam Le’s Saigonita is a concept restaurant that reinterprets Mexican cuisine through the lens of Vietnamese ingredients and dishes. The creator and chef hosts her intimate pop-up dinners on select evenings every month. Already, Saigonita is storming the foodie scene in Saigon, with Tam’s dinners booked-out two months in advance.
Tam has had an unconventional route to Saigonita. She was raised in Texas before leaving to work in branding in New York, where she recalls beginning to make her own tortillas after discovering that she could only buy them imported and mass-produced in New York, unlike the fresh tortillas available in grocery stores across Texas. As an Texas-born Vietnamese, she grew up eating both Mexican and Vietnamese cuisines and says, “to combine them was only natural to me”.
Image source: Tam Le
After moving to Vietnam, Tam started to make the Saigonita vision a reality, creating her exciting Vietnamese-Mexican food with encouragement from her friends. As the concept was being developed, Tam Le spent her evenings and weekends experimenting to bring her new dishes to life. Now that her dinners have gained momentum, she is dedicating herself to Saigonita full-time.
The Saigonita menu changes depending on what’s in season and the chef’s mood. Tam describes her Huế-vos Rancheros as a current crowd favourite; a tostada with a fried home-made tortilla base, a layer of refried black beans, beef braised in the style of bún bò Huế, a fried quail egg, finely chopped shallots and herbs, and finished off with a squeeze of calamansi.
Tam doesn’t consider her gender to be challenge in Vietnam’s culinary world. She explains, “I see so many opportunities in Vietnam”, although she acknowledges that the industry is very male-dominated. As her unique concept becomes increasingly popular, she describes her goal as, “to figure out how to allow everyone who wants to try Saigonita to be able to experience it”.
Nikki Tran - Cau Ba Quan and Cau Ba Noodles Restaurants in Saigon
Famous for her appearance on the Netflix hit series Ugly Delicious, Nikki Tran is dishing up her brand of ‘Viejun’ (Vietnamese-Cajun) food in her two modern Vietnamese seafood restaurants; Cau Ba Quan and Cau Ba Noodles in Ho Chi Minh City.
A Saigon native who has spent time in Houston, Texas - where the Viet-Cajun trend began - Nikki describes her cooking as a collaboration between Vietnamese culture and other cultures, but is adamant that her food isn’t branded as ‘fusion’.
Nikki never trained as a professional chef, nor did she have any aspirations to cook, but she was thrown into the kitchen when the chef didn’t show up on the opening night. Now she loves to create new dishes and her aspiration is to bring modern Vietnamese food to the mainstream, showing the cuisine from a different angle.
Image source: Nikki Tran
Nikki acknowledges the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry, describing how gaining authority in the kitchen can be difficult for women working in a traditionally patriarchal society such as Vietnam. She added that even in the US, it isn’t easy to command respect from the other chefs in a professional kitchen. She also expressed her belief that the conventional female roles within a family in Vietnam can limit their ability to work long hours.
Nevertheless, Nikki feels that there are a lot of opportunities out there for aspiring female chefs to be noticed, stating, “the creativity brought by women is highly anticipated and appreciated”. She advises women to be tough in the kitchen and to have confidence that female chefs can do whatever male chefs can do, whether its scaling a fish or butchering a whole cow.
Nguyễn Thị Hồng Huệ - Stoker Restaurant in Saigon
Stoker has been making waves in Saigon’s culinary scene for some time now, and its Junior Sous Chef, Nguyễn Thị Hồng Huệ, is one of the restaurant’s rising stars. Stoker’s speciality is cooking meats using various techniques involving fire, perhaps making the presence of a strong female chef even more unusual.
Image source: Hue Nguyen
After studying finance, Hue embarked on her chef’s training and gained experience in a number of professional kitchens before joining Stoker in May 2017. She worked in the cold kitchen and In pastry before being promoted to Junior Sous Chef.
Working with Stoker’s Executive Chef, George Bloomfield, Hue has created new signature dishes for the popular steakhouse, including Smoked Milk Panna Cotta and Woodfired Basque Cheesecake.
Hue explains that she finds Ho Chi Minh City “one of the best places to explore local and international food”, with its eclectic range of restaurants and diverse food scene. Hue highlighted that this environment creates lots of opportunities for female chefs to develop their careers. She says that, “women in general are well-known for being careful, resourceful and tidy; which are good values for a chef”.
Her advice to aspiring female chefs is to “follow your passion”, acknowledging that things can be difficult at the beginning but these challenges can be overcome. Hue's goal is to eventually gain experience and learn about Northern Vietnamese cuisine by spending time working in Hanoi.
Summer Le - Nen Restaurant in Danang
Now an unofficial global ambassador for Central Vietnamese cuisine, Chef Summer Le has been expressing her passion for the food of her home-region at her acclaimed restaurant, Nen, since August 2017. The ethos of Nen - a spice specific to Central Vietnam - is to push the boundaries of Vietnamese cuisine whilst retaining its core values.
Image source: Summer Le
Before opening her Danang restaurant, she was a food blogger and has been featured on several cooking shows including the Asia Food Channel’s 'Home-cooked Vietnam'. Despite Nen being a reasonably young restaurant, it has received wide attention, being visited by the Prime Minister of New Zealand and three Michelin star Chef Dominique Crenn from the US.
Summer Le explains her food philosophy as, “utilising local ingredients and making them the star of the dishes” in order to create her modern Vietnamese dishes. She aims to keep the taste profiles essentially Vietnamese, while using some foreign techniques and presentation. She describes her food as, “a reflection of myself” creative, intellectual, with great attention to detail”. She explains that she especially loves to experiment with elevating often overlooked ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine, such as duck, certain fruits and fermented sauces.
Nen’s New Vietnamese multi-course tasting menu is a collection of Summer Le’s signature dishes, including a pan-seared duck breast with mango gel and Viet satay chili paste with cashew nuts and dried mango.
Summer Le feels Vietnam is open-minded when it comes to women in the workplace in comparison with some of its neighbouring countries. She points out that the industry is heavily male-dominated, but cites the physical requirements of the job as one of the reasons for this. At Nen, she hires both male and female chefs on her team, explaining that, “they have their own strengths”. She details, “attention to detail, deftness and discipline” as qualities she often finds in her female chefs and which are particularly relevant in a fine-dining restaurant. Her advice to aspiring female chefs is to, “find your unique strength as a chef and pursue it”.
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