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Cheat Day: John Nguyen, head chef of Le Garçon Saigon

Where do the notable chefs and bartenders of Hong Kong’s F&B scene like to eat when they’re not cooking? What is their best home-cooked meal? Cheat Day goes behind the scenes with the city’s culinarians and tastemakers to find out exactly what their personal favourites are during their days off.

It only makes perfect sense that John Nguyen, Vietnamese-born and head chef of Black Sheep Restaurants’ Le Garçon Saigon, would cite noodles as his all-time favourite dish. Not only that, Nguyen also happens to make a fantastic bowl of pho at the Star Street Saigonese grillhouse. His recipe, as he shares, is one practiced and perfected from his mother, and the popular order he prepares is almost always a variation of the flavours he grew up eating at home.

“My grandmother is one of my biggest inspirations.” Nguyen shares. “I have fond memories growing up watching her cook humble, comfort food meals for the family. My mother was the one that taught me how to make pho noodle soup.”

cheat day john nguyen
John Nguyen, head of Vietnamese Cuisine at Black Sheep Restaurants

“I have been lucky to work alongside some amazing chefs throughout my career, some from Michelin star restaurants,” Nguyen continues. “These are talented people who have guided me and trained me, teaching me how to refine my techniques but also instilling in me the ways to make a recipe my own.”

The humble noodle dish has somewhat defined the first-generation American chef; a familiar constant that has followed his culinary journey from The District by Hannah An in West Hollywood close to the Orange County region where Nguyen grew up, to Hanoi House in New York’s East Village where he was recognised by Eater as Chef of The Year in 2017. A little closer to home, where Nguyen arrived in 2018, he made a stop at Wan Chai’s Xuân before arriving to Peel Street’s own Hanoi-style, street-side canteen, Chôm Chôm.

Now, Nguyen is probably better known for reinventing classic Vietnamese flavours — and dishes — in creative new ways beyond the typical noodle soup. Most notably, from his Chôm Chôm-era with the Vietnamese Pizza, a telling culmination of all his combined global experience thus far, as an inspired creation of braised short rib covered in sriracha mayo, fried shallots and Vietnamese herbs served over a crispy rice paper “pie”.

“I have been cooking for a long time, but it wasn’t really until my 30s that I realised I enjoyed it.” Nguyen shares. “It was really a love that grew as I was working in different kitchens around the world, I felt there was a story within Vietnamese cuisine that I could tell.”

And there’s about to be more.

As Head of Vietnamese Cuisine across all Black Sheep venues, Nguyen — having already largely refreshed Chôm Chôm — is stationed mostly at Le Garçon Saigon these days, revamping the menu with renewed interpretations of Saigon’s unique barbecue culture. “I consider how I can best tell the story of the restaurant; this is really what it should always be about,” Nguyen says of the new menu.

Dishes include Ember-Grilled Octopus, served over another of Nguyen’s now-famous, signature touch: roasted bone marrow; Barramundi grilled with banana leaf and served with lemongrass chilli paste; Gà Nu’ó’ng Muio Ót, a 48-hour dry-aged three yellow chicken slathered in house-made chilli dressing; and beef short ribs glazed in a tangy coat of tamarind and coated in anchovy butter, bibb lettuce and shisho oil.

“We’re introducing a new menu that showcase the best of a Saigonese grillhouse and the depth of Vietnamese cuisine,” Nguyen explains. “It is about more than just noodle soup and bánh mìs — it is such a vibrant food culture.”

Come hungry. And don’t ask for pho at dinner.

Cheat Day with John Nguyen:

What was the last meal you had?

Chicken congee with fried spring rolls… might sound a little odd, but it tastes delicious.

Tell me some of your signature dishes or creations.

I love to push the boundaries of classic Vietnamese cuisine, elevating them into more refined dishes, but staying true to the core of what defines this amazing cuisine. Every time I craft a new dish, I want it to be the best. One of the ingredients I like to use the most is bone marrow; One of my favourite dishes I ever created was inspired by the traditional beef pho, but instead, I crafted a bone marrow soy sauce which made this already beefy dish even richer.

What was the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?  

Our founder Christopher Mark once told me that I can be my own worst enemy. This is the best professional advice I have ever received, because it put things in perspective. I learned not to make things harder for myself and recognised that the person in charge of my successes and my failures is myself.

cheat day john nguyen
Ember-Grilled Octopus

Honestly, what is it like working with you in the kitchen?

I’ve worked in so many different cities, from New York to LA and now Hong Kong, so I’ve seen a lot of other chefs and how they run their kitchens. Some of my old chefs used to fit into the “screaming chef” stereotype, but I quickly learnt this is not the way, especially after moving to Hong Kong. I try to be more understanding in the kitchen and focus on supporting the team around me and their growth.

Your favourite local Hong Kong ingredients to use?

There are so many local ingredients that I love that it is hard to choose. Right now, I am really interested in salted duck egg yolk. I’ve recently tested a recipe with this stunning dry-aged lamb tomahawk. Stay tuned!

I also love shrimp roe powder because I can do so much with it, but I have to say that one of the things I love most about Hong Kong is the access to the fantastic, fresh seafood. It is constantly changing, and it is something that keeps me inspired in the kitchen.

Do you cook at home? If so, what is your go-to home-cooked dish?

Like most chefs, I don’t often ever cook at home. I get so much more joy from cooking for others that I would rather eat leftovers than cook for myself after cooking all day in the kitchen.

You have 30 minutes. What will you make?

Easy! I would revert to one of my favourites — a simple noodle soup with a little bit of chilli (or maybe a lot, depending on how I’m feeling).

Name the top three favourite ingredients/condiments you currently own in your pantry.

For me, there are three things that should always be available: white pepper, salt and Son Fish sauce.

Grilled Spiny Lobster
cheat day john nguyen
Gà Nu’ó’ng Muio Ót

What are your guilty pleasures?

Frozen gummy bears. I always put a new pack of gummy bears in the freezer and then can’t wait to eat them. I try to make them last, but I just can’t control how fast I eat them!

The best meal you ever had?

I have had so many excellent meals in my life, but if I had to pick one, I would say that dining at Eleven Madison Park in New York City was one of the best. I met Chef Daniel Humm and saw what three Michelin Star dining is all about. It is an experience I won’t soon forget!

What was your most memorable food moment?

I have so many memorable food moments, but when I travel to a new country, I am always most excited about discovering what that country’s cuisine offers. I just love learning about new food cultures and exploring how to integrate that into what I do — unfortunately, I can’t pick just one of these moments.

What is one dish/snack/food you can’t live without?

Noodles. I love noodles in soup so much, it doesn’t matter if it is Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, et cetera. I could honestly have noodles every single day.

Savoury or sweet?

I would pick savoury almost all the time, but once in a blue moon, sweet can win out.

Where do you like to go on your day off?

I spend my day off trying new restaurants in the city to get inspiration. I often go to 6-8 restaurants in a day and eat and drink all day. It is like the famous short film Munchies, but that is my real life!

cheat day john nguyen

The five best dishes/drinks you’ve had in Hong Kong?

  • BELON’s Pigeon Pithivier
  • Samsen‘s Boat Noodle Soup
  • Islam Food’s Beef Meat Pie
  • New Punjab Club’s Keema Pau

And, any time I’ve gone out to Sai Kung, I’ve had some amazing fresh seafood spreads.

Something you want to try while in Hong Kong?

Probably unrealistic, but I want to try every single thing in Hong Kong — no matter what it is. What is the point of living and learning about a new city if you never try something new?

Le Garçon Saigon, 12 Wing Fung Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, +852 2455 2499

Cheat Day: John Nguyen, head chef of Le Garçon Saigon

After two years writing in luxury retail, Lorria now covers food and drink happenings in Hong Kong. When not taste-testing for the best fries in the city (shoestring, always!), find her at home obsessing over tableware and attempting a fruit garden on her tiny bay window. She is happiest by the ocean with a giant fishbowl-glass of Aperol Spritz.

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