We Chat With Chef Hung Huynh of The General and Catch

From Serious Eats: New York

“I did hope to be recognized as a great chef one day, and that comes with hard work, not just Top Chef. And you have to keep on working for it—you can’t use the title and make money but do nothing with your career. You have to back it up.”

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Chef Hung Huynh of Catch and The General laughs easily when he talks, but his food is serious. Known for his win on Season 3 of Top Chef and for the very-hyped, star-studded energy Catch brought to the Meatpacking district, you might expect Huynh to be a bit more reserved, or to flaunt an ego that was exploited on TV. Instead, Huynh recalls his successes with a balance of awe and respect, like he expected to be where he is but still recognizes that it’s so cool that he’s here.

For now he’s got plenty on his plate, getting his three kitchens running smoothly and pushing the menu at The General as far as he can. When we stopped by for our chat, his excitement was apparent in the whole hog dressed with rosemary and apples awaiting some experimentation, and the rows of Peking ducks drying slowly in his kitchen. His sense of fun appeared when setting a wok aflame or laughing at how chance brought him to New York to stay. We expect more fun things to come.

You won season 3 of Top Chef and now have that title on your back, for all the good and bad that comes with it. Are you averse to the celebrity aspect that comes with being a chef now? Absolutely not. Fame comes with being a chef in New York, and when you do well you get recognized for it, so I’m not opposed—it’s great. But I’m not going to let that go to my head. I’m still a cook, I’m still a chef, and I still have to work everyday. I’m a normal person. I happened to be at the right time and the right place for this kind of success.

Did you expect success in the kitchen in this kind of way? My goal since I was 13 was to be at least be recognized by the time I was 29. I had watched this interview with Jim Carrey, who said he wrote himself a check for $100,000 and said, “one day I’m going to cash it.” And then he was able to. I thought I’d do the same thing, and cash that check before I was 30. And then I won Top Chef when I was 29! I did hope to be recognized as a great chef one day, and that comes with hard work, not just Top Chef. You have to keep on working for it—you can’t use the title and make money but do nothing with your career. You have to back it up.

Miso-Yaki Chicken Eggplant: Yam, Peanut, Sweet Red Miso Glaze.

Speaking of backing it up; you were working on opening your second Catch in Miami, and I heard you didn’t originally want to also be the chef here at The General. How did that shift? Well, the original concept was very challenging—it was supposed to be Mexican-Chinese. We did tons of tastings with a lot of chefs and no one did what the owners were looking for specifically, so they asked me to do it. I hesitated and hesitated, and then I thought that it would be a big challenge for me and help expand my career.

In what way did it feel like an expansion? Even though I cook Asian food, we’re now serving Peking Duck and General Tso’s, both which I’d never cooked before. Since I was kid I wanted to know how to making Peking Duck and no one would teach me, because it’s just one of those “secrets.” So we just experimented for the last six months, and really kind of perfected it the week after we opened. It gets better and better every day. I still roast them myself. I’m obsessed.

Peking Duck.

Your menu is sort of generally labeled “Modern Asian.” How would you describe it? Well, it’s sort of my take of what I want to eat: I don’t eat strictly Chinese or Vietnamese food. These are things I enjoy eating. Because I grew up in a Vietnamese-Chinese family…

Oh, you’re Vietnamese and Chinese? Yeah, no one really knows that. My dad is Vietnamese, my mom is Chinese, but we all were born in Vietnam. No one knows but I speak Cantonese very well, even better than my Vietnamese. I actually learned to perfect my Cantonese in Puerto Rico.

How’d that happen? When I was 19 I moved down there by myself. I improved my Cantonese and learned Spanish at the same time.

Why’d you move? After high school I was like, “I’m sick of this town—I want to learn, I want to travel to world, blah blah blah.”

Were you cooking there at that time? Yeah, I was doing teppanyaki. No one had ever taught me how but I went down there and was like, “Okay, I know how to cook on a grill, so let me fake this.” I had to learn and play and pretend to be a guy that didn’t speak English, and just cook to keep the image of the teppanyaki chef. I saved enough money to go to the CIA.

And your parents have a restaurant? Yep, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, called Kim’s Dragon Restaurant. It’s Vietnamese with some Chinese.

Mercy Roll: Spicy Tuna, Jalapeno Salt, Salsa Verde.

Is it liberating to just say “modern Asian” on your menu because then you don’t have to limit yourself? Exactly. I don’t want to do just plain Chinese or Vietnamese and pigeonhole myself. I’m very open to new and diverse flavors. They’re pretty much the same ingredients but cooked a bit differently depending on where you are. And we’re in America, why not?

Speaking of which, we’re in New York, where we could have any cuisine that we wanted. But we sort of have a comfort level with where we want our Chinese or Vietnamese food. Do you see that? I definitely see it. I think the image kind of got ruined. Take Chinese food, for example. Back in the 1800′s we just needed to make a couple of dollars serving food to survive. That’s what we knew. So it became “get cheaper, get cheaper, get cheaper,” and now that’s the price point that we have: eight dollars for whatever you want on the menu. That was the image of Chinese-American food.

But there is Chinese food that is way more expensive. Hakkasan, for example, is like $900 for truffles and abalone, I think. Sharkskin or a 100-year-old ginseng or abalone are expensive and rare ingredients—like truffles and caviar. But most westerners won’t necessarily eat that.

What about Vietnamese food? I think there’s not enough Vietnamese people in New York to open that niche. Vietnamese food is very particular—it’s got a raunchy flavor with fish sauce and it doesn’t appeal to the masses. What appeals to the masses is simple pho and pork chopped rice, so that’s what they opened in Chinatown. It’s to make a living, not to elevate the cuisine.

Is either menu here or at Catch what you’d consider your ideal menu as a chef, the one that really defines your cooking? It’s always evolving. It’s always based on what we decide as a group to put on a menu. Even if there’s something on the menu that I love—like caramel fish with fish sauce and palm sugar—customers may not want it. So not everything that I love is on the menu, but everything that’s on the menu I love.

You have two restaurants now and are really making your mark in New York. Do you see yourself staying? I love New York. It’s fast. I wake up and then I’m like, “uh, it’s midnight already.” Then I’m like, “oh my god, it’s 8 a.m. already.” It’s so fast. I love the energy here. I love the opportunities here. I think the clients are great. I love it here. And I enjoy cooking here.

About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about food and people and builds sweet recipes for her (gluten-free) bread and butter. She’s alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.