Dee Nguyen of Break of Dawn, Part 2
Photo by Kimberly Valenzuela
Today is the continuation of our interview with Dee Nguyen, chef of the acclaimed Break of Dawn restaurant in Laguna Hills. If you missed part 1, you can find it here; stay tuned tomorrow as well for a recipe from Chef Nguyen.
Wondering what the fusion wonder that is Vietnamese breakfast is like? You can find out in any of the cafes in Little Saigon, where you can get œufs sur le plat and pâté and the airy Vietnamese baguette, strong coffee or tea. Then head down to Laguna Hills and see how it's supposed to be done. Though the menu changes according to what ingredients are best at the time, Break of Dawn's sinful pâté is one of the best in the county, served in a crock with toasted baguette and pickled vegetables.
Now, on with the interview:
Who's your culinary hero (real or fictional, alive or dead)?
DN: Christian Rassinoux, the former "godfather" of the Ritz-Carlton when they were good. He has opened culinary doors that shape who I am. He is now with the MGM in Vegas.
SAFII: If someone, discouraged by the line at IHOP, walked into your restaurant and asked for a recommendation, what would you cook them?
DN: I don't recommend. I just give them time to read and ask questions then I will break down the menu in detail. Hopefully, this will help them make an enjoyable decision. Only they know what they want to eat.
SAFII: What is your proudest moment as a chef?
DN: I treasure every single second as a chef, working and doing what I love with a passion without any restriction nor anyone to answer to.
SAFII: What's the single biggest rule of behavior in your kitchen?
DN: Cleanliness... clean as you go, a very simple idea, but very few cooks know how.
SAFII: What's the most bizarre request a customer has ever made (and did you grant it)?
DN: Not too bizarre, but one customer asked me for fried rice. "I would love some too, but we don't serve it," I replied. "There's a Chinese Restaurant next door if that is what you're looking for." She ended up with the sausage and rice dish and has been our regular ever since.
SAFII: Have you ever had a kitchen foul-up that stood out?
DN: We have an open kitchen and what we do and say can be heard and seen by the guests. We, the cooks, sometimes get frustrated with the servers and cuss at them a little louder than we have to. We try to keep it low, especially when children are around.
SAFII: What kind of knives do you use? Any special set?
DN: We use very inexpensive Kiwi Brand knives; they're light and stay sharp for long time. They are sold in the Asian stores for under 5 bucks. We often make fun of the new cooks who bring in their Porsches of knife collections. They always end up with the Kiwi.
SAFII: Why not LA for your restaurant? Why South OC?
DN: Our son Berlin is the core of our family. Everything revolves around him, including Break of Dawn. If we had a choice, San Francisco; more people understand and appreciate the arts and passion than in OC.
SAFII: What is the most overused ingredient in restaurant kitchens today? What about the most underused?
DN: I do not eat out too much, so I cannot say.
SAFII: What's the best food city in the United States right now?
DN: New York and San Francisco, but Vegas is spending lot of money bringing all the high-end establishments there. It's hard to compete with the mobs.
SAFII: What's next for you? New menu items? Big plans?
DN: Break of Dawn survives Laguna Hills with a skeleton crew, it would be gigantic anywhere. We're just waiting for some rich folks to pick up this concept and we will make it like we imagine with the financial support.
SAFII: Who's the one food celebrity who you wish would just shut up?
DN: That's just too mean... there's a niche for everyone, just like there's a small cult following for Break of Dawn.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.