Haley Nguyen is a woman of many talents: She teaches at Saddleback Community College, she leads culinary tours of Little Saigon and her native Vietnam, and she even arranges cooking classes in her restaurant, Xanh Bistro, the most accessible-to-newcomers Viet place in the county, the best Vietnamese place to take a first date, and one of my favorite places to eat. (Xanh is pronounced "sahn", incidentally, and it means "green" in Vietnamese.)
Here, then, are Haley's good-natured responses to our survey.
1. Dish you cook that most represents you.
Cá kho tộ--fish in clay pot. I've made it ever since I can remember. I came from a humble background in Vietnam, so this is such comfort food to me, the rice and the caramel sauce. It was life, it was happiness. I still eat it every day.
2. What was the last meal you had at home?
Kimchi and rice. You know how sometimes a chef doesn't want to think about cooking after a long day and just wants a greasy hamburger? I just want a bowl of steamed rice and some plain soup. It's satisfying and I don't have to think about it.
3. Your favorite restaurant (other than yours):
Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. We got to go into the kitchen, and it was incredibly quiet, low lights, like a lab. I love exquisite food done right, and I had foie gras there for the first time. We had a tapioca with coconut milk that showed the Asian influence.
Locally, I think my favorite is Kappo Honda. But they're always so busy!
4. Fast food guilty pleasure:
Chick-Fil-A, just the original sandwich with the bun and the pickles and the chicken. When I came to the US, I lived in southern Indiana, and this was new to me, and I still like it.
5. Complete this sentence: I would like to [verb] [Food Network star] with [noun]. (for example: "I would like to BEAT BOBBY FLAY with A STALE BAGUETTE." or "I would like to SHOWER GIADA DE LAURENTIIS with FLOWERS"):
I'd like to feed Paula Deen a vegetarian dish cooked with olive oil.
6. Last meal of your life, what would it be?
A glass of wine--a really great wine--and some baguette.
7. Items you always have in your refrigerator:
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Eggs, and an onion.
8. Your most indispensable kitchen tool or appliance:
A sharp knife. I couldn't live without it. I hate gadgets, so I don't have them in my kitchen. The one machine I would keep would be a spice grinder, since we make our curry pastes from scratch. We use whole spices, never pre-ground, and the spice grinder is faster than a mortar and pestle.