It is always a pleasure to interview a female chef, because the opportunity doesn't come around often enough. This week, we learn more about an establishment inside the Ayres Hotel in Fountain Valley. Not your typical dining space, her creative touch breathes new life into the term Asian fusion.
How did you select Fountain Valley? I felt the city of Fountain Valley was a great, centered location in Orange County. I also happened to stumble upon an ad on Craigslist. The Ayres Hotel was looking for an Asian fusion restaurant to lease their space. I presented them my menu, as well as concept ideas. In the end, they chose me to open up in their brand new hotel.
Most undervalued ingredient: Yuzu. It is a Japanese citrus that has such a unique, yet complex taste. It can enhance any dish and take it to a new level. I wish it was more available in grocery stores.
You graduated as a Master of Italian Cuisine at the Italian Culinary Institute. How did your focus change to Asian fusion? Most Asian foods are so straightforward, not a lot of restaurants in Orange County have gone beyond what everyone already knows. I wanted to change the diner's experience and bring some REAL Asian fusion food to the area. Some of my dishes have some Italian influences as well.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best: Orange County has the best Vietnamese restaurants. We have such a large community. You can find almost any type of Vietnamese food in the OC area.
Favorite meal growing up: Banh Bot Loc, a dish from the Hue region of Vietnam, where my family originated from. Made with tapioca formed into dumplings, filled with pork and shrimp, and served with nuoc mam. One of my favorites, talking about it makes my mouth water. This one I'll have to give credit to my Mom; she actually makes it the best!
Where was your most recent meal? Shik Do Rak in Garden Grove. I love Korean BBQ. They have the best meat options and side dishes. We come here a couple of times a month.
One food you can't live without: Rice. It's a staple in my diet. I love to enjoy all kinds of foods, but I have to rice at least once a week.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Chicken feet. I don't get why people eat it. There's no flavor or meat, and I tried it at a dim sum restaurant and then gave it a go again. I'm still not a fan.
How did you come up with the bao bun sliders? I was having dinner at a friend's house when she served traditional bao buns for dinner. I went home and immediately wanted to create something fun and new, so I spent the next year making all kinds of bao bun sliders. I knew that I wanted to take them to the next level and change this traditional dish.
You're making breakfast; what are you having? I'm not a breakfast person. But when I do, I'm taking some day old rice, cracking a couple of eggs, sauteed diced Spam, onions and a drizzle of soy sauce. It's not the standard. Or, on occasion, I'll have a bowl of Cap'n Crunch.
Your best recent food find: I haven't gone out much since the restaurant opened, but I took my family to New York this past Christmas and spoiled them by dining at Le Bernadin. I had the most perfectly cooked piece of fish. Chef Eric Ripert is one of the best chefs for a reason. It was an amazing meal!
Best tip for the home cook: Unless you have a need for iodine, you should switch your table salt to Kosher salt. It will make your food taste so much better, and, believe it or not, less salty. And don't be afraid to use a little extra salt. Sometimes that's all you need.
Favorite places to eat: A home-cooked meal at home, where I'm not the one cooking it. I don't get out much, so family meals are the best these days, and you get to spend some quality time with your loved ones.
Tell us about attending Laguna Culinary Arts. I attended Laguna Culinary Arts at night while working at my family's dismantling wreck yard during the day. The classrooms had a very intimate setting, with a lot of one-on-one learning experience with the chef. Chef Laurent Brazier, who is also my mentor, taught me traditional French cooking methods. It was where I learned the fundamentals of cooking. I've had some amazing memories while attending school there, and found some amazing lifelong friends.
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Your earliest food memory: It was my Grandma's Thit Kho and Cai Chua (caramelized pork with pickled mustard greens) served with steamed rice. It's really simple Vietnamese comfort food, but no-one makes it like my Grandma, including my mom.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?): We serve our hamachi bites at the restaurant. It consists of yellowtail, flour tortillas and nine other components that go on each piece. This customer requested to have some flour tortillas with diced cucumbers, without fish or anything else. We made it, as requested.
Is there a dish you'd like to learn how to make? I don't have a particular dish that I want to make, but I would love to learn more about the process of cheesemaking.