Bravo’s Top Chef winner Hung Huynh inspired the judges with his confident approach to truffles, foie gras and other delicacies. But what would he do on a tight budget? Kate Krader reports from the kitchen.
As a rule, illustrious chefs like multi-Michelin-starred Guy Savoy don't share the spotlight with other cooks, and no one else's food is ever served at his haute Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas. Last October, though, an exception was made. The four-course menu that Hung Huynh prepared for the finale of Season 3 of Top Chef—the meal that made him the winner of the popular reality cooking show—was offered at the Bubble Bar of Savoy's restaurant.
It wasn't a blind love for the show that prompted Savoy to serve Hung's meal (which included chopped yellowtail with tomato vinaigrette and potato chips and duck with truffle sauce, a dish that Top Chef's head judge, Tom Colicchio, praised as "extraordinary"). It was because, at the time, Hung was a sous chef at Savoy's restaurant (he left shortly after winning the $100,000 cash prize). Savoy didn't watch the TV series from Paris, his home base, but his son Franck, the restaurant's general manager, tuned in from Las Vegas and spoke for both of them: "We are excited, but not surprised, to have one of our own rise to the top and win this competition."
Hung claims he wasn't surprised by his victory either. The 30-year-old Vietnamese-born chef, who is much sweeter in real life than his win-at-all-costs Top Chef persona suggests, entered the show with a few strategies that he considered foolproof. One approach—apparent from the first episode, when he proclaimed himself a CPA, short for Certified Professional Jerk—was to separate himself from the crowd. Which meant not always drinking beer with the more easygoing contestants back at their Miami hotel. "Top Chef wasn't the place to do that," says Hung. "Why would I sit there and pretend I like you when you're talking about me, on camera and off? I wasn't trying to win 'fan favorite.' I wanted to win the whole thing."
But Hung had another, more efficient weapon in his arsenal: outstanding kitchen skills. "I figured I wouldn't get kicked off with classic food combinations and great techniques," he says. Avid watchers of the show will recall that this approach occasionally backfired—a too-retro salmon mousse on a cucumber slice landed Hung at the bottom of a challenge on a yacht—but he won or placed near the top throughout most of the series. (Hung tends to discount the episodes that didn't go his way, like the one in which each chef had to mix original ingredients into vanilla ice cream. He chose cauliflower and tempura flakes. "Oh come on, that's a ridiculous challenge," Hung says. "A monkey could add fruit and nuts to ice cream and make it taste good. I was trying to do something different. No one appreciated it.") Eventually, Hung's ability to wield a cleaver got him the title. "Definitely, he has great knife skills," says Colicchio. "The best of any Top Chef contestant I've seen."
Because it was clear from the show that Hung was an expert with expensive items like truffles, F&W devised its own challenge—to see if he could prepare a meal we'd love on a modest budget. The results were dazzling. Hung went immediately to New York City's Chinatown ("If you don't want to spend money, always head straight for Chinatown," he advises) and bought fresh pompano, a bag of rice, some fatty bacon and even a $10 clay pot. He coated the fish with a lime-spiked marinade and seared it until it was golden and flaky, then served it with soy sauce rice, baked in that clay pot and studded with mushrooms and bacon. Hung also showed off a trick for cooking the rice: drizzling oil inside the pot halfway through cooking, which makes the edges wonderfully crispy.
Hung learned to prepare this alluring style of comfort food from his mother, Thuong Tran, whom he calls the world's best cook. He was born in Ho Chi Minh City in the late '70s, after the Vietnam War. His father, Kim Van Huynh, escaped their homeland on a small wooden boat and, thanks to the sponsorship of American folk musician and social activist Arlo Guthrie, made his way to Pittsfield, Massachusetts; when Hung was 8, he and his mother joined Kim. The family opened Kim's Dragon Restaurant in Pittsfield, where Hung became expert at chopping garlic, ginger and just about everything else insanely fast. At 16, he was supporting himself by cooking at places like the elegant Wheatleigh hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, though he worked at less distinguished spots, too, like a teppanyaki restaurant in Puerto Rico. "You had to do stupid tricks with your knife and tell jokes in a fake Asian accent—it's ridiculous to think I did that now," he says. But the job helped him pay for an education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
After graduating from the CIA, Hung worked his way through some of Manhattan's top kitchens, including Per Se's. He decided to leave New York in early 2006, when he simultaneously lost his apartment and his job at the restaurant Gilt. On a whim, he answered an online ad for an opening at Guy Savoy; a few days later, he was on a plane to Vegas. Soon afterward, Top Chef hosted casting calls there. "I walked out and said hi," says Hung. "The producers said I looked cocky. I said, 'No, I'm just confident.' " Hung made his audition tape that week, cooking curried scallops in his apartment at 5 a.m., with house music blasting and the smoke alarm going off.
Now, his tryout days over, Hung plans to use his prize money to open a restaurant in a city he won't name yet. He also wants to donate funds to temples in Vietnam and Cambodia that had moved him during a recent trip back to the Far East. First, though, he'll travel around Europe "and cook with some famous chefs out there."
Recently, Hung served as a guest judge on Season 4 of Top Chef in Chicago. He sampled some very good food, he says, in particular a sweetbread dish that was one of the best things he ever tasted on Top Chef. He claims that, as a judge, he was humble and not overly critical. If that modest self-appraisal sounds atypical, it is—but Hung says he picked up a few things during his own season of quick-fire rounds and elimination challenges. "I learned to take criticism from people I don't always agree with, and to compromise." And, he adds, "I learned how to make small talk. But I'm still not a master of that."