December was a busy month for Jean Nguyen. On the 4th, the Hanoi House Instagrammed chef Infatuation’s best new restaurants in 2017, of which Vietnamese restaurant East Village was one. The next day he shared the winning chef of the year by Eater NY. It was a First We Feast video on how to make Nguyen’s acclaimed pho that he talked about on December 14. December 20 brought New York magazine critic Adam Platt’s best new restaurant list. A Vietnamese newspaper even took note of it. And that was only last month – the chef and restaurant have racked up many more accolades since opening Hanoi House in January 2017. Just over a year ago, Nguyen wasn’t even cooking in New York.
In a city where multiple publications obsessively chronicle the rise of star chefs and every development of a restaurant opening — like, ahem, this one — it’s pretty unusual that such a star chef could come out of practically nowhere. But that’s exactly what Nguyen did, with the owners of Hanoi House Sara Leven and Ben Lowell.
When 42-year-old Nguyen met Leveen and Lowell – both Stephen Starr alumni – he was living and cooking Sichuan food in China. He happened to be back in the States for a wedding when he checked Craigslist job postings in New York and spotted the Hanoi House listing. Even though he had built a life in China, with a job and a (now distant) girlfriend, he applied – the chef had always had the idea for his own Vietnamese restaurant in New York in a corner of the head. After spending two hours on the phone with Leveen and Lowell, Nguyen flew to New York on site for a tasting.
“The food was very tasty,” says Leveen. “The clam and congee platter…that was the point where we looked at each other, like, ‘This is the guy we were looking for.'”
Since opening, this clam and congee dish has had its fair share of the spotlight. the Times‘ Ligaya Mishan called it ‘tacky satisfying’. In the new yorker, it was “bright and oceanic”. Congee is a traditional Asian comfort food where rice is cooked until it looks like porridge and soup, usually with chicken broth.
When Nguyen cooks it, however, he tops the mild soup with whole clams, peanuts, bright green herbs, and youtiaoor fried bread, on the side, to make the dish – normally a static beige bowl – particularly appealing and powerfully flavorful.
“Everything has to be, for me, Instagram worthy. I want to have that “wow factor”, he says. “Then after, the second thing is the taste. You nail those two things, and everything else will be fine.
In a world where Instagram attracts diners and the press, it’s an increasingly common, albeit newer, sentiment for a chef. But Nguyen’s style has always been to straddle the traditional and the modern — even when his employers didn’t want the extra creativity, according to Nguyen’s former sous-chef Clement Gosch.
Gosch worked with Nguyen at District by Hannah An in Los Angeles, where Nguyen became head chef. This is where Nguyen learned to make pho and all the other classics in the kitchen. Once he mastered them, however, he tried to reinvent them, Gosch says.
“I could see he was having a hard time at The District wanting to put more creativity into what he was doing, but he had a lot of constraints from the owner,” Gosch says. “John had a different idea of how he wanted to do the pho, but the owner was very particular about how she wanted it. It stifled his creativity. I’m glad to see that he’s able to show his creativity in New York and get some recognition with it.
The pho has certainly been recognized, and Nguyen does it fully in his own way, adding signature touches like a whole bone marrow complement. It’s clear that his move from restaurant to restaurant, location to location, has left its mark on his culinary canon. Since attending culinary school in Vermont, Nguyen has spent time cooking in Los Angeles (Ink and Maude), New York (Caffe Storico and Lincoln) and China, and has traveled extensively.
Now he has made a very big mark in Hanoi House, but even he is not sure if it is a permanent mark. “One thing I lack is patience. If I get bored somewhere, I jump somewhere else,” he says. “Sometimes [I get restless here].”
This is something Leveen recognizes and is already working to avoid. “We talk if he is happy. Sometimes he answers yes. Sometimes he says no. But I think we’ve been very open with each other about what’s next,” she says. “He knows what his strengths are. It’s creating very, very delicious and unique food. Even though he is not the executive chef of Hanoi House, there are ways to work together.
They talked about other concepts, like a noodle-centric concept, or bringing more esoteric dishes to the United States, like balut. They also toyed with the idea of just opening more houses in Hanoi. But for now – however long it may or may not be – Hanoi House, as NYC knows, is safe.
“Right now there is so much more I could do for this menu. New York knows pho and banh mi sandwiches. That’s all they know about Vietnamese cuisine. There is so much more to show,” he says. “I have so many ideas that I could put on the menu… years of food.”