Tasting Memory with Chef Gary Nguyen
Tendrils of smoke curl away from an elegantly presented dish; a crisp prawn cigar is perched delicately across gleaming river stones, with prawn tartare, a Vietnamese mignonette mousse, shrimp powder, and shellfish dressing. A vibrant charred prawn rears from the undulating fog. This intriguing dish is the invention of Chef Gary Nguyen, inspired by the classic Vietnamese appetizer, tôm hỏa tiễn.
Chef Gary infuses his food with memories of his trips across the globe, his travel companions, and from his childhood. Gary finds inspiration in the places he visits and brings those memories back to Southern California to share with his clients. And as a private chef, he also creates evocative culinary experiences by drawing on his client’s treasured recollections. He crafts opportunities to reminisce, in which each bite transports the guests into someone else’s memory. He is passionate about hospitality, truly considering the whole diner experience, from the minute guests are greeted to the time they lay down their dessert forks.
Chef Gary is a Los Angeles native who has been cooking up a storm since the age of 17. His journey began at Los Angeles Trade-Tech, where he studied Culinary Arts. After graduating, he quickly found himself stumbling through the high-stakes world of fine dining. He worked his way up the ladder from a cook to sous chef at the prestigious Melisse restaurant in Santa Monica.
In hopes of expanding his knowledge and creativity, he made the leap to Australia to take on the challenges of working at Attica, the 27th ranked restaurant in the world at the time. After completing his stage at Attica, Chef Gary launched his own pop-up restaurant business. Heartened by his successes abroad, he felt he could now take on a series of ambitious projects back home. He returned to LA, quickly getting involved with a number of projects, ranging from creating a Vietnamese fast food concept to launching an upscale tapas bar. Chef Gary’s adventurous spirit and tenacity paid off; he was the youngest sous chef working in a Michelin-starred restaurant in LA at the time, and was honored with the Zagat 30 under 30 award in 2016 at the age of 26.
“I enjoy cooking because it allows me the freedom to create something unique that most people have not seen before, and really elevate a simple dish.”
Who do chefs look up to?
It’s no surprise that other creative culinary storytellers inspire Chef Gary. “The chef that I admire the most is Grant Achatz. He really took fine dining to the next level through storytelling, and the thing I admire most about Chef Grant is nothing can hold him back from achieving the things he wants, which is to be the best.”
Chef Gary’s signature dish is a reinterpretation of his mom’s simple simmer pork belly and poached eggs in black caramel sauce with coconut soda, served over white rice. Chef Gary presents the pork belly in the form of a cigar, along with sweet coconut ash and whipped avocado labneh. “I completely took the flavor profile and components into creating a dish that still keeps the flavor but has completely changed in presentation and the way you eat it.”
Favorite Eats and Guilty Pleasures
Chef Gary is a huge fan of small taco trucks. He has a few special favorites that he recommends: “For a quick taco fix, I would go to Charlie Taco Truck in Highland Park. For seafood fried shrimp tacos, I would run to Jalisco Marisco in the fashion district and La Palma when I want my bean and cheese mini burrito fix in South El Monte.”
As for guilty food pleasures, Panda Express is a rare treat for Chef Gary.
“I only allow myself to have it when I am traveling.” His typical order consists of chow mein with orange chicken, beef and broccoli with tons of sriracha, but sometimes a simple egg roll will suffice.
How many different ways can you use a carrot?
Chef Gary can rattle off half a dozen without batting an eye: carrot puree, chips, roasted, steamed, dehydrated, powder, leather, and more. He is passionate about utilizing each ingredient to its full potential. And, his dislike of waste is only topped by his hatred of plastic.
“My personal motto is to share what I know. I have a rule, and that is to leave the world a little better than I found it. I want to remain an open book for people to ask and receive.”
Gary uses his imagination to push each ingredient beyond basic expectations. In the past he has sourced ingredients like nasturtium or wild fennel directly from the seaside farmer’s market and organic produce from any good grocery market. But these experiences of sourcing great ingredients left him imagining more…
3 ingredients Chef Gary can’t live without?
🧂 a really good salt to finish a dish, aka fleur de sel,
🫒 a simple light, robust extra virgin olive oil,
🍷 and vino.
Chef Gary’s culinary dreams are quickly becoming a reality. Alongside his wife and fellow chef, Grace Nguyen, he is opening his own food market, complete with great coffee, fresh produce, deli, dining area, and even a podcast studio. He envisions a one-stop location for people to source unique and high-quality ingredients. The concept will also include four kitchens that can be rented out by other chefs to create their own pop-up experiences. Chef Gary will also regularly host his own tasting menu events at the market. The concept is called ‘All Good Things’ and is slated to open in mid-august in Koreatown.
👨🍳 Book Chef Gary Nguyen via SRVE: https://www.srve.co/request-a-chef
The SRVE mobile app allows you to book culinary experiences in your own home, workplace, or private venue. SRVE connects private chefs with entertainers, families, businesses, and “foodies” in the Los Angeles area. Coming soon in major cities across the US.