The Houston Country Club has been experiencing a sweet revolution ever since Nguyet Nguyen assumed the role of assistant pastry chef. Originally from My Tho, Vietnam, Nguyen is just 27 years old but has already won accolades for her desserts in numerous cooking competitions. This August, Nguyen will travel to Anaheim, California to compete for the American Culinary Federation's title of Pastry Chef of the Year. In between designing her competition menu, she chatted with me about what drives her to make the perfect dessert.
Eating Our Words: I understand you originally wanted to become a doctor. Why the move from medicine to cooking?
Nguyet Nguyen: I was completing a BA at the University of Kansas. Junior year I realized I just didn't have the passion to be doctor. That summer I saw an ad for the California Culinary Academy. I went to California, took a tour of the school, and things just clicked. After college, I enrolled in Johnson County Community College's Food and Beverage Management and Pastry and Baking Programs. As for switching from medicine to desserts...I have huge sweet tooth. So, it's a perfect fit of science and art.
EOW: What was your training like?
Nguyen: First I was very green. I didn't have a lot of experience--I was a blank slate, which was actually good because I had no bad habits and was very open to learning culinary skills. I was enrolled in a pastry certificate program and my instructor had very high standards.
I was also on culinary team at school. There were five members, including one alternate and one pastry chef (me). We competed in ACF competitions and were the only culinary team in Kansas to go to the regional competition and compete with other states. That year at regionals we got second place, and then, the following year, we won two gold medals.
Competing was great for my education because it really allowed me to hone my skills and work on time management and organization. My team coach, Felix Sturmer, is still my mentor today.
EOW: Who or what has most influenced your cooking style?
Nguyen: My Vietnamese background drew me to Asian flavors, like ginger, sesame, cinnamon. Sometimes I look for ideas in Asian cookbooks. Asian desserts are not very sweet, so my desserts are not as sweet.
My mom cooked every day and I watched her. But I never cooked with her, as she was in charge of the kitchen. One of my first memories also was of my grandma making cakes on a mud stove. She would make the cake batter, pour it in the pan, lit the fire, and close the top. It tasted like regular sponge cake.
EOW: You recently moved from Kansas to work at the Houston Country Club. How do Texans like their sweets?
Nguyen: From what I see at the Club, the simple desserts sell a lot. In general, more recognizable desserts sell more quickly. But the good thing about working at the Club is that we sometimes have a Chef's Table, and we can use that opportunity to be really creative. Also, every week the pastry staff has the creative freedom to make eight to nine mini desserts for Sunday brunch.
EOW: How are you preparing for the upcoming competition?
Nguyen: I have to come up with a menu beforehand. You submit your recipes and pictures of your dishes. You have to bring almost everything with you to the competition: food, equipment, etc. I am also taking along my apprentice Lindsey Weatherford to assist me.
On days off and after my shifts, I practice. I feel like I learn more in a month working on a competition than I do in half a year. You have to be so focused.
EOW: Can you tell us a bit about your signature competition desserts?
Nguyen: Sure. I'm still tweaking menu. For the first competition, we have to do three different desserts in three hours: one decorated torte (mine is a raspberry mango); one warm plated restaurant dessert (I'm working on an apricot tart); and one contemporary dessert (for me, a chocolate bar dessert involving different textures of chocolate).
EOW: What advice would you offer an aspiring professional/amateur baker?
Nguyen: [laughs]. I still consider myself in that category. I love to learn and I think to be good at anything you have to take any opportunity to learn. I have called restaurants and asked to work there for a few days just for the experience. In the industry, it's called a stage when you go in and shadow-chef. You just come in and do whatever they do in kitchen. People in culinary industry generally help each other out; if someone wants to do a stage, a kitchen will understand. Other chefs will have been in your spot and know you want to learn.
It's also good to contact chefs coming into town and ask them if they need help with demonstrations. Competition is another great learning opportunity. You get to meet people, and that means more contacts and then more opportunities to learn from those contacts. For example, I met Alex Darvishi, the Executive Chef of the Houston Country Club, at competition when I was on my culinary school team.
EOW: What is your favorite (non-sweet) dish? Least favorite?
Nguyen: Lately, I've been missing my mom's cooking. So, I go to Asian stores and get sweet soups and coconut milk-based soups.
EOW: What have you enjoyed about Houston food scene?
Nguyen: I really like the diversity of cuisine available. Once a week, I'll pick an Asian restaurant in Bellaire and eat there. Recently, I have been enjoying Yelapa.
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EOW: Who in the pastry world do you most admire?
Nguyen: Probably Doug Flick, my pastry instructor at cooking school. I still get nervous every time I send him pictures of a dessert I have made. But I look up to any professional who's been at it a long time and has a passion for pastry.
EOW: Any big dreams or plans for the future?
Nguyen: I really like to travel, and, of course, I love pastry and I love to compete. Every four years, Germany hosts the International Culinary Olympics: I would love to compete there, either individually or as a member of a team. I also really would like to work in Switzerland. [The Swiss] are experts at confectionary, chocolates, candies.