Chef Duc was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and grew up with his mother. His parents ran a large duck hatchery and one thing that has stuck with Duc is what a great host his mother was, not only by taking care of and managing her family, but also because she managed a household, a garden, a farm, and a constant stream of guests. These guests would be served a drink immediately upon arrival to their home, then they’d have lunch, then a comfortable place to rest. It was only after they woke up refreshed that people began talking business.
“It was really cool—amazing—that she managed all of that,” says Duc today, “from 3 or 4 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night… All day, every day, was full.”
Chef Duc left as a boat person in 1985, living as a refugee in Malaysia before being sponsored by a Mexican American family in Corpus Christi, Texas. He studied there, often cooking for himself and others during college, figuring if you’re going to cook for yourself, you may as well cook for two or three. Duc eventually ended up working as a private caterer in Texas for a few years before leaving to travel the world.
“I traveled with a little stove, pocket knife, tent,” explains Duc. “The first thing I’d do when I got to a place, would be to scout out for food… you meet local people that way, finding food… bartering off the road or in the local markets.”
He’d find himself with potato, tomato, and some eggs in the mountains of New Zealand. One time he traded his shirt for some freshly caught fish. Another time, he was in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand, it was “complete darkness,” Duc says. “I had mango, a can of coconut, English curry, salt and pepper, and the girls I was hitchhiking with had some potato, a can of tomato sauce, and some noodles… I wasn’t eating spaghetti that night, so I made a curry coconut mango with potato. It was delicious, and it’s on the menu at Mango Rooms now.”
On a beach in Mexico, he dug a two-foot hole in the sand and filled it with ice to keep some fish cool while he searched for chili and pineapple as well as a kindling for a fire that night. He tossed a Frisbee while it cooked, used an old milk jug to mix a salad, and enjoyed a gourmet meal while the sun set. Duc would go to the market in Central America and eat with the ladies there. He’d watch them cook and ask them what ingredients they were using, then he’d buy food off of them, and go home and do something with it.
Duc’s lived on the beaches of Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Australia. He worked at a sushi bar and discotheque at a ski resort in the mountains of Austria… he hitchhiked from Texas to Alaska (through Canada), eating all kinds of seaweed and wild blueberries, as well as oysters and shellfish picked off of rocks while the tide was coming in and out over the Pacific.
Duc continues to travel with his wife and three young daughters, but he prefers to stay somewhere with a kitchen if possible. It makes him more comfortable if he can cook his own meals.
“As soon as I get to a kitchen, I do something,” he explains. “It might be instinct… I don’t know, itchy hands or something… But I think it’s also about taking care of other people, back to my mother’s way. I love taking care of people…”
Duc has brought his mother’s sense of hospitality and his experiences traveling the world to all three of his restaurants, back home, in one of Vietnam’s authentic culinary destinations.
“I came back here to be Vietnamese again, to re-learn the language and the culture, intertwine with them, my way and theirs… I get to learn so much, and I’m still learning…”
Each of Duc’s restaurants are a reflection of what he’s learned so far and what he continues to learn every day.