December was a very busy month for John Nguyen. On the 4th, the Hanoi House chef Instagrammed Infatuation’s best new restaurants of 2017, of which the Vietnamese East Village restaurant was one. The next day he shared winning chef of the year by Eater NY. It was a First We Feast video of how to make Nguyen’s acclaimed pho that he posted about on December 14. December 20 brought New York magazine critic Adam Platt’s best new restaurant list. A newspaper in Vietnamese even took note. And this was all just in the last month — the chef and restaurant has racked up many more accolades since Hanoi House opened in January 2017. A little over a year ago, Nguyen wasn’t even cooking in New York City.
In a town where multiple publications obsessively chronicle the rise of star chefs and every development of a restaurant’s 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, along with Hanoi House owners Sara Leveen and Ben Lowell.
When the 42-year-old Nguyen connected with Leveen and Lowell — both Stephen Starr alums — he was living and cooking Sichuan food in China. He happened to be back in the U.S. 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 for himself in China, with a job and a (now long-distance) girlfriend, he applied — the chef had always had the idea of his own NYC Vietnamese restaurant in the back of his mind. After spending two hours on the phone with Leveen and Lowell, Nguyen flew to New York on the spot for a tasting.
“The food was very tasty,” Leveen says. “The clams and congee dish... that was the point where we looked at each other, like, ‘This is the guy we’ve been looking for.’”
Since opening, that clams and congee dish has gotten its fair share in the limelight. The Times’ Ligaya Mishan called it “satisfyingly sticky.” In The New Yorker, it was “sprightly and oceanic.” Congee is a traditional Asian comfort food meal where rice is cooked until it’s porridge-like and soupy, usually with chicken broth.
When Nguyen cooks it, though, he tops the benign soup with whole clams, peanuts, bright green herbs, and youtiao, or fried bread, on the side, to make the dish — normally a static beige bowl — particularly attractive and potently flavorful.
“Everything has to be, for me, Instagram worthy. I want to have that ‘wow factor,’” he say. “Then after, the second thing is taste. You nail those two things, and everything else will be good.”
In a world where Instagram drives diners and press, it’s an increasingly common, if newer, sentiment for a chef. But Nguyen’s style has always been to straddle traditional and modern — even when his employers didn’t want any added creativity, according to Nguyen’s former sous chef Clement Gosch.
Gosch worked with Nguyen at The District by Hannah An in Los Angeles, where Nguyen rose to chef de cuisine. That’s where Nguyen learned to make pho and all the other cuisine classics. Once he mastered those, though, he tried to reinvent them, Gosch says.
“I could see he was struggling at The District with wanting to put more creativity into what he was doing, but he had a lot of constrictions 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 was stifling his creativity. I’m glad to see he’s being able to show his creativity in New York and getting some recognition with it.”
The pho has certainly been recognized, and Nguyen is fully doing it his way, adding signature touches like an entire bone marrow add-on. It’s clear that his time jumping from restaurant to restaurant, from place to place, has left its mark on his culinary canon. Since attending culinary school in Vermont, Nguyen has spent time cooking in LA (Ink and Maude), in New York (Caffe Storico and Lincoln), and in China, plus traveling extensively.
Now he’s made a very large mark at Hanoi House, but even he is not sure it’s a permanent one. “One thing I lack is patience. If I get bored somewhere, I just jump somewhere else,” he says. “Sometimes [I get restless here].”
It’s something that Leveen recognizes and is already working to head off. “We talk about if he’s happy. Sometimes he answers yes. Sometimes he answers no. But I think we’ve been very open with each other about what’s next,” she says. “He knows what his strengths are. That is creating very, very delicious, unique food. Even if he’s not the executive chef at Hanoi House, there are ways we can work together.”
They have talked about other concepts, like a noodle-centric one, or bringing on some dishes that are more esoteric to the U.S., like balut. They’ve also played around with the idea of even just opening more Hanoi Houses. But for now — however long that may or may not be — Hanoi House, as NYC knows it, is safe.
“Right now there’s so much more I could do to this menu. New York knows pho and banh mi sandwiches. That’s all they know about Vietnamese food. There is so much more to show,” he says. “I have so many ideas that I could put on the menu … years of food.”