Interview: Chef Calvin Nguyen Has Found What He 'Was Meant to Do in Life'
Calvin Nguyen has been the Chef de Cuisine of Asia Society New York's Garden Court Café since early 2014. Previously, the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) graduate worked at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola as a line cook and assisted in the reopening of The Café at Wave Hill, among many other venues.
As Nguyen explains below, his Vietnamese heritage and the food his mother cooked for him as a child are key influences on his current style. At the same time, his curiosity and his wide-ranging culinary interests mean that he presides over an eclectic pan-Asian menu that encompasses everything from pan-seared salmon with tomato chutney and Korean ssam wraps with kimchi to a signature grilled cheese sandwich and afternoon high tea.
AsiaSociety.org reached out to Nguyen via email to learn more about his sources of inspiration, how he balances the Garden Court's menu, and the challenges (and joys) of a locally sourced, seasonal menu.
Tell us about your background. And, when did you first realize that you wanted to be a chef? Can you describe the moment for us?
My mom is an excellent cook and my interest in food started with her. She would make traditional Vietnamese dishes, spaghetti and meat balls, everything. I still haven’t a pho that measures up to my mother’s! As I watched her prepare dinner — mostly out of anticipation for the end result — I got a small sense of the process, the prep work, the time it took to cook things and especially how ingredients worked — little things like how you put a bay leaf in a tomato sauce for flavoring, but you don’t actually eat it. For a child it definitely seemed a little magical and impossible for someone else who wasn’t my mom to replicate.
It wasn’t until college, when I was forced to provide for myself, that I started to take an interest in the process. I learned early on that I had a knack for it — that I could glance at a recipe, see what was needed, and wing it the rest of the way. The results weren’t always great, but the trial and error was something I enjoyed.
Post-college, I struggled to find a job that was fulfilling and made me happy. I took a recreational Vietnamese cooking class at ICE on a whim. I started to picture myself going to culinary school even during the class. Within a few months I was starting culinary school.
I was a nervous wreck the first few weeks but I knew almost immediately that I had found what I was meant to do in life. The ability to make something start to finish, to see it along every step, was very exciting and still is rewarding for me every day.
At the Garden Court, you’re in the unusual position of being able to choose from many different cuisines when you build a menu. How do you decide on a balance, so that the various flavors complement one another?
I always start with what I know — focusing on Southeast Asian dishes and flavors. My sous chef Litesh is from India, so he brings his authentic touch from that region. From there I try to touch upon cuisines of lesser-known areas that require a lot of research. I look online, read cookbooks, and go out to try the same Malaysian dish at multiple restaurants to get the major signifiers and ingredients the dish has to have to be considered authentic. We use our daily Bento Box special to test out our new ideas. The feedback from that helps determine the menu in a way — we’ll flag dishes that did especially well for the next menu cycle.
In terms of balance, we try to cast a wide net so that we offer something for everyone. Seafood, chicken, red meat, and vegetarian dishes. My hope is that anyone can walk in, regardless of their tastes or dietary restrictions, and find something they’ll love.
The Garden Court Café changes its menu with the seasons each year. What are some of the challenges of coming up with a seasonal (spring, fall) menu?
Initially, it took a good amount of research to know exactly what is in season. With modern farming techniques, most produce is available year-round, so a lot of the challenge is remembering exactly what is seasonally appropriate. I go to farmers markets often to see what’s plentiful and for inspiration. I enjoy the limitations of it; it forces me to think more creatively and to seek out lesser known items.
Great Performances, which manages the Garden Court Café, is publicly committed to locally sourced produce, meat, fish, and dairy. Can you describe how this plays out in the food served here?
We get ingredients from Katchkie Farm, Great Performances’ organic farm in upstate New York, when they are available. It’s exciting to get items fresh from the farm, harvested only days before. The quality is incredible — items like spinach and ginger look and taste different from the stuff you get at the supermarket. It’s exciting to find ways to use these ingredients on our existing menu and to highlight them in our daily specials.
If you could visit one city anywhere in Asia and delve into its culinary scene, where would you go — and why?
Japan, definitely. Japanese cuisine is so diverse and varied, from high- to low-end. Food also seems to be deeply ingrained in their tradition and popular culture. I watch a lot of Japanese cooking shows and food documentaries, so it would be exciting to try items that are popular in New York, like sushi and ramen, but also lesser-known items and ingredients that aren’t available in the U.S.
Garden Court Café at Asia Society New York
Garden Court Café Soy-Ginger Salmon Recipe
For questions or concerns regarding the Garden Court Café, please call Hesh Sarmalkar, Director of Events and Visitor Services, at 212-327-9322.