Nini Nguyen shares her love of cooking leading up to her Seafood Festival appearance.
Story By Daisy Dow
Chef, instructor and author Nini Nguyen puts her heart and soul into every dish she prepares. After her appearance as a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef All Stars, Nguyen returned to her home state of Louisiana to get back to her culinary roots. Next month, she brings her expertise to the Lowcountry for the Hilton Head Seafood Festival. Before the New Orleans chef heads to the Atlantic for a festival showcasing the evolution of Southern cuisine, hear about Nini Nguyen’s love for cooking and how her experiences growing up in New Orleans as a Vietnamese influenced the dishes she creates today.
Seasoned with experience
Nguyen’s philosophy about food delves into the ephemerality of experience, the essence of flavor and joy of engaging with cultures from around the world. Her social media profiles take you on a journey around the world, showcasing foods from Vietnam, South Korea, Tunisia, France and beyond. Her recipes take inspiration from all over the world, but every dish she makes creates an irreplicable experience for anyone who has the chance to eat it.
“[Food is] a great way to kind of have an experience. You’re never really going to eat the same thing exactly how you have it in your mouth,” Nguyen said in an interview with LOCAL Life. To Nguyen, cooking is a means of taking people on a journey. Every meal is a contained experience, using flavor, spices and seasonal ingredients to draw a connection to culture, tradition and community.
“If someone hasn’t had something before, I want to introduce them to it. I want to introduce them to a new ingredient or new kind of cuisine that they don’t know they might like and now they love it. I’m addicted to that. It’s a weird thing, but I love it.” Generosity, surprise and tradition all meld in Nguyen’s cooking.
Cooking dac biet
She helped build a cooking school in Brooklyn and appeared on Top Chef in Kentucky and Los Angeles, but for Nguyen everything comes back to New Orleans. She is interested in the relationship between New Orleans’ Vietnamese population and the cross-cultural exchange of recipes and food cultivation practices in the South. Set to be published in 2024, Nguyen’s recipe book Dac Biet, which means “with everything” or “to be extra,” explores the recipes that have come to inform her culinary identity.
Nguyen explained how the parallels between NOLA and Vietnam drew many immigrants to settle in the area during the 1970s. A common connection to French culture, similar weather conditions and a shared reliance on fishing helped Vietnamese people find meaningful ways to embrace a foreign land with a sense of familiarity.
Speaking on behalf of the Vietnamese people in southern Louisiana, Nguyen said, “We adapted, and we learned how to cook Southern food, Louisianan food, New Orleans food. Fishing was a way to make a living, and Vietnamese women would learn to make Cajun-Creole food.” To this day, many Vietnamese-owned businesses across the city play an integral role in the boiled seafood industry.
Modern, southern seafood
Nguyen’s culinary identity developed through the foods she grew up on, be that the pho she cooked with her grandmother or the jambalaya she grabbed at the corner store. “Food is meant to be shared, and knowledge is meant to be shared,” she said. Through her book and her visit to Hilton Head for the Seafood Festival, there are plenty of ways to tap into Chef Nini’s expertise and to experience the taste of something new.
When it comes to cooking seafood, Nguyen’s advice: don’t overcook it. “People always overcook seafood like they’re scared of it, but you can literally eat seafood raw and not get sick as long as it’s good quality.” she is a firm believer in the power of fish sauce to bring out a delicious umami flavor in any seafood recipe. If you are still unsure of your seafood cooking abilities or are still a little hesitant on fish sauce, perhaps it’s best to come straight to the source and try Chef Nini’s culinary creations at the Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival in February.
4 tablespoons madras curry powder
1 stalk lemongrass
1-2 Thai chilies
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
3 cloves garlic
4 fish fillets (for the fish I usually pick something white, mild and relatively thin. Anything similar to the thickness of tilapia)
 Beat lemongrass, Thai chilies and garlic into a paste, using the mortar and pestle.
 Add sugar and curry powder and mix until evenly incorporated, then mix in the fish sauce.
 Brush the mixture onto the fish and let the fillets marinate for at least 30 minutes.
 Pan sear on medium-high heat until blackened. Top with papaya salad and serve with rice (I really like jasmine rice).
Chef Nini Nguyen’s kitchen essentials for cooking seafood:
- Fish sauce (the Vietnamese alternative to salt)
- A really sharp knife
- A spoon
- An open mind for trying something new
Save the Dates
Hosted by the David M. Carmines Memorial Foundation, the Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival is a celebration of the Lowcountry’s fishing roots and culinary heritage. Get a taste of the South from the region’s finest pitmasters, chefs and mixologists. Join Chef Nini Nguyen for the Zero Forks Given demonstration at the Omni from 6-9 p.m. Feb. 23 and her master class at 10 a.m. Feb. 24. hiltonheadseafoodfestival.com.