When Hoang Tung moved to Vietnam in June 2018, he was a mere 26-year-old dreamer. He left Scandinavia where he got his international business degree, and bravely pursued a career far from what many of the people around him expected. He wanted to be a professional chef, and so despite discouragement and some self-doubts, he made it come true.
Tung officially opened T.U.N.G Dining in mid-December in the heart of Hanoi, serving Vietnam’s first-ever tasting menu — a culinary concept barely familiar in the country. The dining venue offers a minimalist-style menu, where a fixed list of courses (some names you haven’t even heard of) are set out at a fixed price. It arouses curiosity and excitement, to say the least, but never will it fail even the most sophisticated palates.
Tung’s restaurant has since become a sensation, prompting the self-taught chef to open a branch in Saigon in 2021. His innovative and “rebellious” culinary masterpieces continue to break barriers in traditional dining, invoking a sense of wonder in every plate served on the table.
In just a little over two years, T.U.N.G Dining was featured in Asia’s 100 Best Restaurants, hailing Tung as the youngest Vietnamese head chef to ever earn the honor. Tung also recently headlined Forbes Vietnam’s Under 30 list, celebrating his culinary flair that opened a wider door for Vietnam’s fine dining industry.
It’s no wonder that Hoang Tung was named Chef of the Year at the Vietnam Restaurant & Bar Awards 2022. Besting some of the most renowned chefs and restaurateurs in the country, Tung’s passion for innovation and creativity in food is a celebration of the whole F&B industry.
You’ve been named Chef of the Year at the Vietnam Restaurant & Bar Awards 2022? What does this recognition mean to you?
This is a very surprising and wonderful thing to be recognized as "Chef of the Year.” But more than being a personal achievement, I think of this as a recognition of the collective efforts of all the people who, for the past two years, continued to create great restaurants during this “turning point” in the history of fine dining in Vietnam. I also think of this award as proof of my resilience, hard work, and firm belief in my goal, which helped me defy all odds to become who I am today. It is also a reminder of my responsibilities towards the Vietnamese culinary and chef community, and I promise never to rest on my laurels.
What do you think was your edge against all the other talented nominees?
All the nominated chefs, undeniably, are excellent and talented and play a significant role in the culinary community in Vietnam. The fact that I received the award is a great blessing and favor. To me, being the youngest contender for the award was an advantage, considering how I bravely and steadfastly started a new era for fine Vietnamese cuisine by being the first to offer tasting menus in Vietnam.
Can you give us a background of your education and work experiences that led you to where you are today?
I am a self-taught chef. I started out as a student majoring in international business. But because I nurtured a great passion for fine dining, I decided to learn and educate myself about fine cuisine through the internet and books. When I came to the crossroads of my life, standing between the choices of becoming an entrepreneur or a professional chef, I listened to my heart's call to choose to pursue my passion for cooking with an iron belief that I would regret it if I didn't take the risk and wasn't brave enough to do what I liked, even though such career at that time was not highly appreciated in the eyes of my family and friends. I always believe that to become a professional, you must be trained under a renowned mentor. That is also the reason I decided to knock on the doors of Michelin restaurants in Helsinki to apply for a no-paid job to learn and train with the culinary masters. From that moment, I rolled myself into the world of Michelin-starred restaurants that definitely played crucial roles in my career path.
Tell us more about TUNG Dining – history, story, growth.
About two years ago, I found myself making one of my life's most difficult decisions, as a less experienced 26 years old, to return home from Scandinavia, all for the ambition of opening a fine dining restaurant, where I can fulfill a life-long dream, and wake up every day doing what I love. It has been a journey that can be described with many superlatives; most challenging, eye-opening, life-changing, and certainly, the most rewarding.
As we first penned down our ambition to be the first to introduce the only tasting menu concept in Vietnam, in this small restaurant nestled in a quiet corner of Hanoi, even the most supportive, optimistic friend couldn't help suggesting a reluctant "back-up plan". I would blame our "stubbornness" to just do it anyway for the decision nonetheless, or to put it most elegantly for today, the collective dedication and firm belief of a united team, who started with nothing but big dreams and great trust for one another.
Being a pioneer and finally opening our dream restaurant is one thing, but living it, sustaining it and making it "the place to be" for many of our customers, takes more than that. I can't tell how many all-nighters have been pulled for our menus; or how many midnight meetings we had after a full-house service. Things are never easy, we are challenged to the best of our limits on a daily basis; but I am most grateful for the men and women, the people working tirelessly for the soul of T.U.N.G dining, and for their trust and commitment to the leadership.
In February 2021, T.U.N.G dining was included in the top 100 best restaurants in Asia by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and I can, against all doubts, pat ourselves on the back, tell each other "We've made it" and keep charging ahead. I am motivated by the ranking, but more than humbled by the recognition for the team and the exciting prospects for the future. We may be the youngest, but we have, and we will let our dream, our determination, and our persistence towards excellence be the defining force that lets us become the biggest that we can be. We will live our ambition with passion so that one day we can look back with pride on the youth and the career that we've created.
How do you create a culinary masterpiece? Where do you draw inspiration from?
I always draw inspiration from key seasonal ingredients. It's like an anchor and I try to design and create around that primary material. For each dish, I have a different theme. I do research very carefully on that topic to come up with appropriate accompanying ingredients, honoring the greatness of the main ingredients and showing the breadth of seasons. More and more, I somehow want to blend the flavors of Vietnam into each dish, highlighting the richness in flavors and processing methods, and thereby telling a story of a long history of the culinary culture of my country.
What specific dishes do you take the most pride in?
I’ve had the most fun when I created the innovative phở. This dish was made for the summer menu in 2021 at T.U.N.G dining with the purpose of bringing a fresh and cool experience to diners when enjoying a traditional Vietnamese dish that is traditionally served hot. I have completely changed the texture, and temperature of the traditional pho. The phở broth is cooked and processed for nearly 24 hours then made into fine jelly, combined with premium Kagoshima A5 beef, punctuated by a special fermented chili sauce and lined with a silky-smooth noodle sheet. The overall dish looks like a beautiful piece of marble filled with umami flavors.
Where do Vietnamese chefs like you stand in the global dining scene? What can you do to further elevate Vietnam’s name?
Vietnam is known as a famous culinary destination in the world, with a very diverse culinary background from many different influences. Inevitably, people always say that Vietnam is a paradise of street food; however, Vietnam's fine cuisine still has a very modest place on the global fine dining map. What we are missing is people who interpret Vietnamese cuisine in an international language to be able to reach a wider variety of diners. It is our great pride that after two years, T.U.N.G dining has been recognized as one of the 100 best restaurants in Asia recognized by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants. The road ahead is certainly long and thorny, demanding generations of Vietnamese chefs working together to dedicate themselves and unite for a bright future of Vietnamese cuisine. What I can do well right now is to work hard, constantly innovate to maintain the quality of the restaurants to all domestic and international diners, and most importantly, create motivation for the next generation of proud young Vietnamese chefs to continue our path to make the name Vietnam’s more and more famous in the world.
What’s next for you? Any culinary initiatives we can look forward to this year?
I, admittedly, do not know what the future brings, but I would like to see myself in a new industry, to be more specific, beverage. I am on the way to do the first, never-seen-before tasting menu cocktail station in Vietnam, in which guests will have a two-hour session to enjoy our cocktail tasting flight paired with gastronomic snacks. This 10-seat molecular cocktail station is beautifully located next to T.U.N.G dining and was launched by the TUNG team and renowned mixologist Richard McDonough a.k.a Mood Therapist. I strongly believe that it would start a new chapter and a new way for cocktail tasting in Vietnam. This project goes along with my philosophy: Life is too short to do something normal and boring.