Trinh Tuan Dung, the talented head chef at Ap Chen Bistro, achieved remarkable acclaim as the winner of the prestigious Rising Chefs Challenge 2023, despite his youth in the culinary world.
Dung's genuine and humble nature, coupled with his profound love for his family, instantly captivate you when you meet him. Reflecting on his upbringing, Dung’s father bore the scars of war, while his mother shouldered the responsibility of providing for their family. These experiences left an indelible mark on Dung, intertwining his childhood memories with his mother's tireless dedication in the kitchen.
Source: Khooa Nguyen cho Vietcetera.
For the “Elevating Your Childhood Dishes” challenge, Dung ingeniously chose to recreate a dish infused with sentimental value—a succulent pork belly roll filled with flavorful mushrooms, complemented by sides of brown rice, mashed sweet potatoes, and vibrant vegetables. Each bite evoked nostalgia, reminiscent of the cherished aromas emanating from his mother's culinary domain.
Dung's secret weapon did not rely on extravagant ingredients but rather his unwavering familial love. The heartfelt story behind his dish, combined with his impeccable culinary craftsmanship, deeply moved the competition's audience. Now, the question remains: How did Dung manage to strike a chord with his culinary art, touching the hearts of all who experienced it?
Why did you choose a homemade rice dish for the final competition?
I vividly remember the years when my father's health significantly deteriorated, and he was almost unable to move. My mother took on the responsibility of running the household in his place. Besides her nameless housekeeping chores, she also assumed the role of the primary cook.
She often cooked white rice served with pork belly caramelized in fish sauce, a simple but incredibly flavorful meal. Tasting a piece of salty braised pork belly accompanied by fluffy, aromatic brown rice was a priceless moment during my beautiful childhood.
This is the dish I always eagerly anticipated at our family meals as a child. Now I can take charge of the kitchen and serve this hearty dish for my family.
I wanted to bring this dish to the Rising Chefs Challenge because no other meal could evoke such strong emotions in me.
What would your family would say about this dish?
They would likely think it’s a lavish restaurant dish!
Before deciding to present the cơm độn khoai at the Rising Chefs Challenge, I served this dish to my parents as I wanted their honest feedback. I carefully cooked the rice, slow-cooked the meat, and tweaked the flavors, ensuring the dish met competition standards.
I was curious if they’d recognize this familiar cơm độn khoai. But to my surprise, they thought it was a fancy restaurant meal.
My parents rarely indulge in luxurious cuisine, and they have virtually no desire to venture into it for fear of overspending. That moment affirmed for me that, in this life, I must take my parents to experience all sorts of delicacies.
As they age, every moment with them becomes even more valuable. That’s why I cherish having my family close by at each significant juncture in my lifet. They’re not just judges who give me objective feedback; they're also the emotional pillar that keeps me moving forward.
What was your most memorable moment in the Rising Chefs Challenge?
When I heard my name announced as the winner on stage, I was silent for a few seconds before being overwhelmed with emotion. Amidst the lively atmosphere, I found myself reflecting on the days of preparation for the competition with my brother - my sworn sibling and first mentor in my culinary journey. We have experienced a rollercoaster of emotions together.
I remember before the finals, around 3 or 4 am, all the teams had to rise to prepare the ingredients. We had to be at the competition site by 5 am, ready to cook and compete. With such a tight schedule, any phase could easily go awry without careful planning.
Luckily, whenever I felt exhausted and unsure, my brother was there to encourage and guide me. He was always there to lift me up and lead the way step by step, helping me grow stronger with each round.
He isn’t a chef, nor does he work in the F&B industry, but he’s always been a great leader, an advisor who supported me and shared the burden throughout the competition.
No matter how much I thank him, it will never be enough.
What was your greatest challenge in the competition?
The biggest hurdle was having to cook with predetermined ingredients. The judges of the Rising Chefs Challenge would announce three main elements, and the contestants were required to use at least two of them in their dishes. Due to limited ingredient selection, I couldn't execute my ideas. I believe I can do better.
What are your plans after the Rising Chefs Challenge?
Initially, I wanted to open a purely Vietnamese eatery with my brother. It will be our first step in bringing Vietnamese cuisine to the world.
In the long term, my ambition is to open a fusion restaurant. This establishment will blend Vietnamese cuisine with contemporary and innovative styles. Here, each traditional Vietnamese flavor - be it sour, spicy, salty, or sweet - will be given a fresh twist through a unique combination with global culinary techniques.
The essence of Vietnamese cuisine, spanning from north to south, has countless unexplored beauties. Hidden in each indigenous ingredient are hundreds of farmers’ passion, love, and dedication. Growing up amidst such a “rich” culinary culture, I want to contribute to establishing Vietnam’s position on the international gastronomic map in the future.
In your opinion, what are the early challenges young chefs often face?
I believe the greatest challenge is overcoming the shadow cast by established, veteran head chefs.
“Nothing is entirely original.” What we create is drawn from some source of inspiration. More simply, it means observing and replicating the good aspects of others, and then adding our personal touch.
However, when we’re still new to the profession, we often make the mistake of merely copying our predecessors without shaping our own unique identity. We might be so awed by the accomplishments of those who came before us that we inadvertently confine ourselves to their ways of thinking. Over time, this mindset can lead young individuals astray, causing them to lose sight of their value.
Ideally, young chefs need to balance their own mindset with the experience gained from those who came before them. We should view our predecessors’ lessons as an objective source of knowledge and consider their advice before applying it to our practices.
If you were to advise future contestants of the Rising Chefs Challenge, what would be your message to them?
When presenting in the competition, avoid excessive theatrics or overly dramatic narratives. Instead, focus on sharing a story that genuinely reflects your true self. By authentically expressing yourself, you embody the very essence of the competition.
Always remember the significance of the "spirit of the competition," not just in Rising Chefs Challenge but in any talent contest. While it's important to understand the rules and hone your competitive skills, pay attention to the importance of presenting your performance in a way that truly showcases the value of the competition.
Embrace the intended spirit of the competition and select a story that allows you to connect with your audience. Rising Chefs Challenge consistently celebrates young culinary talents. It's not about where you come from but rather the inner determination to pursue your passion for the culinary arts. Choose a story that represents your culinary journey.
Translated by Bich Tram