Vo Hoang Sang has been exposed to cooking food at an early age, working as a waiter at his aunt’s noodle stall. His young self would have never imagined that he’d one day wear a toque and work as the Demi Chef at Pullman Saigon. But he persevered — all for the love of food and the art of making it.
Last year, Sang participated in the first-ever Rising Chefs Challenge in Saigon and bested four other talented teams. All participants were given two main challenges that tested their creativity and flexibility in the kitchen as they were tasked to create dishes from mystery ingredients.
Sang drew attention and praise for his choice of dishes – beef salad with starfruits and green bananas, har gow with Chaozhou sauce, beef roll with pork paste filling in mac khen sauce, and sweet soup with lotus seeds, snow fungus, and nipa palm.
His dishes were simple and easy at first glance. But the judges — the legacies of Vietnam’s food and beverage industry — saw not the dishes’ simplicity but the chef's unpretentious love for local ingredients.
Sang wanted to spotlight “commoners’” ingredients and make them the star of his exquisite dishes. These ingredients represent his childhood, his mother, and his passion — and he knows he is meant to tell his stories through these ingredients.
Before we open the Rising Chefs Challenge kitchen again for the 2023 contenders in April, we visited Vo Hoang Sang and asked how life had been a year after his priceless triumph.
What changes has the competition brought to your life?
Before I joined the Rising Chefs Challenge in 2022, only a few knew about my food. So it was an incredible triumph that I’d been given a chance to introduce myself and my story to more people.
2022 was my breakthrough year with lots of success and development. I am still with Pullman Saigon, the place that brought my passion to life. I am also working on my own business, designing and providing party setups. I develop the menu, advise the party concept, and do everything that comes after.
I’ve also gotten more recognition and compliments for the food that I cook, not only from Vietnamese customers but from foreign gastronomes as well.
After the competition, I was also asked to judge a family cooking competition and train other people at cooking competitions. It was a great way to share my knowledge and be able to guide these aspiring chefs. I’ve been to where they are and know they’d make it, too.
I’m working hard right now, so I can save up and open my restaurant in the future. It’s a big goal, but I believe I can achieve it.
What food best defines you as a person and as a chef?
Thai Tom yum has become my signature dish. Many of my customers have commented that there’s something special about how I cook tom yum that they could easily distinguish from others. While this hot and sour soup has its origins in Thailand, I incorporate a traditional Vietnamese taste to it so it becomes more relatable to the Vietnamese palate. And I aim for the same thing — to give good food to my customers with a personal touch.
Is there any specific ingredient you use the most that you think plays a big part in your cooking style?
I always try to use traditional Vietnamese ingredients in all my dishes, including fresh coconut water as my natural sweetener. I also like using chili sauce to give that thick texture rather than corn or potato starch. The natural chili sauce creates a beautiful color for the food. There are many more Vietnamese ingredients that we overlook that are actually great complements to the dishes we do.
What makes food a masterpiece?
Cooking is an art. When I cook, I put all my passion, love, and meaningful personal stories into every dish. That, to me, is what makes food a masterpiece — when it bears the heart and soul of the chef.
The taste is, of course, important. It needs to be delicious. But how you plate the food and the story behind the ingredients will make it extra special. I always make sure that whatever I serve represents who I truly am.
What inspires you the most when cooking?
Vietnamese culture is my biggest inspiration. Each place in Vietnam has a unique signature taste with its local ingredients. I consistently explore and teach myself contemporary techniques to find the most suitable way to level up Vietnamese/Asian dishes into world-class fine-dining style.
As a chef, I keep the traditional Vietnamese taste intact. I mustn’t lose the Vietnamese identity of my food, no matter the ingredients and techniques I use. But I also strive to add new flavors to the dishes to offer our diners something unique and fresh.
Any advice to the new participants of the Rising Chefs Challenge?
Be calm, be flexible, and be ready for any unexpected twists. There will be a lot of pressure during the competition, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Make sure you have good time management for each step of the cooking process because the whole process will be affected if one step fails. Don’t forget that delicate and creative food presentation and plating are also fundamental.
But make sure to have fun and just embrace the whole experience. The Rising Chefs Challenge is a life-changing experience, and like how it helped me have my career breakthrough, this competition will also become your stepping stone toward more success as the next icon of Vietnam’s culinary scene.