Welcome to 5 Questions, 1 Chef, a new interview series where I sit down with one chef to ask five questions. This is the first interview, but I hope to do many more.
I recently had the chance to talk and cook with a Vietnamese chef, Anh Toan Ho. He’s the chef and owner of the restaurant Mi Xao in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, where he serves up Vietnamese food his way. I learned how to cook lobster rolls, pan-seared scallops, steamed mussels, seafood stir-fry, grilled ribs, grilled corn on the cob and more and it was all delicious. I learned a lot about food while cooking with him, for example his way of using a few ingredients to create something amazing. This interview gives a peek into what I learned. We talked about his favorite ingredient, his style of cooking, and his inspiration. Read on for an inside look at a talented chef.
What inspired you to get into cooking?
Probably because I love to eat food. My grandmother was a really good cook. My grandfather belonged to the royal family, so he was a picky eater, but my grandmother made all kinds of food and it was so good. I loved to help her and I started cooking with her.
How would you describe the style/type of food you cook and why do you cook that style?
It’s hard to say the style, but the food I cook is based on Vietnamese food infused with the French style, Italian, Japanese, and Low Country. When you go to a restaurant and you eat something, say pizza, you relate it with what you have in your mind and you can put whatever you like to eat on that pizza. I like lobster rolls, so when I came to Maine, where there’s lots of lobster, I created my own lobster dish. The New England lobster roll is more like a sandwich. What I created with the lobster is more like a spring roll or summer roll, than a sandwich.
I cook what I like to eat. Food is not something you have to follow. If you like to eat a kind of food, you cook it, you like it, other people eat it. I don’t decide to cook any special type of food. You have what you like to eat and you cook with that. Like tonight, we had mussels, white wine, butter, and green curry paste. Everything was leftovers! We steamed them, because we didn’t have anything but a pot and a burner. We can cook them better than that with other ingredients, but we didn’t have anything else. So you use what you have in hand and you cook with it. Make the best out of what you have.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook?
I love pork and I also love seafood. Pork has so much character, you can do a lot. It’s not healthy, but it’s good because it has fat, so you can do a lot with it. I grew up eating a lot of pork because although seafood is good, it’s expensive and so I didn’t have it a lot. I like to cook different parts of the pig, many ways.
What is your process for creating a new dish?
Basically, people think they created something, but it is based on food that people have made before. They just change it here and there and transform it just a little. In my opinion, that’s not creating. You get the idea from some food from a long time ago and you add a new thing in there. It’s not about cooking, it’s about what makes it good and you enjoy it and other people enjoy it. That’s good food. After, you eat it you feel happy and you want to order it again…That’s good food to me.
What is one memory of cooking that you’ll never forget?
There’s so many memories. Every day, even if you cook the same food, when you sit down at the end of the day, you still learn something and that makes you cook better and better every day.
Back in my childhood, when I helped my grandmother cook a lot of food for the family, they don’t celebrate birthdays much in Vietnam, but they do celebrate death anniversaries and they make a lot of food. When the people were alive they loved to eat, so we make a ton of food. At that time, we didn’t have a refrigerator to keep all the leftover food, so the best way not to waste it was to put it together in one pot and cook it like a stew to keep it from rotting, because in Vietnam it is very hot and food spoils quickly. That stew is the best food the next day. I think that’s a smart way to create something new with the food you have.