Elite Spotlight: Tway Nguyen (@twaydabae)
It was never in Tway Nguyen’s plans to become a chef. She was filling out her college application for nursing school when she felt called to culinary school instead. Since then, she’s become a social media powerhouse with a laid-back style and an “anyone can do this” approach.
She sat down with Dalstrong to talk about her mom, her love of McDonald’s Sprite, and how her dream to open a froufrou Malibu restaurant shifted to sharing her love of Vietnamese dishes with the world.
What inspired you to get into cooking?
It wasn’t ever really in my plan to go to culinary school. I always wanted to be a nurse. But when I finished high school and was doing college applications, I realized I’d never finish nursing school. I knew I wanted to go to culinary school to learn and absorb and really enjoy it. It’s more of a calling for me. Going into culinary school, I had this business idea to open a fine dining restaurant in LA (Malibu). It was my dream until my second year when I realized I had so many other options.
You don’t have to own a restaurant or be on the line cooking every day. At the time, I was into making videos, but hadn’t started making food videos yet because I didn’t have the knowledge to share. I was doing blog posts and workout videos for fun. This year, I really tried to break through and post my cooking videos. I got a huge rush of support from people all around the world. It was insane! I was sharing recipes I grew up eating and connecting with people from all over.
Tell me about your approach. What makes your style unique?
With me, it’s more quick and easy. Anyone and everyone can do it. I want people to see what I do and feel like it’s accessible for them. When I watch others cook it can be intimidating. I don't want people to feel like that. I want them to feel that it’s easy to cook what they love. As far as cuisine, I do mostly Vietnamese recipes. The reason why is because when Vietnamese-Americans leave home they don’t get their mom's cooking anymore. Asian parents don’t teach you exact measurements or the why behind what they do. Vietnamese cooking is easy, but the flavors are complex, so people feel like they’ll mess it up if they try it. I want people to feel like they can do it and incorporate all the flavors.
Do you have a favorite new recipe discovery or a favorite go-to?
I just finished a recipe for a broken rice dish with grilled lemongrass pork chops. Super proud of that one. Really excited to share. Since it’s pie season, I've been making a lot of pies, too.
What’s your best kitchen hack or advice?
I’m not sure if this is a hack, but people love it. When I get home from the grocery store, I put my herbs in a damp paper towel or in a cup with water. This keeps them fresh, and they last longer. Which one I do depends on the herb. Rosemary and thyme, herbs with woodier stems, I will definitely place in a paper towel. Cilantro or parsley, I'll leave in water.
When you’re not in the kitchen, what are you doing?
I really like to work out and also enjoy just lounging. I’m in a second Covid lockdown at the moment, so I'm ready.
Is there a spice or ingredient you secretly hate?
By itself would have to be cinnamon. It’s way too strong alone. Without sugar, I can’t stand it. An ingredient I hate is celery. People say it tastes like nothing, but it does! I hate the smell.
Are there kitchen tools you can’t live without?
My absolute favorite, hands down, #1 tool is the Dalstrong cutting board. It has been a life changer. I didn’t invest in a good cutting board for a long time. And there’s such a difference in theirs and basic ones, just the feel of cutting on it. My favorite knife is the Shogun 8” Chef Knife. I love the handle and how thin the blade is.
Who are your cooking heroes?
I would say Anythony Bourdain and my mom. I watched a lot of Bourdain’s shows growing up. When I first moved here from Vietnam it made me feel like food was one of the key aspects of human connection. My favorite episodes were from Vietnam and I’d love to watch him eat the food. When you live in Vietnam, the food is different. It’s not the same as Vietnamese-American food. It made me feel a sense of pride. I felt like, dang, he appreciates it even more than I do! I should embrace it more.
My mom, she didn’t teach me how to cook. I didn't learn growing up. All I know is that she didn’t go to culinary school and no one taught her, but she always managed to put a dinner together. Growing up I didn’t think it was a big deal, a full-course dinner was normal. I didn’t appreciate it until recently. She’d work all day, from like 9:00 to 7:00 and then come home and make dinner for the whole family. She would make it so authentic and she’d try new things, it was cool watching her cook and develop her own recipes.
If you could cook a meal for one person, who would it be?
I would cook for my dad because he lives far away from me and we don’t see each other often. He hasn’t really tried my food yet. Also Gordon Ramsay. Just so he could yell at me if I f- up. That would be so funny. I’d cook for him just to have him roast me.
What is the one dish that everyone seems to screw up?
Scrambled eggs. It might be a preference, but too many people just cook the shit out of them. I think people are scared of runny eggs, so they cook it until it’s not runny. But they keep cooking after you take them out of the pan, and people don’t realize that. People are missing out on really good eggs. Makes me really sad.
What is the mark of a great chef?
Open-mindedness is what makes a great chef. And not being so kept to themselves or not sharing what they’re skilled at. Always feeling like they can learn more.
Do you have any advice for chefs just starting out?
Tuck your fingers when you’re chopping. Tuck those fingers.
What would your last meal be?
Spicy wontons and a McDonald’s Sprite.
Interested in hearing more from Tway?
Written by Abby Slate
Born and raised in the South, Abby lives by three things: bacon goes in everything, all food can (and should) be deep fried, and hush puppies are religion.