In the grand tradition of dating deal-breakers (wears a fedora, says “lit” earnestly, tips poorly, et al), NOLA-based chef Nini Nguyen maintains a particularly novel theory: The best judgement material resides not on our app profiles, but within our refrigerators. “For years, whenever we were seeing someone new romantically, my best friends and I would snap photos of the insides of their refrigerators to share in our group text,” she says, laughing. “It’s the best form of background check, and honestly, with new people, it’s the thing I’m most curious about.”
It’s not that a specific brand of Dijon is going to make Nguyen reconsider her present company exactly, but rather, that she’s charmed by the idea of grocery shopping as a form of self-portraiture. Be it a lone jar of half-sour pickles or a full-stocked menagerie of seasonal greens, she enjoys the notion that what we keep in our kitchens says something about us. “You learn how much someone cooks, what kinds of cultural items they have on hand, whether or not they save leftovers,” she explains. “And for me, personally, I just love grocery shopping. I always want to know what sorts of flavors excite other people — what they buy at their local places.”
As a Vietnamese-American, New Orleans native, and former New Yorker, Nguyen is well acquainted with the ways in which geography sways our palettes. Growing up in Louisiana, she cut her culinary teeth cooking traditional Vietnamese dishes under the care of her grandmother, while on her own, outside of the house, she developed a local taste for gumbo and the occasional po-boy. Later, when she claimed new ground in Manhattan’s East Village, her home-cooking became a brilliant three-part homage to her locational history: rich NOLA umami, Vietnamese spice, and New York eccentricity — a melange that earned her an “All Star” role on season 16 of Bravo’s Top Chef. And now, having spent years paying her dues, working full-time in major league kitchens (think: Eleven Madison Park and Coquette), she's putting her version of contemporary Viet-Southern cuisine on the map through culinary consulting, recipe developing, and teaching.
Like with most folks in hospitality-adjacent industries, though, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on Nguyen’s future plans. “All of the Top Chef-related events that I was supposed to attend or orchestrate with other cooks were cancelled. All of the classes I’d been planning to teach were permanently postponed. The restaurants I was consulting for ceased operations. I was bored out of my mind,” she says. Having only recently established a small-scale Brooklyn cooking school, Cookspace, with a handful of friends, Nguyen was prepared to kick off her 2020 with a roster of courses on Vietnamese cooking and pastry prep. Naturally, the IRL school was quickly forced to pause operations. But in the meanwhile, she gathered what she’d learned in the process of building Cookspace, and birthed a new, digital cooking platform all on her own. “I had never done anything like that before — started a business entirely on my own — and I have to say, it’s been amazing,” she says. “It’s going to be a year in April, and since the beginning I’ve been shocked by the positive responses online. People really do want to learn to cook right now.”
Her virtual, real-time cooking class series, titled Cooking With Nini, ranges from pastry sessions and Bahn Mi tutorials to cocktail pairing courses and lessons in classic Gumbo prep, and for the most part, she’s found that she’s having no trouble filling them. So this past December, in pursuit of lower rent, a bigger kitchen, and closer proximity to family, she and her partner moved back home to New Orleans. But even amidst her ever-unfurling laundry list of “New Normals” (a new business, a new city, a new home, a global crisis) Nguyen says her source of reprieve remains the same: grocery shopping. “When almost everything was closed, the only reason I had to go outside was to grocery shop,” she says. “Let me be clear: I have always absolutely loved grocery shopping. It’s my happy place. But at that time in particular, it became this special, golden occasion to be out in the world. It became the biggest highlight of the day or the week for me.”
As she explains it, she’s always been a sucker for grocery splurges. While she hardly springs for new clothes, or recent technology, her most luxurious expenditures are what she calls the “fancy brands.” She picks the organic option, the one in the glass jar, the thing with the whole mustard seeds. She adores the opportunity to toss something in her cart that’s new or unfamiliar. “I always arrive with a list, but I won’t actually leave the store until I’ve walked down every aisle,” she says. While traveling, she relishes the opportunity to ogle new produce, local favorites, staple items. But at home, too, she sees food shopping as an avenue for experimentation. “I have the greatest time encountering something I don’t know at a grocery store and bringing it home to mess around with,” she says. “I love tasting and smelling and squeezing all the local produce and inhaling all the regional spices wherever I am. That’s where I get most of my inspiration from.”
Naturally, right now, travel feels like a distant memory — as does the opportunity to cradle various fruits and vegetables without marinating in hand sanitizer first. But Nguyen says she’s still been doing her best to bring that nomadic, exploratory experience to life by way of food shopping. “In New York, we could find anything. There was a specialty store for everything under the sun in walking distance of my apartment,” she says. “When I’d grocery shop, I’d go to 10 different places for spices, cuts of meat, fresh produce, and great bread. That was like travel unto itself. Like sampling little bits of lots of different worlds.”
Practically speaking, though, the reality of grocery shopping on foot at seven different locales in the hellfire that is Manhattan in August is hardly glamorous. “At a certain point, we had to rent a car. We couldn’t keep doing what we needed to do without one,” Nguyen says — a statement not readily offered by most New Yorkers. “In the beginning, we’d go to the big-box stores and stock up because we didn’t wanna go more than once every two weeks, but we only had one fridge and we lived in a 5th floor walkup. I started just using the car itself as dry storage.” When her classes began to take off, and smaller-scale specialty stores opened back up, she’d drive all over picking up what she needed for that afternoon’s course. “It’s what got me excited for class, what put me in the mood to get in front of all these people and teach them to cook,” she says. “Seeing all those foods from around the world and chatting with the people who vend them gave me energy.”
In New Orleans, food-shopping is a whole different world. The grocery stores tend to skew larger, and the specialty stores, while available, are a bit more of a journey to locate — but Nguyen, who has been “long-term borrowing” a spare car of her brother’s, is still finding every excuse to make the trips. And she’s certainly delighting in the opportunity to explore new food territory.
“Sure, sometimes I have to drive to the other side of the Mississippi to get herbs I want, but I’m having fun trying new things,” she says. “In New York, I was eating so much poultry, and here, because it’s so abundant and so fresh, I’ve been leaning more towards fish — which is super central to Vietnamese food. For that reason, I’ve been experimenting with way more traditional Vietnamese recipes.” As a result, in the comments on her most recent cooking class pages, she’s finding more and more love notes and missives from other Vietnamese-Americans, all of whom are thrilled to have found the opportunity to produce flavor that reminds them of home — of family they’ve likely not interacted with since shelter-in-place mandates went into effect last March.
That said, with the rest of NOLA’s foodscape available to her, Nguyen’s signature dishes still put an inventive dent in tradition. “Last Sunday, I saw these beautiful, super fresh bay blue crabs so I had to get them. I cooked them with classic Vietnamese flavors and everyone loved them,” she says. “I’m sort of known for cooking Vietnamese food from a NOLA point of view, or vice versa, but I don’t think of it that way, exactly. I’m just taking what I have — Louisiana ingredients and a Vietnamese history — and making food that tastes good to me.”
It’s not easy to maintain enthusiasm for art of any form when the scope of your world triangulates between home, the gas station, and the grocery store. On this front, Nguyen is, admittedly, just as susceptible to creative block and quarantine ennui as the rest of us. But blissfully, for her, a trip to the supermarket, while in many ways pragmatic, is the antidote. “Growing up, every weekend my grandmother and I would go to the farmer’s market and then make a specialty dish with whatever was in season to feed the whole family,” she says. “I remember being so excited, week after week, about the new ingredients we were building our meals around. I still feel that way: I see beautiful produce or seafood and I’m giddy. Immediately, I think to myself, ‘how do I want to eat that?’”
But beyond the delight she takes in adding her creative augmentations to a simmering, lemongrass-coconut beef stew, or a fermented lime dipping sauce for grilled sole, Nguyen says her fixation on food, in its rawest form, has something to do with intimacy. “In my family, eating has always been how we told each other we loved one another. To this day, we don’t say ‘I love you’ out loud very much,” she says. “That’s pretty typical of Asian-American families. We’re not very expressive with our feelings, verbally. So instead, we give love by way of food.”
As she speaks, she angles her Zoom camera towards the stove, where she’s pre-cooking rice for this afternoon’s class. She tastes a few grains on a wooden spoon, nods, and turns off her burner. “When I first moved back to New Orleans, my grandmother called me and said ‘Nini, I’ve made all of your favorite things to eat. Come and pick them up and take them home.’ There was no ‘I love you,’ no ‘I’m so glad you’re home,’ no ‘I’m excited to see you.’ Just warm Vietnamese food, and lots of it — which as far as I’m concerned, was just as good.”