Chapel Hill, N.C. — Like many Southern families, the Chuongs gather everyone around the table for Sunday dinner. There are a few differences, however. They need two tables to seat their three close-knit generations, and their patriarch's original South was South Vietnam.
Michael Chuong of elements was 15 in 1978 when his father saved enough money to buy him and his sister seats on a wooden boat that was fleeing their war-torn country. They were among 254 passengers rescued after reaching international waters and taken to a refugee camp in Singapore. Three months later, they were relocated by an aid organization to New Orleans.
"We lived in an orphanage," Michael says, recalling harsh experiences of racism and a painful longing for familiar foods cooked by his late mother. "She was such a wonderful cook. Her catfish in clay pot was the best I've ever had." (The tamarind soup on the elements menu is the recipe Michael learned in childhood from his mother.)
Michael was determined to learn English, succeed in school and get a job so he could repay his father by bringing the rest of the family to America. He enrolled at Louisiana State University in 1982, where he met Lan Nguyen, his future wife. He intended to become an architect but got distracted after taking a part-time job at a four-star hotel. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming chef de cuisine at its fine-dining restaurant.
His mastery of classic French technique and Asian culinary traditions earned Michael prestige gigs in New Orleans. In 1993, he took over the kitchen at the renowned Fairmont Hotel, returning its four-star status, and later opened a massive new venture called City Energy Club. His reputation eventually attracted the interest of Ann Goodnight, who recruited him in 1997 to become executive chef at Prestonwood Country Club.
Michael's star continued to rise in the Triangle. His wife and their eldest daughters, Vi and Van, were at his side when he opened An in Cary in 2006. They joined him in 2012 at elements, where Vi is the accountant and Van manages events. Van's husband, Mark Hornbeck, has been sous chef to his father-in-law for nearly a dozen years.
As grandchildren Jacob, 11, Kairi, 5, and Ayden, 8 months, alternately play and nap in the Chuongs’ spacious home, the rest of the family take turns prepping ingredients for the evening meal – a traditional Vietnamese hot pot. "When we cook with dad, we're expected to cut and plate everything just so," says Van as she, Vi and younger sister Christina, a sophomore at UNC, arrange beautiful platters on the tables. Ingredients include an array of Asian vegetables, filet mignon, Scottish salmon, mussels and cuttlefish.
As soon as the spicy cooking broth meets his satisfaction, Michael sets potfuls on tabletop cookers. Everyone take turns adding items to simmer while Michael and Lan mind timing and use chopsticks to pluck them out to serve. Later, with the broth enriched by all of the added flavors, portions are sipped straight from the bowl.
"This is too involved to serve at the restaurant, but we like to eat like this at home," Michael says, happy to see everyone full and satisfied. "It brings everyone together, which is important for family."
Recipe: Vietnamese Hot Pot
- 2 tsp. cooking oil
- 2 tsp. garlic, chopped
- 2 oz. lemongrass, chopped
- 2 leeks, washed and chopped
- 8 cups chicken stock
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 oz. Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam)
- 2 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
- Beef, sliced
- Vietnamese beef meatballs
- Salmon, sliced
- Cuttlefish, trimmed
- Mussels, fresh in shell
- Shrimp, peeled
- Fish Cakes, sliced
- Tofu, chunks
- Yu Choy
- Napa Cabbage
- Mushrooms, assorted varieties
- Cellophane noodles, soaked and drained
Heat oil in a medium stock pot and add garlic and lemongrass. Saute till mixture turns golden, then add leeks and cook for 5 minutes. Add in chicken stock. Let the stock simmer for 10 minutes.
Season with salt and fish sauce, and then add cayenne pepper (to taste). Your stock is ready for the hot pot. You can personalize it by adding your own spices.
It is not necessary to include all proteins and vegetables, and feel free to substitute others that you like. Arrange all ingredients nicely on serving plates, keeping vegetables and proteins separate. Add small quantities of ingredients to hot pot broth, keeping track of contents to avoid overcooking. Transfer to bowls with broth and noodles. When done cooking, enjoy enriched broth.
Editor’s Note: Chef Chuong is participating in the Grand Taste Experience on April 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Durham Armory, part of Taste 2015, a four-day food festival in Durham. Tickets are on sale now at tastetheevent.com. Spend the evening savoring dishes created by 20 of the best chefs in the region, and meet local beverage makers producing your favorite beer, soda, coffees and spirits. A portion of proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Durham Branch of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.