At Home With Duyen Ha
An interview with the Parisian chef
July 13, 2020
Let’s get the profile stuff out of the way—what is your name, age, city, and profession or craft? For how long have you been doing what you do?
Duyen Ha, 29, Paris, Sous Chef. I’ve been working in the restaurant industry for 5 years and cooking professionally for 4.
How would you describe the style of your work?
Clean and produce forward. The ingredients should speak for themselves.
In every city I visit, you can find me at the local farmer’s markets. I am obsessed with using seasonal produce in delicious and simple preparations in order to let the ingredients shine. Thanks to my training at Marlow & Sons, Arpège, and Frenchie, my workstation is organized and every movement I make is efficient, prepping everything beforehand and always thinking several steps ahead. Even though working in the kitchen is precise and systematic, I spend my time outside the restaurant expanding my palate and inspiring my own creativity through travel and learning more about different cuisines.
Who or what inspires your work?
- The seasons—for the ingredients they provide and we often overlook.
- My mother (who is a Vietnamese immigrant/refugee)—for her resilience and for raising me in a culture immersed in delicious foods, incredible flavors, and a rich culinary history.
- Angela Dimayuga—for how she highlights her own heritage and ties her work between culture, food, and art.
How does nature or the outdoors play a role in how you work or live?
I consider myself quite lucky because my training as a chef immersed me in nature and the outdoors. I also grew up in upstate New York, where there was a lot of land and open spaces. While I studied in France, I tended a farm and harvested ingredients that we brought back to the restaurant kitchen every day. That really expanded my thinking about the connection a chef can have with nature and the outdoors. Right now, I’m back home in upstate New York during the pandemic, and I’ve been foraging in the woods; I’ve found some lamb’s quarters, garlic mustard, and all of the flowers seen in the photos.
What are three brands or products that inspire you? (p.s. you don’t have to mention us)
Womn.—A sustainable clothing brand co-founded by my best friend, Robin Chang. There are so many layers to this brand that makes it so hard to not to love them. Their first collection was all dead stock and now it’s limited runs with fabrics that are environmentally friendly.
Small restaurants—They’re struggling during the pandemic and 75% of restaurants have closed due to COVID-19. I admire all of the chefs who are trying their hardest to keep their staff and feed first responders like my friend Helen Nguyen. Her restaurant, Saigon Social was set to open a week before confinement but now she’s pivoted and serving meals to the community.
Skin Food from Weleda—I love face creams because it adds an extra layer of moisturizer and an added layer of protection from harsh city air. At night, I use Skin Food over my face lotion and it gives me really dewy skin the next morning.
What are your thoughts on life after the lockdown? What do you imagine will change?
The restaurant industry will change significantly. It may be a while until people feel comfortable going out to eat again, which means many restaurants and workers will suffer. To be honest, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I’m happy to see that some restaurants have pivoted to take out and delivery but that model doesn’t work for every restaurant. I'm hoping to open my own restaurant someday, so I'm anxiously looking toward the future and hoping for the best. On a positive note, I think people are connecting more with their food now than before, especially the generation that’s used to ordering food through their phones; it’s never too late to learn how to cook.
What defines “making it” for you? But much more important for us… what are your thoughts on the journey to “making it?” [For example, for Season Three, that journey can be lonely, hard, chaotic emotions, and that the overall sacrifice doesn’t really resonate with people who are not also on a similar path.]
I’ve switched careers several times before ending up where I am today. I’ve worked for the Obama campaign, Google, and even co-founded a digital marketing company. With each accomplishment, I felt like I’d “made it,” but reaching the goal was never as sweet as I thought it would be. So what I’ve learned is that the best part in “making it” is the process—the friends you make, the skills you develop, and stimulating the curiosity that can create more learning opportunities. In short, I am never satisfied, and if I ever feel like I’ve “made it,” I’ll create new projects to challenge myself—I never want to stop growing.
Duyen can be followed at @duyennha on Instagram.