Nguyen Ba Phuoc - Discover the Soul of Japanese Cooking Through the Eyes of This Master Chef From Vietnam

The best way to learn about a country is by getting to know the locals. With our interview series “People of Japan,” we’ll bring you even closer to Japan by introducing business owners, cultural ambassadors, and all-round amazing people in the country bonded by strong passions. In this installment, we interviewed chef Nguyen Ba Phuoc, one of the few people in the world who achieved gold for the Certification of Cooking Skills for Japanese Cuisine in Foreign Countries. Japanese cuisine is like art, with meticulousness inserted into every step, including the table setting and order in which you're supposed to enjoy a Japanese course meal. We sat down with Nguyen Ba Phuoc to learn more about the allure of Japanese cuisine, why he dedicated his life to it, and what sort of challenges he had to overcome to get to where he is today.

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A Renowned Foreign Chef in Japan

The name "Nguyen Ba Phuoc" may sound familiar to those studying to become or already working as a chef of Japanese cuisine.

Nguyen started studying the art of Japanese cooking in Japan in 2016, after which he worked at various restaurants and hotels in Hokkaido. At the start of 2021, he earned the highest "gold" category of the “Certification of Cooking Skills for Japanese Cuisine in Foreign Countries” contest organized by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. At the time, only 18 foreign chefs had gold, with Nguyen being the first Vietnamese person among them.

Nguyen has inspired numerous young Vietnamese cooks through his passion for food and dedication to pursuing his dreams, which can be seen in the sheer amount of effort and creativity behind each and every one of his food creations. We asked Nguyen to tell us more about his love for Japanese cuisine and the secret to succeeding in that world.

From Comedian to Cook: How Nguyen Ba Phuoc Discovered Japanese Cuisine

tsunagu Japan: “You’ve achieved so much as a chef. Could you tell us how it all started for you? When did you first start thinking about learning to cook and becoming a professional chef?”

Nguyen: “It’s been around 12 years since I became a chef. At first, cooking was just something I had to do, and I felt no true passion for it. When I was little, my family would always be out working, and so I was left in the house alone. Naturally, I was put in charge of cooking and, in the beginning, I was often scolded for how my dishes turned out. However, I gradually became better and started getting compliments about my cooking from friends and relatives. It made me happy. That’s when I started to really enjoy cooking.”

“When I was young, I actually wanted to be a comedian, and I even applied to an acting school after my third year of high school. However, I wasn’t accepted. My father then suggested that, because I was always cooking, I should consider enrolling in culinary school, and it just made a lot of sense to me. I wanted to make my own way in the world without relying on anyone, so I applied and began my journey towards becoming a professional chef.”

tsunagu Japan: “Why did you focus on Japanese cuisine instead of, say, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Western? Japanese cuisine is intricate and beautiful, but it feels like there’d be a lot of hurdles to overcome on that road.”

Nguyen: “It was a coincidence at first. Just after I graduated from culinary school in Vietnam, Japanese food became trendy and popular over there. I then was offered a chance to train at a Japanese restaurant, and I thought that specializing in Japanese food would help my future career prospects down the line, so I took it."

"Later, after I learned to cook Japanese dishes and had a general, working knowledge of preparing Japanese food, I realized that, in retrospect, Japanese food represented something that did not exist in Vietnam at the time. It was more intricate and delicate, which you could see at every stage, from the selection of ingredients to the actual cooking and, especially, the presentation. I personally love discovering new things, and have always wanted to do something that nobody else was doing. My obsession with Japanese cuisine grew deeper, and while it was just pure chance at first, the more I learned, the more I knew I had made the right choice, giving me the motivation to get where I am today.”

tsunagu Japan: “What stood out to you the most when learning to cook Japanese cuisine? And what was the most difficult part?”

Nguyen: “After years of cooking Japanese cuisine, I realized that the art shares a lot of elements with cuisines from around the world. However, the main difference is the care and attention to details that Japanese chefs put into each dish. I’m also fascinated by traditional Japanese cooking methods, like how they attempt to bring out the natural flavors of the ingredients instead of relying on aromatic spices.”

“This is the true heart of traditional Japanese food. It’s what separates it from other cuisines and makes the art extremely difficult to learn. At first, I was sure I could learn everything about Japanese cooking in 2-3 years. However, I soon realized that it’s much more complicated than that. One particular struggle is preserving the natural flavors of the ingredients you’re working with. To do this, it’s vital to possess a deep knowledge of each and every ingredient and how to pair them in order to highlight their unique characteristics. This is undoubtedly the most challenging aspect of cooking Japanese food.”

Nguyen's Thoughts on Japanese Cuisine

tsunagu Japan: “What do you feel is the main difference between Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine? How do these differences manifest themselves in the cooking and presentation?”

Nguyen: “Food is an integral part of any country’s culture. Every nation’s cuisine is built on the foundation of its individual customs and values.”

“Japanese people have a long history of worshiping nature and using seasonal ingredients. The Japanese term 'shun' (旬) refers to the time when vegetables, seafood, and other ingredients are at their freshest and most delicious. Japanese people relish the natural flavors of these ingredients and don’t want to drown them out by using strong, potent spices. On the other hand, Vietnamese cuisine was born from a mix of many different cultures, and it boasts many methods to create new flavors through different combinations of ingredients and seasonings.”

“Another fundamental difference between the two cuisines is the presentation. Japanese meals often feature small portions of many different dishes, while Vietnamese food prioritizes large serving sizes. When feeding guests, Vietnam values quantity and Japan prefers variety.”

tsunagu Japan: “Have you ever tried applying Japanese cooking methods to Vietnamese food or vice versa? How did it go?”

Nguyen: “I think applying Japanese techniques to Vietnamese cuisine is easier than the other way around. As I mentioned before, Vietnamese food tends to use lots of seasonings while the Japanese value natural flavors. I’ve once made pho salad without strong-smelling ingredients like garlic and a diluted sauce. Those who tried it didn’t even realize it was Vietnamese food! I’ve yet to attempt incorporating Vietnamese cooking methods to Japanese dishes, but I’d love to give it a go someday.”

tsunagu Japan: “What dish would you recommend to foreign tourists visiting Japan?”

Nguyen: “It’s hard to choose just one, but I’d personally recommend ‘kaiseki ryori,’ Japan’s multi-course haute cuisine. Kaiseki ryori doesn’t differentiate between main and side dishes, but instead treats every food equally to create one unified meal. It also uses seasonal ingredients at their peak deliciousness, so it is the perfect example of traditional Japanese cooking.”

“Just like with the traditional food of Hanoi or the imperial cuisine of Hue and Vietnamese culture, you can feel the essence of Japan through kaiseki ryori. If you ever visit, you simply must try it. I suggest visiting the traditional restaurant 'Yoshimura' (Japanese only) in Itabashi, Tokyo. I used to work there, so I know for a fact that the food is delicious, the service top-notch, and the atmosphere welcoming and friendly.”

Success Through Hard Work and Perseverance

tsunagu Japan: “Can you tell us about your happiest as well as your most frustrating moments while studying and working in Japan?”

Nguyen: “My happiest memory is probably when I got into culinary school in Hokkaido. Right after that is the time I got a perfect score on my classroom and practical graduation exams. Along with studying cooking, I also had to study Japanese, making it twice as difficult for me compared to the Japanese students. However, I didn’t want people to simply assume that foreigners could never be as good as Japanese natives, so I buckled down and studied like crazy. At work, I once cut apart an entire tuna fish in a room packed with customers. I was nervous, but I felt proud and happy at being given such an opportunity.”

“The most frustrating part of my life in Japan occurred in 2020. I was hired by a luxury Michelin 3-star restaurant, and just as I was getting ready to move to Tokyo, the offer was suddenly withdrawn. The reason was COVID-19, which lost the restaurant a lot of business and forced it to close down. It was a very difficult time. As Tokyo is such an expensive city, I was forced to work as a porter for a moving company in order to survive. It was the hardest two months of my life. However, afterwards, I found a stable, well-paying job at a sushi restaurant, and was able to make a living doing what I love.”

tsunagu Japan: “How did it feel winning gold at the annual contest organized by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for foreign chefs whose work contributes to the preservation of traditional Japanese cuisine?"

Nguyen: “The contest has three levels: gold, silver, and bronze. As I had already graduated from a Japanese culinary school and had worked under a Japanese chef for two years, I decided to challenge myself in the gold category. After finding out about the contest around November 2020, I immediately entered without hesitation. While there wasn’t much time to prepare, I was certain that all the studying and practicing that I’d done would be enough."

"For me, taking gold wasn't just a simple title or award. It was a tangible acknowledgment of my abilities that the whole world could see. It's one thing to study and work in the field of Japanese cuisine, but having some sort of tangible proof wins me a lot of trust. Plus, winning gold was also my way of showing gratitude towards those who’ve guided me all this time, and it gave me the confidence that I had the abilities necessary to bring traditional Japanese cuisine to Vietnam in the future.”

tsunagu Japan: “You’re currently managing the Sapporo branch of the banh mi restaurant 'Bánh Mì Xin Chào' (Japanese only), correct? What led you to becoming the chain’s consultant and opening your own branch? Were there any difficulties you had to overcome along the way?”

Nguyen: “I was originally hired to work at a luxury Japanese restaurant in Tokyo, but things unfortunately didn’t work out due to COVID-19. Afterwards, I happened to come across Bánh Mì Xin Chào by accident and was able to chat with the company president. We both shared the same vision of popularizing Vietnamese cuisine in Japan, and I was offered the role of a special consultant to help open the chain’s new branches in Hokkaido.”

“Bánh Mì Xin Chào Sapporo opened in June 2021. At first, we experienced all sorts of troubles. Being a foreigner in Japan, I ran into a lot of legal issues with finding the right location and renting the property. While we also had to deal with the effects of COVID-19, things are going smoothly now. The restaurant has even been featured in local magazines and on television programs, which has really raised our profile. The biggest problem we’ve faced recently was an unusual amount of snowfall, which cut us off from our customers who live far away.”

tsunagu Japan: “What elements played a role in you being recognized as a true Japanese chef in Japan?"

Nguyen: “Of course, I owe everything to those who supported me. I also believe my own tenacity and strong will helped me achieve this. Once I decide to do something, I need to see it through to the end. No matter how much I fail, I have no regrets. I’m certain those who are currently studying or working in their various fields also feel the same. Rather than worrying about failure, we owe it to ourselves to try as hard as we can to achieve our dreams.”

Becoming the Bridge Between Vietnam and Japan

tsunagu Japan: “We heard that you're also teaching Japanese cooking to people from all around the world. What kind of difficulties are there in teaching people about Japanese cuisine? What advice do you have?”

Nguyen: “I think the majority of people face difficulties learning how to cook Japanese cuisine. For example, lots of Vietnamese people think that they can learn everything about Japanese cooking after just 1-2 years of practice. However, there are numerous styles of Japanese cuisine, like kaiseki ryori, shojin ryori, sushi, tempura, and more, and it takes at least 5-7 years before one can call themselves a fully fledged Japanese chef."

"Peeling a daikon (Japanese radish) may seem like a simple task, but it actually takes from a month to an entire year to properly master. I also practiced sharpening knives every morning for a year. Plus, Japanese food needs to be prepared with utmost delicacy and care, so you need to be persistent and be able to pay close attention to details. Those unprepared and unwilling to put in the time will surely give up once they encounter a serious challenge.”

“The Japanese language and cultural differences can also be overwhelming. It’s important for international students in Japan to accept different ways of thinking and doing things. Through this, you’ll be able to understand the true depth of Japan's food culture and realize why things are done the way they are. I hope to pass on knowledge that bridges the gap between the image and reality of Japanese cuisine.”

tsunagu Japan: “What plans do you have for the future?”

Nguyen: “I plan to open another Vietnamese restaurant in Hokkaido soon. If the pandemic is under control by the end of the year, I would also like to return to Vietnam and get involved with managing traditional Japanese restaurants there. I’ve had this idea for about 2-3 years now, but I still haven’t been able to do it.”

“In the future, I hope to serve as a bridge between Vietnam and Japan and give Vietnamese people more opportunities to experience authentic Japanese cuisine. This is my way of thanking all those who guided me in Japan. I also wish to further spread Vietnamese cuisine throughout the world, allowing more people to discover its charm while giving Vietnamese expats a slice of home.”

tsunagu Japan: “We hope you’ll be able to achieve your future ambitions soon! We also hope that you will continue to create many delicious dishes and pass on your passion to the next generation, and that you will always continue to have a passion for food!"

The Long Journey Ahead

Nguyen Ba Phuoc has shown us that passion, determination, and endurance can lead to success to matter how difficult the path may be. We’re sure that Nguyen’s efforts will no doubt inspire those embarking on similar journeys, giving them the energy they need to achieve their dreams. Next time you’re in Hokkaido, definitely pop into Bánh Mì Xin Chào to discover the talents of Nguyen Ba Phuoc for yourself!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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