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Inside Top Chef: Hanging With Hung

It's no secret that we love this season of Top Chef. It has all the appropriate "reality show " personalities (the funny guy, the pretty girl, the asshole), but this year the chefs are really very talented. While we heart local boy CJ, we also hate to love/love to hate Hung Huynh, executive sous chef at the Las Vegas outpost of Guy Savoy at Caesar's. Because Vegas is practically our backyard, and because Guy Savoy is really one of the best restuarants we've been to all year, we jumped at the chance to talk with him. The restaurant is closed for a few weeks, so Hung talked with us from NYC and dished on the judges, why Joey's the real asshole, and why he's a better Top Chef than his buddy, and last season's runner-up, Marcel.

Why do Top Chef? Guy Savoy is pretty damn top already.
I have a good high position. I wanted to do Top Chef to expose my name a bit more. Have some fun. The money will be great, but the money won't help me open the kind of restaurant that I really want.

Will you stay in Vegas?
I love working in Vegas, but there's no competition out there. New York is where the competition is. I just want to compete. I'm always pushing myself to be better and better. I'm the biggest critic of myself.

Who's the toughest judge on the show, even guest judges? Do you care what they say?
Chef Tom is hard core. He knows what he's talking about. As far as guest judges go, Maria Frumkin was a loser. Who is she, a replacement? A fill in? They labled her the "Queen of Tarts." [Ed. note: Frumkin is a Miami-based pastry chef, she's guest judge on tonight's episode.]

People compare you to last year's runner up, Marcel. You know him, right? Did he have any advice?
We graduated together. He told me to be myself. Stand up with your food, believe in your food. When I'm wrong, I will definitely admit it. When I have some unqualified judge tell me I'm wrong, that really offends me. I don't think I'd do anything different. My image might be asshole to America, but I stand with what I believe in. I'm not a mean-hearted prick, I'm just hard core, and I can back it up. Marcel, he didn't back his stuff up. He didn't fight back. I'm not the real asshole.

Who is?
Joey. You can see in his eyes that it's real negative energy.

The teaser for this week shows you running around the kitchen with knives everywhere.
I don't work like that in my real kitchen. On the show we have 11 people standing at one stove, and it's a small space. It's going to look chaotic no matter what. When I move fast, it doesn't take any more energy than to move slow. If I can sprint across the kitchen, why not?

You come off as an egomaniac and kind of an asshole.
I'm not really trying to be the bad guy, but I'm a hard core chef, both in my position and the way I've been trained. I'm not going to baby talk with professionals, and I'm competing here. I'm not there to be nice. They'll stab me in the back for sure. Professionally I'm an asshole, but I'm not an asshole to everyone in real life. In the kitchen, I'm the prick, the tough one.

On a guest blog for the show, Tony Bourdain says about you: "A little humility; a willingness to accommodate what people are likely to enjoy and appreciate, instead of pursuing that which honors only his own perceived genius, would be a good adjustment."
I totally accommodate other people. And I'm definitely a team player. He loved my first dish, he said it was flawless.

Do you think acting like that on the show can hurt future jobs?
People in the business know I'm a good chef. There are hard chefs and nice guy chefs. They both work. Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy, Gordon are all hard core. I heard Colicchio is tough. I don’t respect chefs that just have money and a good PR firm. I respect the ones that actually worked their way up.

Are you tough on your staff?
It's almost like the military. Are they tough or are they assholes? They love me, I teach them, they don't expect anything less. I use more sarcasm to make them feel bad about fucking up. I do that on TV, too. If I wasn't acting the way I was, what would everyone be talking about? How nice CJ or Clay is?

When we talked to CJ, without naming names he said the most difficult personality to deal with was "the one-dimensional, self-centered person who didn't have a life outside of food."
It's not my hobby, it's my life. That's why he doesn't have a job right now. This is my job. This is what I enjoy doing. He can't hack it in the real world.

Who's your biggest threat in the competition?
If I were to lose to anybody, it would be Tre. He's the only one worth competing against. He's the only one trained enough to compete against me. Everyone else doesn't understand the level of food that Tre and I understand. You have burger King and you have Guy Savoy. There are different levels of chefs. Everyone's qualified on the show, technique wise. But that's about it.

Where did you start cooking?
I worked in the family rest, Kim's Dragon in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, since I was nine. My mom taught me how to balance flavor, my knife skills, keep things clean.

Is there a large Vietnamese population in western Mass?
No. I moved here from Vietnam in 1986, I was eight years old. There are only so many things you can do when you don't speak a lot of English, so my father started the restaurant.

What does your family say about the show?
They wonder why I'm cooking the way I did, the craziness, and sometimes sloppy. I tell them our minds were mush. We're sequestered; you're cooking on the fly, from someone else's pantry. We do everything from zero, from scratch, so the food always comes out different.

There's a poll on the site that has you as a shark. What does that mean?
It definitely means that I'm a go getter, shows no mercy. Someone came up to me on the street and said they loved me on the show, that I'm "brutal." I liked that.

Top Chef airs on Bravo, Wednesday nights at 10pm.

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