Turn left onto Peel Street in SoHo on any given evening, and you can expect to encounter a sidewalk crowd ready and waiting to dine at Chôm Chôm, a popular – and petite – fixture of the Hong Kong restaurant scene. It’s a palpable energy that new chef John Nguyen thrives on. Born in Ho Chi Minh City and raised in Los Angeles, he honed his kitchen skills at Hanoi House in New York’s East Village and is now embracing Hong Kong as home. We caught up with Nguyen to learn more, including what diners can expect from his refreshed menu.
What excited you about becoming chef at Chôm Chôm?
From the moment we open the door, the seats fill up and the restaurant comes to life. I love the buzzy atmosphere, and the best part is that we are in the heart of it: everyone can see exactly what we’re doing in the open kitchen as we get the food out as fast as we can. All of this makes working at Chôm Chôm a complete rush.
How does Chôm Chôm fit into the Vietnamese food scene in Hong Kong?
Chôm Chôm has been around for six years and has built an outstanding community. The restaurant was inspired by the Hanoi-style bia hoi tradition and this atmosphere – of guests gathered around outside the restaurant – brings another level to the experience that is Chôm Chôm.
What inspired the Vietnamese pizza, one of your menu updates?
It’s one of the most popular street snacks in Vietnam, available from north to south, and I wanted to bring that back to Hong Kong. Plus, it pairs perfectly with a cold Vietnamese beer.
Typically, the rice paper for the Vietnamese pizza is grilled over coals, but since our Josper Grill can’t fit more than four rice papers at a time, I needed to find a way to make it work with our fast pace. This is why we decided to fry the rice paper instead, making it very crispy and unique to Chôm Chôm.
What are some of your favourite ingredients to cook with?
My favourite ingredients have to be butter and chicken fat. Butter because it gives an extra richness and helps round out the flavour of each dish.
In Vietnam, a common technique is grilling with animal fat. After many trials, I decided I prefer chicken fat because, while it has a richness to it, it is not as fatty as pork or beef. It blends in better and is now something I use often in my cooking.
I also love using Vietnamese herbs like rau ram, Thai basil and mint to enhance the freshness of a dish.
What do you hope diners will experience and take away from a meal at Chôm Chôm?
My goal for each and every person who joins us at Chôm Chôm is to have an amazing time. I want them to experience the Hanoi eating, snacking and drinking culture. Whether they are stopping by solo for a quick bite or gathering with a group of friends, Chôm Chôm is about community – it’s about socialising with great drinks, great food and great people.
What’s a typical day like for you?
6am: Wake up and try to get anything done online that I can.
9am: Break for breakfast, whether it’s local or western depends on my mood.
10am: Start at Chôm Chôm, prepping and getting everything in order in the kitchen.
12pm: Do some paperwork or jump on my laptop to review any upcoming projects or events for the restaurant.
1pm: Exercising is important to me; around this time you’ll find me at Pure Fitness.
2pm: Grab lunch, usually Japanese food because of how light and healthy it is post-workout.
3pm – 4pm: This is personal time for me, when I can get things done outside of the kitchen until I need to get ready for service.
5pm – 10/11pm: Service at Chôm Chôm; I’ll be in the kitchen and running the pass.
11pm: After work, I either go home and talk to my friends in the States, grab a quick drink or try a new restaurant.
Which restaurants do you recommend in Hong Kong?
My favourites are Hotal Colombo, Samsen and Cafe Seasons. Hotal Colombo has amazing Sri Lankan food. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I had dinner at Hotal Colombo and met Chef Gizzy [Gisela Alesbrook]. I’d never tried Sri Lankan food before; now I go there every week.
Whenever I’m in Wan Chai, I try to go to Samsen. Chef Adam and his crew serve amazing Thai food. I order the Thai boat noodle soup to eat in and the stir-fried wagyu rice and egg dish to go.
Cafe Seasons is my favourite breakfast place, and you’ll find me there two to four times a week. They have the perfect eggs that I love to eat with SPAM or ham; I recommend adding a little chili oil and white pepper (112-114 Wellington Street, Central, +852 3594 6612).
How does working for a Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong compare to working for one in New York City?
Both cities have thriving Vietnamese food scenes. The biggest difference for me is that when I was in NYC going to Vietnam was a yearly trip but working in Hong Kong, I can make this journey much more easily. Now it’s a goal for me to go monthly.
What are some of your favourite places to visit in Vietnam? And how does travel influence your cooking?
Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Da Lat each hold a special place in my heart. I love Ho Chi Minh City because it’s where I was born. I have memories – so young the memories feel like a dream – of my dad bringing me to school on his scooter. I’d cry because I didn’t want to go; I just wanted to spend more time with my family.
When I was growing up in the States, we didn’t talk much about the north outside of the fact that there was a war. I didn’t know much about the food culture in Hanoi, but over the years I learned small bits and pieces. My dad was from a small town outside of Hanoi and his relatives are still there, so each time I return, I have family to spend time with and show me the best places to eat. We eat at 8 to 10 restaurants in a day because they know that’s how much I love food.
On my last trip to Vietnam, I went to Da Lat up in the mountain region. They have the best produce I’ve ever seen across Vietnam, and it reminded me so much of California. Everything was fresh and vibrant.
With each trip back to Vietnam I become a better chef and, I believe, a better person. I get to travel to different cities and try the local flavours first-hand, which helps me understand each dish and how I recreate it and make it my own.
Chôm Chôm is part of Hong Kong’s Black Sheep Restaurants group, which recently partnered with Cathay Pacific to spice up inflight meals for all passengers.