At one point in my life, I was certain I would move to Europe, train to become a world-renowned chef, and return to the states to open up a trendy new Italian joint with the perfect balance of elegance and hipster edginess to entice the masses.
Then I learned what it actually took to be a chef, and I decided to go after a more supporting role in food service. What many people don’t realize is that executive chefs have to spend as much time planning menus as they do managing employees — a hugely important part of their job that often goes unnoticed by guests.
One of the most extraordinary executive chefs I’ve met during my years with Bon Appétit is Jenny Nguyen at Reed College in Portland, OR. Small in stature, Jenny nevertheless commands the kitchen with a fierceness and passion I can only describe as the perfect combination of the best qualities belonging to Giada de Laurentiis and Gordon Ramsay. Jenny, unlike many chefs who have big egos and an addiction to micro-management, is so committed to helping her staff succeed, grow, and develop that she is more often than not hiding behind the scenes letting her Sous Chef or Line Cook steal the show!
I sat down with Jenny to learn more about what led her to this role and what she enjoys most about being a chef for Bon Appétit.
Claire: How did you get into this line of work?
Jenny: I started cooking when I was 21 in college. After college I moved back to Portland and attended culinary school while working in small fine-dining restaurants around town. This experience eventually landed me a job with Bon Appétit at a corporate campus in Portland. After 10 years, I am proud to be still with the company.
What’s the best part of your work?
The people first and foremost are the highlight of the job; from the folks behind the counter to the folks in the dish room. The sense of team and oneness is truly amazing. When we say we are part of the Bon Appétit family, we really mean family. Then the food, of course.
What’s your favorite thing to cook?
When I’m at home, I love to cook the foods I grew up with, like pork and egg hotpot with caramel sauce or Vietnamese egg pancakes. I am also a sucker for breakfast food, so I am known to eat an omelet for dinner every now and again.
What’s the neatest (or most unusual) dish you learned about while at Bon Appétit?
I used to work with James Pirsch, who was really into experimenting with food in all the most creative ways. There was one day where he made bacon powder, sweet-pea caviar, and freeze-dried yams for dinner. It blew my mind!
Which of Bon Appétit’s sustainability commitments means the most to you personally, and why?
Farmworkers rights is probably the most important sustainability commitment to me personally. I think that Bon Appétit has made great strides in food and opening our customers’ (and competitors’) eyes to the biggest issues of the food world to date. But I think that by raising awareness of farmworker issues, we’re taking our values and commitments to a whole new level by showing the world not only the importance of food but the importance of people. And when we are changing lives and improving policy for families across the country, I think that is more important than any one food-related issue.
What famous person would you most like to share a meal with?
I would love to sit down and have a brunch with Gandhi. I just want to see how he views food, cuisine, desire… So much of what we enjoy about our jobs is based on desire to create and to enjoy. I would love to hear what his thoughts on my passion for food and cooking are.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
In my free time I love to play basketball, garden, go out to eat, explore Portland and the beautiful areas surrounding us. I also like to watch movies, go to shows, and lounge around in my PJs.
What’s one food you can’t live without?
I couldn’t live without rice. I love rice. I could eat rice for every meal for every day. Forever.