Beat Bobby Flay? No problem — at least if you’re Vuong Loc, executive chef of SODO Kitchen at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, who also manages to find time to run the restaurants Pomerol and ChinaPie.
Filmed in front of a live audience, the show features two rounds of fast-paced cooking challenges. In the first round, two chefs cook head-to-head with only 20 minutes to create a dish featuring an ingredient of Iron Chef Bobby Flay’s choosing. The first-round winner then has a chance to “beat Bobby Flay” with only 45 minutes to cook his signature dish.
Vuong faced off against New York–based chef Ian Alvarez. As soon as the theme ingredient, red snapper, was revealed, the chefs sprang into action. “The timing is tough and the competition is real,” says Vuong. “We walked through the kitchen only 15 minutes beforehand, so there was no time to plan.” Vuong made a red snapper crudo with watercress and crispy fish-fin salad. His technique of deep-frying the fish fins added texture to the salad and impressed the judges, and his creative use of the whole fish combined with the balanced flavors of acid and salt ultimately gave him the upper hand in round one.
For the second round, Vuong selected chicken pho to cook against Bobby. “Pho is something I grew up eating; I’ve made it thousands of times,” Vuong explained on the show as he began to prep his broth, charring ginger and onions before adding them to a pot of simmering chicken stock along with star anise and pork belly for extra depth. “The broth of the pho is the soul of the dish.” For the hot and sweet elements, Vuong hand-ground a chili sauce of ginger, red Thai chilis, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, and rock sugar in his mother’s mortar and pestle, which he had brought with him to the show.
Bobby admitted that Vietnamese cooking is out of his comfort zone, so he took a risk with an untraditional twist by topping his pho with crispy fried chicken. The judges loved the flavor of Bobby’s fried chicken, but they were equally impressed with Vuong’s presentation, and thought his noodles were perfectly cooked. What ultimately proved to be the deciding factor was the balance and depth of flavor of the broth.
The judges unanimously voted in favor of Vuong’s pho, ending Bobby’s three-episode winning streak. “Chicken pho is definitely the hardest battle I’ve ever done,” said Bobby.
As he was announced the winner, Vuong said he felt a sense of pride for his family, and he was proud to have won by cooking a dish so close to his heart. “Pho has been a huge part of my life,” he says. “I grew up in Michigan, only eating pho at home. Now I live in a city that has more pho places than burger restaurants!” He certainly made his family, Bon Appétit, and Seattle proud.