But long before being crowned Iron Chef , Tung climbed the culinary ranks in a somewhat accidental fashion.
At age 17, he dropped out of school and followed his father to work at Ba Son shipyard. But that didn’t bring in enough to feed the family, so Tung took a part-time job as an assistant to a chef who worked weddings.
From there Tung moved on to sidewalk cafes and hotel restaurants. One fateful day, the head chef at Hai Au Hotel couldn’t come in, so Tung reluctantly filled in for his boss. His performance opened the door to a slew of restaurant promotions throughout the city.
Now featured on Iron Chef, Tung used the chance to showcase trai gac, sometimes translated as spiny bitter gourd.
“I want to show everyone that spiny bitter gourd is a Vietnamese special ingredient and we can use all parts of it,” he said on the popular cooking show.
One variant with the ingredient was “ga ac tiem tiet moc tu” (black chicken stewed with spiny bitter gourd), a dish Tung said he often cooked for his mother.
Judge and world-renowned Chinese chef Martin Yan praised Tung’s maternal homage, as well as his entire five-entreé oeuvre.
“I’ve never eaten such an interesting dish,” Yan said in the competition’s final round. “The combination between spiny bitter gourd, sticky rice, and duck is very creative. And the way you use your secret ingredients to make the soups is also awesome.”
Tung (3rd from L) receiving the highest prize of the competition
A chef of many hats
Years ago, after Tung proved himself at Hai Au Hotel, he became the place’s head chef, a job that led to other big gigs at hotels like Bong Sen, Gival, and his current employer, Golden Palace.
One of the most unforgettable periods in his career, Tung said, was cooking for Vietnamese restaurants in Tokyo and Yokohama in the early 2000s. There, Japan’s NHK channel always featured his restaurants on top 10 rankings.
Tung also teaches at the Saigon Tourism Vocational College, a place that will always remind him of his humble beginnings. Decades ago, Tung would stand outside the school’s entrance and dream that he could make enough money to attend as a student. Now, he heads up the college’s cooking department.
Below is the video featuring the final round of Iron Chef: