Letter From New York: Top Chef Goes Kosher
To earn his title as TV’s reigning Top Chef, Hung Huynh had to face down a new cooking challenge every week. With big-name judges second-guessing each move, and millions watching at home, Hung re-invented classic dishes with limited ingredients and created entire three-course meals on the spot. All of it, he admits, merely prepared him for his greatest test yet: keeping kosher.
“This is something I never thought I would do,” he says. “Never. My first thought was, ‘Damn, I can’t use pork belly or shellfish.’”
Since early March, Hung has been posted as guest executive chef at Solo, possibly New York’s most critically acclaimed—and most expensive—kosher restaurant. Since opening in 2005, the Mediterranean-Asian fusion bistro has been fighting kosher stereotypes with an arsenal of flattering reviews, celebrity sightings, and dishes like Yellow Fin Tuna Carpaccio and Maple Glazed Duck with Savory Chestnut Sausages.
Still, when Steven Traube, Solo’s managing partner and “a huge fan” of the hit Bravo show, first approached Hung about the offer, he knew it was something of a long shot. “If you look at his five favorite ingredients, each one is less kosher than the one before,” Traube says of the Vietnamese-born chef, 30, who speaks four languages and fuses Asian, French, and even Spanish techniques into his repertoire. “But I told him it would be like a new Top Chef challenge every day.”
Within the bounds of kashrut, Hung is free to try any dish he wants, and he can request whatever ingredients he needs—though finding purveyors of, say, heckshered coconut milk or tamarind paste has been tricky. “An outsider might think, ‘Hey, that stuff’s pretty kosher,’” Hung shrugs. “But it has to have the little symbol.”
So he has been keeping it simple—“My idea of kosher food is taking natural ingredients and making it taste good without adding any funny stuff,” he says—bringing out flavor with the classic techniques he learned at the Culinary Institute of America and honed at houses of haute cuisine like New York’s Per Se and Guy Savoy in Las Vegas.
Of course, “simple” might not conjure up visions of Pan Roasted Sweetbreads with Black Truffle, Carrots, and Citrus Honey Glaze or Lemon Grass & Cilantro Baked Wild Striped Bass with Baby Bok Choy, Tomatoes, and Teriyaki Glaze, just two of the new dishes Hung has been adding to the menu at a rate of one every other day. He heavily favors fish and the Asian flavors he first discovered in his mother’s kitchen. When he couldn’t find kosher-certified tamarind paste, he ordered fresh tamarind and made it himself.
“It shows a higher level of talent to be able to work within these limits,” Traube says. “A lot of chefs can’t do it. They’re not creative enough to be able to make amazing food without having all the tricks that make it easier—you know, without being able to cook steak in butter.”
In the back of the house, minutes before Solo opens for lunch, Hung darts from station to station, checking in with his prep cooks and sous chef. The only thing to distinguish this from any high-end kitchen, besides the complete lack of milk products, is the rabbi, casually clad in khakis and kipah, one of two from the Orthodox Union who patrol the premises at all times. Hung says now he doesn’t even notice them: “I just do my thing.” (“Hung—he’s a nice guy,” says one of the rabbis, who asked that his name not be used.)
Since Hung took over, business has increased dramatically—Traube claims about 20 percent are “a younger, hipper ‘Hung’ crowd”—and Solo turns away hopeful diners every night. “A lot of our customers are repeat customers, and I love hearing how they appreciate the new approaches I bring,” Hung says, “and it’s only getting better as I get the hang of it. Now I know: Kosher food is not boiled eggs and boiled chicken. It’s great food.”
Hung says his great ambition is to open his own seafood restaurant (and, yes, get back to some of his beloved shellfish), but his work here is not yet done. Just last week, he extended his contract by a few months to help revamp the menus at Solo and at Prime Grill, the high-end kosher steak-and-sushi houses that Traube’s group also owns, with locations in New York and Los Angeles. In so doing, the Top Chef has agreed to take on an even greater culinary challenge, one that has been testing the resolve of kosher culinary artists and Jewish mothers alike for millennia: Passover.
“All I know is that he is interested in trying a new take on matzo balls,” Traube says. “I just gave him his first-ever matzo meal to play with, so we’ll see what happens.”