Interview #9 – Chef Jimmy Lê

What do you do?
The Other Chef – A food stand at the Hillsboro Farmers Market.

What other services do you provide? We offer culinary classes with Collective Kitchen (located in Hillsboro, OR), catering, and professional knife sharpening services for the local community.

How long have you been cooking? 
Professionally, 15 years. Total, 18 years.

Who/What inspired you to become a chef?
On Saturday mornings growing up, my grandfather would take me to the New Orleans East Vietnamese Farmers market to show me how to shop and I sometimes get a treat when I helped him with the groceries. I would either get a banh mi (Vietnamese Po Boy style sandwich) or a Vietnamese iced coffee. Instead of watching cartoons, I grew up watch Chef Paul Prudhomme, Julia Child, the Great Chefs series, and Justin Wilson. That was apart of my “education” my parents would say. When returning from hurricane Katrina, I told my mother I wanted to be a chef, she told me “being a cook is a poor man’s job” which stuck with me to this day. I thrive to prove her wrong, and thus far, she hasn’t been right.

What is your cooking style & where did it come from?
My cooking style is kinda all over the place. I grew up eating Asian food, but learned how to make a great gumbo or bake a awesome carrot cake from mom. When I was on active duty with the US Army, I was exposed to many regional cuisines and learn from a lot of the soldier’s go-to recipes. If you really want to pinpoint a style I would call it “Locally sourced with Asian flavors using classical technique. “

Were your parents good cooks growing up?
Mom was a great cook – she even pops up once and a while in the greater New Orleans area. My dad is a good cook as well, I got my hard knocks from him when I was working at his corner store in the lower 9th ward. The real cook in the family was my grandfather, when he cooks, everyone does everything else. No one questions him.

If your weren’t a chef, what would you do for a living?
I would be a life long soldier (Army) or I might have even followed my dream to play professional soccer.

Where was your first restaurant job? What did you do?
When I evacuated to Dallas, TX, due to hurricane Katrina, I worked as a opening team member for Zea’s Woodfire Grill. I was also trained as a prep/grill cook and helped with back waiting tables as needed. I truly loved the job. It’s what enticed me to attend culinary school in NOLA once the city got back on it’s feet.

What is your most memorable kitchen disaster?
I recall my dishwasher mistakenly throwing out all of my perfectly cooked vegetables, shrimp, and pasta for my station… all 80 pounds of it… I had to re-prep everything in 1 hour…. Luckily, my dishwasher could peel vegetables and shrimp like a champ (A. because he felt bad, and B. I trained him for moments like that.)

Have you ever pulled a prank on a coworker in the kitchen?
I told a brand new cook to finely chop the flour so we can dust it on fish. It took him over 2 hours and 10 lbs of flour to realized it was a prank.. We still laugh about that one.

How do you unwind after work?
I’m a gamer so I play online games. Sometimes a beer to calm down after a [stressful] night service. I always try make time for myself post shift to reflect on what happened during the shift, what could I do to make it better/safer, and the guest happier.

Do you have any pet peeves?

So many! Show up at least 10-15 minutes early, show up with your gear, clean and serviceable, always willing to learn more, and finally, check your attitude and leave your outside life out of my kitchen, we have enough drama in house, we don’t want more…

Do you eat well when you’re not at work?
I actually do now. I try my best to eat well because we taste so much fat, salt, and sugar at work. When I do cook at home I usually do something like a braise or a soup. Something that takes a while to develop flavors. Eggs are something common I cook at home in the morning before work or even when I get off work..

When you’re off, what is your favorite restaurant to eat at?
So many to say…When I was in NOLA, I loved Taceaux Loceaux (a love,uptown food truck), I’m also a fan of cheap eats or places with a great happy hour – Luke, District Donuts, Mondo, and The Butcher. Here in Portland, I love Tan Tan in Beaverton, a good bowl of ramen, Pine St. Market, or City Slicker’s Philly cheesesteak (from a food cart in the Sellwood area in SE Portland.)

Favorite dish you’ve ever made? Why?
Without a doubt – my Korean Pork Banh Mi. It took me years to develop the flavor and my Chef (Troy Deano) and Owner (Chase Lyons), who I worked with at City Pork Deli in Baton Rouge, LA, loved the sandwich so much that they put it on the menu as a special on Mondays! Now It is the most popular item we sell at the markets.

Favorite ingredient to work with?

Really, anything local & in season, like mushrooms, berries, greens, in Portland, or locally sourced proteins in New Orleans, like crawfish, oysters, crab, Chappapeela pork and duck out of Amite, or Louisiana style wagyu beef from West Monroe. I’ve always loved to forge for wild herbs, fungus, and berries. It is like hitting the jackpot every time.

Favorite & least favorite favorite food trend?
My favorite is small plates, locally sourced produce, & meal prep services like “Blue Apron”. My least favorite is the junk public schools give as a school lunch… it’s horrible and I wish the local government or school district would do something about it. Also, Gluten free, vegan diets gets on my nerves but people are listening to their bodies because GMOs are everywhere. Finally, people are eating way too much fat, salt, and sugar… It causes so many health concerns.

Is the increased interest in celebrity chefs good or bad for the industry?
It’s a double edged sword… Before Food Network, people rarely knew about chefs. No one knew that it was hard work, long hours, not so great wages, and you can forget nights and holidays with family and friends… Now some of these chefs are like rock stars. My only issue is that culinary schools pounce on these kids out of high school and pay all these high tuition rates not to mention living quarters to ensure these kids are in debt just like their professional career counterparts (lawyers, doctors, etc.)

What upsets me the most is that these schools would tell them they can be a head chef right out of school, or make lots of money and be famous upon graduating. We are in a generation that we want stuff now and fast; however, it takes time to become a great cook, then eventually a chef. I hope this alerts kids who are in high school or college students who are looking for a career change – to look at every school and see if you can afford to go. This is why I like programs like ProStart – high school level students get a taste of what is expected of them when they want to go to culinary school.

Finally, the wage gap between a restaurant server and the cook needs to be smaller… it’s not fair for a server to walk out with $200-$400 a night because he/she served wine, upsold on a few entrees’, and included dessert, when the cook in the back is like federal minimum wage, or slightly higher, working over 10 or more hours.

What is the most essential item in your kitchen?
A sharp, serviceable knife, and a great palette.

Favorite chef to work with?
I have so many – some that had a huge impact in my career and others that I look up to because they are so much more knowledgeable. Some are – in no order – Troy Deano, Susan Spicer, Lazone Randoulph, Luis Marin, and the late Quan Tran.

Who do you look up to?
My parents and grandfather.

If you were to die tomorrow, what would be your last meal?

Something that takes a long time to make. My mother’s Pho, Sushi, a bowl of Ramen, or Eggs Hussarde. And I would make it… got to make it right before I go… one… last… time


Anything exciting happening?

I’m looking to expand my food stand business to maybe a food truck. In our off season, I am working with a winery to provide a charcuterie program to added value to their tasting room. I still try to mentor students in Portland and in New Orleans/Baton Rouge area when I can. Also, I am looking into providing a meal service for senior veterans. I have always wanted to do this to give back to those who have served.

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