People 2 minutes 03 April 2020

Eating Off Duty (At Home) with Hannah Wong

During this turbulent time, chefs of MICHELIN-recommended restaurants take a break to talk to us about life in quarantine.

Eating Off Duty Chefs New York City

This week, we’re eating off duty with Chef Hannah Wong of MICHELIN Bib Gourmand Van Đa.

Chef Hannah Wong was born in South Korea and adopted when she was about a year old. She spent most of her childhood in Holmdel, a small suburban town in central New Jersey. Her adoptive father, an immigrant from Hong Kong, was as a cook at Wo Hop, a no-frills restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

“My mother worked long hours for a pharmaceutical company, so my dad was usually the one who cooked dinner every night. Looking back, those home-cooked meals are one of the things I most appreciate about my childhood,” says Wong.

But cooking wasn’t always her dream. She studied English and Biology at Williams College in the Berkshires and fell in love with academia. Wong took a year off to teach English in Hong Kong and spent time traveling in Southeast Asia and parts of China.

“That year changed the course of my life—I spent so much time experiencing new cultures through their cuisines, and became enamored of all the incredible flavors, textures, and ingredients I encountered,” she said.

When Wong moved back to the U.S., she worked for an academic publishing company, but her heart wasn’t in it. On a whim, she applied to culinary school at Johnson & Wales. Her first internship was at Daniel Boulud’s restaurant dB bistro Moderne in Midtown Manhattan, followed by stints at One-MICHELIN-Starred Gramercy Tavern.

In 2019, she opened Van Đa, a modern Vietnamese kitchen, with friend and restaurateur Yen Ngo in the East Village. “[Running my own restaurant] has been percolating in my mind for several years, but it takes many years of working in this industry to realize what kind of restaurant you actually want to run,” says Wong. Van Đa means “warrior woman” in Vietnamese. Within a year of opening, the restaurant earned its MICHELIN Bib Gourmand status.

Last month, Wong and Ngo made the difficult decision to close Van Đa due to the outbreak of Covid-19. They are not currently serving takeout or delivery, but are focusing instead on how they can support their friends in the community and care for their staff.

Before it closed, Van Đa specialized in small dishes from Hue, the former imperial city in Central Vietnam, like this turmeric branzino with dill and rice noodles. Photo courtesy of Van Đa.
Before it closed, Van Đa specialized in small dishes from Hue, the former imperial city in Central Vietnam, like this turmeric branzino with dill and rice noodles. Photo courtesy of Van Đa.

And yet—despite the current situation—Wong is working on a new restaurant in Brooklyn called Haema, a street food-inspired neighborhood restaurant, hopefully opening later this year. It will draw on Korean, Chinese, and Southeast Asian influences.

We caught up with Wong to ask her how she's feeding herself while staying safe at home in quarantine.

Assuming you have the time (and are in the right state of mind), what are you cooking at home these days?

Since I started cooking professionally, I’ve never cooked “for myself” or “at home” as much as I have this past week! Honestly, it’s been kind of refreshing to practice cooking as self-care. I’ve been making a lot of rice-based meals (bowls, congee, fried rice) and topping them with condiments and sauces I have stashed away in my pantry and fridge.

What do you always keep stocked in your pantry or refrigerator at home?

A ton of fermented products, the weirder the better. Shrimp pastes, bean pastes, chili products, pickles. Other than that, my staples are rice, eggs, butter, and wine. Sesame is one of my favorite ingredients, so I always have sesame oil on hand, and right now I have these sesame seeds coated with umeboshi powder from SOS Chefs (a specialty spice store) that I’ve happily been putting on everything. Also, my life has been so much more delicious with spices from Burlap & Barrel—specifically their turmeric and cinnamon.

What is one rule from your restaurant that you keep when cooking at home? Which one do you break?

Keep: Cleaning and seasoning as I go. Break: Striving for perfection in knife cuts.

You have only 30 minutes to pull together lunch. What do you make?

Fried rice with scallions, nori, Korean chili flakes, and a fried egg.

What is your non-food essential? Eg. What tool, appliance, or music must you have when cooking at home?

I’m pretty basic, so a cast iron or stainless steel skillet. I don’t like gadgets or fancy equipment, although I do often wish I had a vita-prep at home for those silky purees.

Hero image courtesy of Diane Kang.


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