In Search Of The Sous Chef: Who Are The Cooks In The Shadow Of The Chefs?

It’s the chef who gets all the acclaim. They’re, rightfully, regarded as the soul of the kitchen. But, that’s an incomplete truth. Standing just outside the spotlight is the sous chef. And without them outstanding kitchens usually don’t work.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

To explore the underside of the industry, we set out to find three sous chefs across the country. At Botea Woodfire in Dalat, we spoke to chef, owner and sommelier Vinh Tran about the impact sous chef Quang Loc has had since joining in 2022. At Esta Restaurant, in Saigon, we met Sous Chef Long Cuong who’s risen from chef de partie to his current position in the three years that the restaurant has been open. And at Khói Restaurant Hanoi we discovered Chef George Bloomfield doesn’t have a sous chef. But he does have exacting requirements as he searches for one for his newly opened restaurant. 

Chef-Owner Vinh Tran And Sous Chef Quang Loc – Botea Woodfire Restaurant Dalat 

Still only 28-years-old, Chef Quang Loc has amassed a formidable resume already. Having worked in everything from neighborhood restaurants to high-end resorts, Quang Loc first met the founder of Botea, Vinh Tran in 2017. And five years later, he finally went to join him at his highly-regarded wood-fired kitchen in Dalat. 

When Botea opened in 2015, it was the first restaurant in Dalat to offer set menus only. Added to that, they were pioneers in introducing premium imported Wagyu beef, using dry-aging techniques, and cooking on a wood-fired hearth. There, Vinh Tran acts as executive chef, sommelier and owner – and so, understandably, he can’t dedicate all his time to the kitchen. 

Chef-owner Vinh Tran and sous chef Quang Loc at Botea Woodfire Restaurant Dalat.

How important was it for you to find a sous chef like Quang Loc? And what impact has it had since he joined?

Vinh Tran: First of all, the role of sous chef, for me, is important to the successful daily operations of any restaurant, big or small. There’s a fine line between what Quang Loc does daily and what an actual chef would do. There’s simply hundreds of small tasks that need to be completed to help ensure the concept, direction and even ingredients laid down by the executive chef are executed well. 

Having the right sous chef allows a sense of freedom. Since Quang Loc arrived in our wood-fired kitchen, it has given me a feeling of trust. I believe he can handle the day-to-day operations, and that allows me to do more research and development. 

In the industry, the sous chef is seen as the ‘arm’ while the chef is the ‘brain’. Do you agree with that?

Quang Loc: I think that’s generally true. But, in my opinion, besides being the arm, the sous chef must also be a companion and sounding board, a contributor, and sometimes a stand-in for the chef. When a sous chef and executive chef are aligned and working towards the same goals, the results can be incredible. 

For aspiring sous chefs, what are the three most important skills they’ll need?

Quang Loc: It’s a seemingly glamorous industry. Of course, young people dream of becoming a top chef – with all the acclaim that brings. But, it’s helpful to break that down into smaller goals. Becoming a sous chef is one of those. 

Besides that, I think there are three skills that are essential: planning, leadership, and constant creative thinking. Develop those, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a success. 

“The sous chef must also be a companion and sounding board, a contributor, and sometimes a stand-in for the chef.” — Quang Loc

Sous Chef Long Cuong – Esta Restaurant 

27-year-old Sous Chef Long Cuong has already been a chef for seven years. And he’s garnered some early acclaim.

He won first prize in the Future Chef competition in 2020, and the Future Chef and ProChef competitions the following year. At Esta Restaurant, which is now 3-years-old, the product-focused cuisine emphasizes terroir, or the soil which nurtures and gives the ingredients their flavor. Then, at Esta Restaurant they’re cooked on an open fire and infused with Asian flavors. Sous Chef Long Cuong has been along for the  whole journey at Esta, starting out as chef de partie, before ascending to his current role. 

Long Cuong [third from right] with the team at Esta.

For you, what does a sous chef typically do?

Long Cuong: There’s a lot of people management involved. You have to assign tasks. Doing that fairly helps to keep staff motivated. It also requires the careful planning and assignment of every task for the restaurant to run successfully. And you always keep a close eye on the operations. I guess the best sous chefs anticipate problems before they happen, and solve them without a hiccup. 

Generally, sous chefs are stand-ins for the chef or executive chef. Have you ever had to step into that role and make big decisions?

Long Cuong: All decisions the sous chef makes have to be given the nod by the chef. That’s how it works. However, of course, there are times when the chef isn’t around or available. Chef Francis Thuan had committed to taking a month off in Australia, and disconnecting. By chance, we received a group booking from a major magazine accompanied by a famous chef. That was stressful. However, the team rallied around and we got through it. 

“All decisions the sous chef makes have to be given the nod by the chef. That’s how it works.” — Long Cuong

Woodfired restaurants require a special skill set. How much did you know about this style of cooking before you joined Esta? And what have you learned since then? 

Long Cuong: Woodfired cooking requires constant learning. I used to work the grill in some hotel kitchens before I joined Esta. However, when I began working here, that’s when I realized I really didn’t know much about this style of cooking. 

How would you describe your relationship with Chef Francis Thuan and what influence has he and Esta had on you so far?

Long Cuong: I think like a lot of positive working relationships I’ve not only learned a lot about the profession itself, but also about life. There’s a fraternal feeling between us. And he always has a positive outlook. And that rubs off on me and the team.

Chef George Bloomfield – Khói Restaurant Hanoi 

George Bloomfield committed to kitchen life early, starting his career as a 16-year-old. He got to work in some very successful restaurants – like Melbourne’s Rockpool Bar & Grill and Two Rooms Grill & Bar in Tokyo.

After moving to Vietnam, he took the helm at Stoker Woodfired Kitchen & Bar for five years before switching to Hanoi, and joining the T.U.N.G Group as co-founder and chef of newly opened Khói Restaurant. There, around custom-made Argentinian ovens, Chef George and the team make flavorsome Japanese yakitori and other plates of flame-licked cuisine. 

Chef George Bloomfield at the two-month-old Khói Restaurant Hanoi.

What are your plans for Khói Restaurant Hanoi?

George Bloomfield: We’ve been open for two months. We’re in the grand opening phase right now. Right now, the restaurant is only open for dinner. And we serve a concise menu. We plan to start selling lunch after the Lunar New Year with a bento menu (a Japanese-style boxed lunch). In addition, there are a number of events scheduled for next February, which promises to be a lot of fun.

And right now you’re operating without a sous chef? How hard is it to find the right person?

George Bloomfield: We’re actively recruiting a sous chef, but it’s quite difficult. The period doesn’t help – between Christmas and Tet, staff don’t tend to switch jobs. Added to that, the position of sous chef requires a candidate to fulfill far more requirements and conditions than other positions. It’s important to be patient, and find the right person for such a key position.

What benefits does a good sous chef bring to the table?

George Bloomfield: I think, as a foreign chef, the role of the sous chef is particularly important. They will directly manage and operate the kitchen. And they’ll help me communicate and train staff. In addition to that, they’ll support me in making the menu. By being part of that process, they deeply understand the requirements needed to maintain the menu daily. Not having a sous chef inevitably impacts the richness and diversity you can have on a menu. 

Not having a sous chef inevitably impacts the richness and diversity you can have on a menu.” — George Bloomfield  

Are there unique requirements for a sous chef to join a kitchen like Khói Restaurant Hanoi’s that focuses on wood-fired cuisine?

George Bloomfield: Regardless of the cooking style, effective communication is paramount. I tend to mutter a lot when I’m working so they need to help me articulate my message! Besides that, they need to be able to handle cooking in a busy, high-volume, fast-paced environment – but that’s true of working in any kitchen. Working in a wood-fired kitchen is definitely a bonus, but, to me, that’s something we can provide additional training on.

Out of all the sous chefs you’ve worked with, who impressed you the most?

George Bloomfield: Khai Truong, my former sous chef at Stoker. He was a beast. He was always enthusiastic. And always very professional. I’m not exaggerating when I say he’s the best Vietnamese chef I’ve worked with.

Nghiem Minh Duc is the Executive Chef at Nous Dine. He’s also a culinary consultant and author and writer.

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