Chef Johnny Hoang of BLUESEA San Jose
Cooking from your heart, head and stomach
San Jose often gets overlooked as a culinary destination. In the shadow of San Francisco, the gastronomical happenings of the South Bay don’t always get the credit they deserve. BLUESEA is one of these places. This North San Jose seafood haven is dishing out inspired creations from both land and sea. We’re talking fresh off the boat delicacies, from abalone, to geoduck and lobster pho with a whole lobster!
Chef Hoang’s imaginative approach to food was born from humble beginnings. Hoang began cooking as a young boy out of necessity to feed his family, but soon turned it into a passion. Today he is reinventing traditional Vietnamese dishes and making a name as one of the best restaurants San Jose has to offer.
EF: So when did you know you know you wanted to become a chef?
Chef Hoang (CH): Ever since I was little, I would say at the age of 10. I was interested in cooking. I grew up in a small town in Vietnam, and at the time I was 7, my younger sisters were 5 and the youngest was 3 months old. Both my parents were working and after school I had to take care of them. The first thing that I started cooking was just rice and veggies, something simple and easy to prepare for my age at the time. As I got older I became more risky, used more ingredients in the kitchen and then my cooking evolved to what I’m creating now.
EF: Can you talk about that evolution?
CH: I just kind of put the pieces together as we go. I didn’t plan to get big at first, to be honest with you. I mean I found the place, did some renovations and new ideas would come to me every day. Then I just put it in motion. Then when we opened, with the menu… we just kept adding things and changed it as we went/ We’re changing every day, still looking for the perfect combination.
CH: My philosophy is you can use any type of ingredients to make and create a dish. It’s based on creativity. Be creative and cook the way you imagine. You don’t have to read books or even go to school to be a chef. There are great chefs out there that never went to culinary school. I never went to culinary school. I had to find it. You have to find it here (points to head), here (points to heart), and here (points to gut) and follow your feeling. You can throw me a couple ingredients and I can make it become a dish. Creativity is the key.
EF: What do you love about your job?
CH: I’ll come up with something new, a new dish. Then I’ll just serve it to a customer make them my guinea pig, and then I receive the feedback and the greatest thing is when they come back with, “Wow, this is Amazing!” I try to give everyone a different experience. I love when my customers love the food and the dishes make them excited and happy.
EF: What cooking trends are you seeing today and what are you excited about?
CH: Today we live in a culture with many cultures mixing together and there is great diversity. It’s not like cooking something traditional with that traditional taste. I’ll change it to what we call fusion, where everyone can eat it. I’ll take an old dish and I tweak it a little and make it something different; make it my own. It’s about creating something new.
EF: What is your signature dish?
CH: I would say my Pho Lobster. The Pho Lobster is a huge hit. I have people calling in saying they’ve seen it online and on facebook, calling to say, “Hey, I NEED to make a reservation and I want to put an order in for ten lobster pho.” But, it’s nowhere on my menu. Reason why I make that my signature dish is because when people think of my restaurant BLUESEA, they think of Pho Lobster; and when they think of Pho Lobster they think of BLUESEA and all the great things we have on the menu. I want to be the first one you know.
EF: What’s an unforgettable moment that has happened in your cooking career?
CH: Unforgettable moments for me actually happen every day. All my life I was working; not just in my cooking career. I was in finance at one time. I thought of starting a restaurant to be more involved with family, to be with my mom. It’s not just about the career. It’s not just about the restaurant. It’s about sharing the moment with her. You know, she’s getting old and it’s about sharing the moments I know that I cannot have one day, when she passes away. To me it’s right now, and that’s the unforgettable moment.
CH: I eat here, because I’m proud of my food, I love my food. For lunch or dinner. I just jump into the kitchen and create something new to test it out. That’s my lunch and dinner.
EF: If you could cook or dine with anyone who would that be?
CH: I would say my parents, I mean without them I wouldn’t be here today…I’m very proud.
EF: What would your last meal wish be?
CH: One last meal, wow…that’s a great question. I’ve tried everything I can think of, but I would say my last meal would be something simple. Go back to my culture, maybe it would be a bowl of rice with a clay pot of fish. Take it back to the time I grew up…nothing fancy.
EF: What do you want people to take away from your restaurant?
CH: I want my customers to feel like this is their second home. I want them to be comfortable. When they leave, I want them to say “WOW”! The service has to be the best. I want them to leave and say that they NEED to come back.
EF: Any last words for aspiring chefs?
CH: All I can say is, anybody can cook. You don’t have to go to school, you don’t have to be taught by anyone; you just have to put things together and if it’s not working, you can just change it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes by putting ingredients together. You can use simple ingredients and make a dish phenomenal. All you have to do is try, because anybody can cook.
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