Originally from Son Tay, a small rural town outside Hanoi, Nguyen Ba Phuoc spent much of his childhood cooking with his family, but never imagined that he would one day become one of Vietnam’s top chefs of Japanese cuisine.
In 2016, Phuoc was awarded a full scholarship by Hokuto Bunka Academy in Hokkaido, Japan and became a student of its cooking faculty the same year.
One year later, he was honored as one of the ten most excellent residents living in the city of Muroran for his achievements in studying Japan's traditional cuisine and promoting Vietnamese cuisine there as well.
In 2020, Vietnamese Ambassador to Japan Vu Hong Nam presented a certificate of merit to Phuoc for his outstanding contribution to the Vietnamese community in Hokkaido.
Phuoc has also become a coordinator for the Traditional Japanese Culinary Research Association.
A 'wild child'
Phuoc was never an all-star student.
Even now, long after graduation many of his teachers still remember him as a "wild child who couldn’t sit still long enough to take in a lesson."
In fact, his scores were so low that he was not able to attend a public high school and was instead placed in a complementary education school – an outcome that shamed his parents.
During his formative years, Phuoc’s dream was to turn his reputation as a class clown into a full-time profession by following in the footsteps of his idols – locally famous comedians Xuan Bac and Tu Long.
“I always try my best to make people around me laugh and feel comfortable,” Phuoc said.
Phuoc’s dream of making it big as a comedian was shattered when he failed the entrance exam to the Hanoi Academy of Theater and Cinema and had to figure out what his next steps in life would be.
Around that time, his father offered him a piece of advice that would forever change his life.
“You’d better learn to cook,” his father suggested.
For years Phuoc had cooked for his family. Though he had always enjoyed feeding his mother and father, he never once thought about a career in the kitchen.
Still, with no other options in front of him, Phuoc left Son Tay and headed to Hanoi to enroll in culinary school.
A lesson in Japanese spirit
Phuoc’s first experience with Japanese food came during an internship where he worked as a server at a Japanese restaurant.
At the time, the Vietnamese capital city was home to just a few Japanese restaurants.
“Each day they asked me if I’d keep coming back for work,” Phuoc shared.
“Many servers who had worked there before me had left because of the owner’s strict rules.
"It was a culture for many, but not to me.”
According to Phuoc, it is his background as a rural villager that prepared him for restaurant life.
“As a farmer by nature, I am not afraid of hard work and unpleasant tasks, like cleaning floors and wiping grease,” he explained, adding that it made him more uncomfortable to do nothing than to do something difficult.
Between the two years he spent working at the restaurant and a Japanese cuisine exhibition held at the capital’s Nikko Hotel which showcased the beauty and thought put into each of Japan’s dishes, Phuoc grew a tremendous passion for Japanese food.
Following his new dream, Phuoc quit his job and enrolled in a Japanese class, hoping it would prepare him to travel to Japan and study the country’s cuisine.
Overcoming culture shock
Phuoc’s tenacity earned him a scholarship to study the culinary arts at the Hokuto Bunka Academy in Japan.
“I went to Hokkaido," Phuoc said.
"There weren’t many Vietnamese students there at the time and I was the only non-Japanese student in my class.”
|Nguyen Ba Phuoc prepares dishes at the cooking school at the Hokuto Bunka Academy in 2017 in this supplied photo.|
One of the biggest challenges for Phuoc was the language barrier.
Despite reaching a level of Japanese proving his ability to understand the language in daily situations, it was difficult for him to adjust to the local culture and bond with his classmates.
“The Japanese didn’t like to speak English and they were also hesitant to talk to foreigners," he recalled.
"This made it very difficult to engage with them at school."
Hoping to overcome the language and culture barriers he faced, Phuoc set about improving his Japanese language command and brushing up on the country’s culture, history, and institutions.
His hard work paid off two years later with a culinary degree in traditional Japanese cuisine – one of his school's most difficult subjects.
“In Japan, traditional food refers to cuisines that were served just one time only to the royals," said Phuoc.
"There are instances where no amount of money can buy a traditional dish.”
Slowly, that is changing.
Over the past few decades, Japan’s traditional restaurants have begun opening themselves to the general public, exposing the masses to food once reserved for royalty.
“When you go to a traditional Japanese cuisine restaurant, you not only enjoy dishes there but you also have the opportunity to enjoy a typical Japanese space inside the restaurant and the unique service experience offered by the staff," he said.
"The food is just about 40 percent of the experience.”
|Nguyen Ba Phuoc prepares dishes before the Lunar New Year holiday in 2019 in Hanoi in this supplied photo.|
Dreaming of a day of return
With such an outstanding academic record from culinary school, Phuoc was able to secure a job in Tokyo but was quickly laid off after the country was hit by COVID-19.
He then picked up a part-time job as a porter at a local market in order to afford rent while he continues his job hunt.
He did not have to wait long for a stroke of luck.
Within just a few weeks, a larger restaurant than the first offered him a job.
Now, after nearing his dream of conquering Japan’s traditional culinary scene, Phuoc has begun to set his sights on a new dream: returning to his homeland to help build Vietnam’s Japanese food ecosystem.
Though it will take several more years of experience before he is ready to return to Vietnam, the cook has already set the wheels in motion by using the Internet to begin creating a network of like-minded chefs who share his ideas.
He also holds online seminars for such individuals to exchange knowledge, skills, and experiences relating to traditional Japanese cuisine.
He has helped eight young people in the last three years gain the opportunity to travel to Japan.
“As long as they really love cooking, I will try my best to help anyone,” said Phuoc.
|Nguyen Ba Phuoc with a dish of sweet and sour pork ribs in a photo taken in 2019|