The first Let's Dish article, published in September 2017, featured Umami Japanese Bistro's executive chef and owner Cong Nguyen. So, it feels like I'm coming full circle in my final contribution to this column by wanting to highlight Michelle Huynh, one of Nguyen's former understudies.
I've made a difficult decision to pursue new opportunities in New Orleans, sadly making this my last Let's Dish. The purpose of this regular column has always been to spotlight some of the amazing talent in Baton Rouge's culinary community, and through it, I'm grateful to have met many wonderful business owners, chefs and entrepreneurs.
I met Huynh when she was a sushi chef at Umami. We started following each other on Instagram. Recently, I noticed posts with homemade Japanese cheesecake, Hokkaido-style sausage bread and other baked delicacies. Huynh, who is originally from Lafayette and has also lived in New Orleans, recently started her own business, EM's Bakery (@emsbakery.br on Instagram). To place an order, customers message Huynh, she bakes her items from scratch, and then arranges delivery.
I couldn't resist sampling the entire EM's Bakery menu. The texture of the Japanese cheesecake (also known as cotton cheesecake) is light and airy — not as dense or overly sweet as a traditional Western-style cheesecake.
Led by head chef/owner Cong Nguyen, Umami Japanese Bistro has set itself apart with its inventive and contemporary culinary approach to sushi.
Huynh’s take on sausage bread is slightly different from the typical ones you may find at the local Asian market. She uses Hokkaido milk bread, which gives it a slight sweetness that balances out the saltiness from the sausage and toppings.
“I am a giant fan of umami that comes out when you roast tomatoes, so I added that extra boost of flavor," Huynh said. She then tops off the sausage bread with scallion oil.
In this edition of Let’s Dish, Huynh talks about her passion for learning and baking and the dreams of opening her own bakery and restaurant.
Where did your passion for food and cooking come from?
It started when I moved to New Orleans and started working as a server at Kin. Kin is a ramen restaurant, but when I was working there about three years ago, they had a special dinner menu. The menu that they had at the time had all these ingredients that I've never heard of before. It was literally like a whole new world for me. Like, what the heck were chanterelle mushrooms and how do I pronounce crème fraîche? I discovered that there was so much that I had to learn about all these kinds of food and ingredients.
When I moved back to Baton Rouge and became a sushi chef, I became interested in the idea of opening up my own kaiseki restaurant one day. Kaiseki dining serves multi-course Japanese cuisine. I just love the fact that food can be delicious and look beautiful.
What does the term "chef" mean to you? Do you consider yourself a chef?
To me, the term "chef" is a title that you have to earn in a restaurant or get certified for by going to culinary school. I'm not sure how it works but I definitely don't consider myself a chef. Even when I was a sushi chef I didn't consider myself a chef. I've only worked as a line cook at Chow Yum Phat and Gov't Taco. I am someone who likes to cook and is very interested in all kinds of food, but that doesn't make me a chef. I am a home baker now and still don't know what kind of qualifications it takes to become an actual baker.
What was the hardest thing about your first job in your culinary career?
Umami was my first job where I actually had to work with the food. The hardest thing was trying to prove myself that I could be just as good as the guys there. The head sushi chef, Cong, always believed in me and gave me a lot of praise, though. He was the one who asked me if I wanted to become a sushi chef so that was where my passion for food evolved. I remember him telling me that one day I will be successful.
What advice would you give others pursuing a culinary career?
I would advise others wanting to pursue a culinary career to meditate their mind before starting their shift. There's a lot of uncertainties that will happen during your shift and you have to prepare mentally for it. You won't know for sure when you'll be swamped or backed up on prep work. Try to get prep work out of the way before that lunch or dinner rush shows up. Stay focused for when that line of people come or that giant ticket comes through the printer. The more focused you are, the more you can streamline your movements and thoughts.
In the kitchen you are part of a team so when you see someone struggling or in need of help then you help them. Also, I would recommend investing in a good chef's knife, since they have versatile use, and learning how to keep it sharp. Even the most expensive knife will become dull.
What do you have coming up in 2019 and 2020?
There are so many things I'm planning for this year and next. I started my business mid-July so I am still very new to my new life. My menu is very small but focused right now, but I do plan on expanding it once I have the equipment and recipes down. I plan on doing pop-up bakeries and attending farmers markets in Baton Rouge and New Orleans for more exposure.
I already have someone who wants to buy my bread loaves in bulk for their restaurant so that's really exciting. For right now I plan on just baking out of home for a few years before I can afford my own brick and mortar. My final plan is to open a bakery that also serves breakfast and transition the restaurant into an Izakaya style of dining for dinner. Izakaya style dining is more of a sit and drink type of place with a small menu.
If you can eat one dish from a Baton Rouge restaurant for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
I would eat the tempura udon from Sushi Yama everyday if I could. I love having soup as part of my meal and the tempura udon is the perfect combination for that. The soup is light, the udon is slurpable, the tempura comes with variety and is hot and crispy.