Baleen’s Chef Hung Quan Pairs Vietnamese Tradition with Local Fare

Everything is connected.

  • Category
    Eat & Drink, People
  • Written by
    Kara Mickelson
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell

Chef Hung Quan coins his culinary philosophy as “roots to leaves,” hyper-focused on seasonal and locally harvested ingredients “to nourish our body and soul.” Over the years, he has built deep connections with trusted farmers in the community. The chef feels at home bonding and cultivating these meaningful relationships.

So it’s no surprise that he considers the Wilson Park farmers market in Torrance his “happy place.” The outdoor market experience also provides a bit of nostalgia for his Vietnamese culture and roots.

At 9 years old, Hung moved from Saigon to the United States. His father, Tan, was a prisoner of war. He was a guard at the military school and was captured, surviving on one bowl of rice daily for six years.

When the war ended, the Quan family was fortunate to be sponsored by his uncle to relocate to the United States. As a result, they did not have to endure a long and precarious ocean journey with the danger of pirates commandeering the ships in the waters off Thailand and the Philippines. Instead, the family flew out of war-torn Vietnam to the U.S.

Hung and the other family members did not speak English at the time. His dad would send notes to Hung’s elementary school after studying the dictionary. Like many immigrants, they endured because of the support of their families and a determined spirit to grow and thrive. Hung calls his dad a survivor and says, “I’m a survivor too.”

He made his first and only trip back to Vietnam in his 20s. He was 14 years older, yet the childhood memories of noodle shops, sprawling rice plantations and those amazing French baguettes strengthened his love of Vietnamese culture and its impact on his life and culinary pursuits.

He loves the outdoor markets of his home country. He speaks fondly of the fresh mangosteen, rambutan, dragon fruit, lychee, longan, the enormous guava and traditional foods like hearty, nourishing pho. And he muses about the unique Vietnamese floating water markets on the Mekong.

His cooking style is deeply influenced by his mother and grandmother—both avid cooks. His grandmother would grow herbs in her garden on a “little spot” of earth. The dinner menu was mainly vegetarian.

Once he began cooking, it wasn’t long before friends and family noticed his raw talent. His girlfriend encouraged him to attend culinary school. Hung graduated from Le Cordon Bleu school of culinary arts and today is the executive chef at The Portofino Hotel & Marina in Redondo Beach.

Being a chef requires a fair amount of grit and perseverance. Kitchen life is demanding. While you spend most of your day preparing exceptional cuisine for the masses, when it’s time to wind down the day, a package of doctored-up, spicy Korean-style Shin Ramyun noodles or a quick fried rice might be all you can muster, says Hung.

With the limited amount of time he has off, Hung strives for balance. He enjoys hiking or cooking with his daughter. She is only 7 years old yet already fond of making and eating American-style pizza with pepperoni. She enjoys helping make pasta and going to the farmers market with her dad.

Chef Hung has cultivated and developed personal relationships with several farmers at the Wilson Park market. He believes in supporting local farms and values the connections he has made. At the market, he curates the freshest ingredients for his menu at Baleen such as Asian produce from Thao’s farm, California fruits and heirloom produce from Black Sheep Farms, and beautiful stone fruits from Ken Lee’s farm. The vibrant, orange-yoked eggs from La Bahn Ranch are the best-looking and best-tasting for pasta dough, he says. Microgreen Mama is a huge supporter of Hung, teaching him how to grow his own microgreens.

With so many options a click away online, Hung encourages shopping for locally sourced ingredients at farmers markets. The level of freshness is beyond anything you can get in a standard grocery store or market. Everything tastes better and lasts longer, he says. It’s not sitting in a warehouse for months or even years before you buy it. Instead, the farmers bring you their best ingredients straight from the farm.

While the farm-to-table movement is now a bit cliché, Hung continues his focus on the whole experience from purchasing the ingredients to building a menu. It’s his philosophy of “roots to leaves” and how everything is connected. Perhaps it’s also a metaphor for his culinary pursuits, with a flourishing and vibrant career path inspired by his life growing up in Vietnam.

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