Where you grew up: Harrisonburg,
Where you went to college: University of Mary Washington, majoring in economics.
When you started working in restaurants: I started working in my family’s restaurant (The Saigon Cafe in Harrisonburg) when I was 15, but I was always helping out and doing restaurant-related chores since they opened when I was 11.
Your parents were born in Vietnam and moved to the U.S. before you were born, correct? Yes. Both of my parents immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1970s. They were both residents of the former Saigon.
How would you describe your style of cooking? Influenced heavily by your Vietnamese heritage? I believe it to be Contemporary American, heavy influenced by my Vietnamese roots and the many different cultures I grew up around. What I grew up eating was Vietnamese cuisine with seasonal ingredients. My parents were unknowingly exposing me to “Asian fusion” before it became a buzzword.
I also have fond memories of eating vinegar-barbecued chicken, sold by the Boy Scouts on Saturday mornings, and the best buttermilk biscuits and apple pies at the church potlucks.
I have heard you are quite the outdoorsman and butcher your own meat. Please discuss in detail: Obsessed is a more-accurate way to describe my passion for hunting and fishing. I grew up fishing with my father; they are still some of my most-cherished memories. I started hunting a few years back when I decided that I wanted to really get to know my food.
Since then I’ve become ever more obsessed with hunting, and, ultimately, eating what I hunt. I usually process all my own game; I feel that getting your hands dirty is the only way to fully appreciate the consequences of your actions.
The first time I field-dressed a deer, I was armed with some Google images, and brief instructions from friends who hunted. No one told me the deer was going to steam when I cut it open. That uncomfortable warmth resonates with me.
Almost any raw meat a person can buy is cold, usually butchered, trimmed and labeled—a far cry from the warm, breathing, hairy/feathery animal it once was.
I believe that ethical hunting is the ultimate way to understand where our food comes from and what it takes to bring it to the table.
Your career background before joining Kybecca: Before I joined the Kybecca team, I worked at Bistro Bethem. I started there bussing tables and ended up serving, bartending, cooking and managing.
Why you decided to move over to Kybecca: It wasn’t easy to leave Bistro after so many years, but I needed to expand my experiences. I figured the best way was to jump into something very new and different.
How you changed the menu at Kybecca: We’ve made a lot of changes on the menu at Kybecca, and continue to do so every week. The most-drastic changes were the size and number of offerings. Instead of small, tapas-style dishes, we shifted toward a more-traditional menu layout with larger portions and more options.
We also changed our sourcing practices. We buy local when we can, support local businesses and try our best to minimize waste. When possible, we work with ingredients that are often overlooked or under-appreciated.
We butcher as much in-house as possible. I love working with whole fish, especially tuna. It takes more time and effort, but it allows one to work with pieces/cuts that would be dismissed and overlooked otherwise.
There are a lot of different cultural influences in the food we make here at Kybecca. We all have different backgrounds, upbringings and personal tastes. We work together on new dishes; collaboration is the key to our growth. I believe that knowing what you don’t know is far more important than feeding your own ego with delusions of omniscience.
Long-term career plans: I love food. I’m sure that whatever I end up doing in the long-run will involve cooking or hunting or fishing.
What you like about the Fredericksburg area: I’ve grown to love Fredericksburg; it is central to all my interests. Great fishing and hunting nearby, local farmers and small businesses that produce and sell goods not available elsewhere. Fredericksburg has become home for me.
What you like to do when you’re not working: When I have time off, I like to spend as much of it outdoors as possible. In the spring it might be shad-fishing down by the rapids, and snakehead-fishing in Aquia Creek in the summer. As soon as the weather starts to get chilly, I’ll have a bow or a gun in my hands.
What do you cook for yourself to eat? I like to experiment with my quarry; trying new dishes with ingredients alien to me is one of the best ways to learn what works and what doesn’t.
Favorite cooking ingredient: Vinegar. I always keep a few different vinegars around. Balancing the acidity of a dish is just as important as seasoning it properly.
Favorite cooking equipment: Cast iron. Nothing better than searing meat on red-hot iron. Though there is no substitute for a Vitamix blender.
What are your favorite local restaurants, other than Kybecca? Umi, Foode and Soup & Taco. Those restaurants are doing it right.
—As told to Bill Freehling