Tina Dang is a cook and personal chef living in San Francisco. She is native of Vietnam and was born in a refugee camp in the Phillipines, but grew up in a town in Southern California by the name of Chino: a town of mostly middle and working class Caucasion and Mexican American families. She has absolutely no formal culinary training except the moments she spent watching her parents (her father owned a donut shop) and the PBS cooking series as a child. A couple of years ago Tina was laid off from a normal 9 to 5 at a post production company, and have since then been thrown into a new career path: she’s cooking and enjoying every moment of being in the kitchen, on the line with the literal blood sweat and tears, but also teaching kids how to cook and the importance that good food is completely accessible to them. Lately Tina has been working on a farm dinner with other working chefs and cooks in San Francisco for a farm dinner in Bolinas at a farm called Gospel Flats. Let’s have a taste!
Could you please explain us your career path? Was it easy to shift from a post production company to a kitchen?
I moved up to San Francisco to grow as a curator and party thrower, I came up here for College, I was supposed to major in Sociology & Photography, but I majored in Art History instead. I’ve had many jobs, I’ve worked as a retail assistant at the Museum of African Diaspora, preschool teachers assistant, administrative assistant, kids talent recruiter, hostess at a restaurant and waitress, I was always that waitress that loved to talk about food. I finally got a job as a Production assistant/Project manager at a 3D animation house, but it was boring, I got laid off about a year later. I went back to what I knew and waitressed while still interviewing at various Ad Agencies and Gaming Companies but I was always considered too strong: I ended up at a caviar house, I started cooking there for fun, then I was asked if I wanted to cover a shift at Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack and so I did. I cooked there with Chef Barry Moore, he gave me my first chance in a kitchen. From there I worked with a chef named Leif Hedendal for a slow food dinner and then came across Steffan Terje from Perbacco, I asked Steffan if I could stage in his restaurant. He hired me part time and I was working as Garde-manger, it was there where I actually got my first paychecks and saw what a professional kitchen was like. Then I got a job working nights at Zuni Cafe for about a year, then I got hired full time at Zuni Cafe and was there for almost 3 years. Now I work with Chef Laurence Jossel and also as personal chef for a couple here in the city. My shift wasn’t easy but it definitely was fun and I would not change anything I did, maybe because my father owned a donut shop and both my parents were wonderful cooks. Thanks to all the things I learned while watching my father make donuts and frostings, certain movements were just natural for me: I surprised the pastry chef at Zuni Cafe, now she’s a friend of mine and is one of the most talented women I know, her name is Jennifer Grantham.
What was your best working experience so far? Why?
Everyday I get to cook, taste and excel at my job is always a good working experience. But my best professional experience was cooking a hamburger for Jacques Pepin. There he was at table #3 at Zuni cafe, finally the waiter comes back and says: “He is ordering the burger”, I was completely star struck. The burger went to his table and I peeked to watch him take it apart. James, the server, came back and said: “Mr. Pepin wants to come back and say hi to the kitchen”. As he came back to the kitchen everyone surrounded him and shook his hand, I was nervously behind him, James tapped him on the shoulder and told him: “Mr. Pepin this is the girl that cooked your food” and I started to tear up I told him “I’ve watched you ever since I was a little girl!” he gave me a hug and told me that: “it was the best burger in the whole wide world!” I was a sweaty teary eyed mess and it was one of the best moments of my life.
What’s the most common trouble in your job? How do you cope with that?
The hours, the quality of life, the ability to move around be creative and dynamic all while making a living. Trying to balance schedules with the outside world. I cope with it by working days and cooking for someone in my off time.
Is there a chef you would like to collaborate with? Why?
I would like to cook and collaborate with anyone that is willing to sit down and write a menu together, to feed off each others strengths and be the support for the others weaknesses. I think collaborations are a beautiful thing and I would like to do more. Other cooks that I have had the chance to work with on the line men or women that share the same ethos of kindness and ones whom have drive. I just met a woman chef by the name of Michelle Fuerst, who was guest cheffing at Bar Jules, I would like to cook with her.
What’s the easier but tastier recipe you know?
Pasta with white wine and clams or Pasta Con Vongole, I also love a nice french tart dough!! I just learned about it and I want to make it everyday.
Spaghetti or bucatini
3 cloves garlic
Splash of. white wine
2 T Butter
Sprinkle of chopped parsley
Zest of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 its juice
1/4 C. olive oil and to finish
3 calabrian chilli peppers or 1 tsp. chilli flakes
Drop pasta in salted boiling water and cook accordingly to packaging. Dried pasta works best with this dish because fresh pasta is just too fragile for the beating of the clams.
In a hot pan drop in oil and clams cover with lid to let steam. Add white wine. After a few moments and some clams have popped add garlic. Tilt your pan so garlic is immersed in cooking liquid and move around a bit. Cover and let the rest of the clams open. Add butter in same manner as garlic and move pan around vigorously so butter does not break. Add juice of 1/2 lemon and peppers. Add in pasta and 1-2 T of its cooking liquid. Add chopped parsley and zest of 1/2 Lemon. Toss well and plate. Drizzle with finishing oil.
What would you suggest to a girl who wants to undertake your career?
Do it. Have patience, be inquisitive, be serious, be yourself, be passionate, be strong and have a good support system, people that believe in you.
What’s your favorite restaurant in your city? Why?
I love all the restaurants I have worked, because I wouldn’t want to work at a place where I did not believe in the food. Zuni Cafe, Perbacco, Nopa, Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack, others include Front Porch, Pizzetta 211, Turtle Tower, La Palma, Outerlands, Tartine, Delfina etc.
To cook, to write, to have a family, to be happy.
Who is the woman you’d like to see featured / interviewed here?
I would like to see Michelle Janezic because she is constantly inspiring me to grow, and Leslie Williamson, both are amazing talented and humble women.
Is there anything in particular you would like us to mention?
My friends would always ask why I didn’t cook, now every single one of them is so happy that I am finally doing what I love. Before I could walk mom knew that I loved food, she tried to talk me out of it, as a toddler I would walk out of grocery stores with boxed cereals, cookies or orange juice non chalantly without paying and my mom usually had to rush me back in and return the items.
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