The Company We Keep: Chef Van My Nguyen

The Company We Keep is a new column on the CN&CO blog that profiles some of the most interesting people in our networks. Here we share the details of the lives of people we know, showcasing the extraordinary diversity of our society and proving that people truly are at the heart of everything we do. In this edition we feature Van My Nguyen, more commonly known as Chef My, who is the head chef of the Thai Africa Restaurant Group.

Chef My was born in Ho Chi Minh City (commonly known as Saigon) in Vietnam in the Year of the Snake on 5 November 1965. In Chinese culture, the snake is the most enigmatic of the 12 zodiac animals. People born in a Year of the Snake are seen to be the most intuitive. Other famous individuals born under this animal-sign are Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, Charles Darwin and Picasso.

In 1997 My married Kim Anh, a medical doctor from Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, and relocated to Cape Town to open the first Vietnamese restaurant in South Africa. He is the father of two sons, Duy (16) and Phi (14), who attend the German School in Cape Town.

In 1987 My moved to the city of Dresden (East Germany) as part of a technical college exchange programme, where he obtained a diploma in textile production and shortly after, relocated to West Berlin to reside with his aunt. After a year he secured a textile job in Augsburg, where he met the Chinese owner of the Mandarin Restaurant who offered My an evening job. Having worked two jobs for three years and finally became head chef of the restaurant.

My’s passion for food stems from childhood and especially from his grandmother’s cooking. The family ran a number of restaurants in Cambodia and the Saigon area prior to the end of the Vietnam war. He has always explored food and cooking as a hobby.

In 1992 he returned to Vietnam and secured a sous chef position at the 5-star Omni Saigon Hotel under executive head chef, Christo Grego. The hotel selected Chef My for further training in Hong Kong, Singapore and New York, exposing him to a wide range of cooking styles.

In 1997, Ernst Fischer from the Thai Africa Restaurant Group, which consists of four top class restaurants in Johannesburg, namely Orient, Wangthai, So Yum and Kong, travelled to Saigon to recruit chefs for a new restaurant in South Africa. My was recruited as head chef and he recruited his own team of four Vietnamese chefs.

My opened Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant in Cape Town which has won multiple awards over the past 20 years, which included Eat Out’s Best Asian Restaurant award in 2012.

My’s style of cuisine has evolved into modern Asian cuisine with the emphasis always on traditional flavours. He is inspired by Nikkei cuisine and Robata styled flame grilling, which is incorporated in his new menus. He is responsible for designing the new menu for Orient  along with Ernst Fischer and plans to expand further with the Thai Africa Restaurant Group.

My’s hobbies include woodwork, making furniture, cooking and food experimentation.

My has a particularly infectious energy, in and out of the kitchen. Whilst flame grilling a chicken nikkei or frying up a flavoursome stir fry, he’s often singing along to some of his favourite Western tracks (one of his favourites is ‘Girl on Fire’ by Alicia Keys) or joking around with other employees. My oozes passion in all that he does especially when it comes to flavour combinations and creative projects.

“They say that when you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” – Chef My