Chef Minh: Cooking is ‘God’s gift’

duong    Minh Duong isn’t one who easily gets flustered. As executive pastry chef for the last 16 years at the Hotel Monteleone, she’s used to preparing desserts and breads for upwards of 500 people daily, not to mention the multitudes visiting during the recent Super Bowl who craved a bite of king cake.
    Her dessert repertoire numbers at least 100 from every cultural influence, and she has no trouble whipping up anything the head chef of the hotel’s new restaurant Criollo or the sales staff might suggest for catered parties or banquets.
    “Even if I didn’t know it before, I find out and make it,” she said. “I am happy to try to find the new things they want. … God gave me a talent! It’s God’s gift.”
    One of her recently most-requested desserts is “Hot New Orleans Bread Puddings,” a combination plate of white chocolate bread pudding and praline bread pudding, each with a different sauce.
    “The secret is not to mix a lot or touch too much,” she said about bread pudding. Another secret is to warm the butter, sugar and milk. A third secret she shared is to let the milk and bread rest after mixing. For added flavor, she sprinkles sugar and cinnamon at the bottom of each cup before pouring the pudding and baking.
    “Minh does all my desserts at Criollo,” Joe Maynard, chef de cuisine at Criollo, said. “It’s been very successful. About 50 to 60 percent of guests get desserts,” as compared to the restaurant industry average of 15 to 20 percent, he said. “It’s because our desserts are so great. She does all the breads, too. You don’t see this in hotels anymore. It is a dying art.”
    Her “Flaming Creme Brulee” won the silver medal at the 2011 Wine and Food Experience on Royal Street, and in 2012 she won the gold medal with a Crabmeat Donut with avocado shooter. It’s what Duong calls a mixture of “upstairs and downstairs,” meaning her kitchen upstairs at the Monteleone and the restaurant’s kitchen downstairs. Within an hour at the Royal Street event, 2,000 portions were consumed.
    “I had to try a whole month to get that donut out of a French bread to make it right,” she laughed. “It was not easy.”
    “She’s great; she’s awesome,” Monteleone executive sous chef Jose Munguia said. “She is a perfectionist to the T. … She makes sure you get it, but she means business. She makes sure she gives you a smile before she gives you an order. She assesses a problem quickly.”

duong2Mostly self-taught
    Duong is mostly self-taught, only attending a cooking school in Saigon for about two weeks. Her parents baked Vietnamese pastries – many with a French twist due to Vietnam’s history as a French territory – and sold them from her father’s department store. Her first cake was a Buche Noel, imitating a cake her aunt baked.
    She fled Vietnam with husband, Thu Vu, a captain in the Vietnamese Navy, and one child in April 1975 and landed at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas for six months. Catholic Charities sponsored her family to come to New Orleans.
    For the next 10 years, she raised her five children while selling pastries for weddings and to Vietnamese grocery stores.
    “I was one of the first ones to bring Vietnamese and French pastries to the stores (in New Orleans),” she recalled.
Her faith is strong
    Duong said God has always had a place in her life. Her Catholic parents brought her to daily Mass. She said she personally heard God’s call for the first time at age 16 when looking at a picture of Jesus and seeing his merciful eyes.
    After a car accident in 1977 diminished her memory and left her in the hospital for a month and her husband with broken bones, her faith became even stronger.
    Duong said she heard God speaking directly to her again at age 30 while mopping the floors.
    “I went back and forth with God. Finally, I heard him, and said, ‘Just lead me.’”
    She’s found power in prayer and attends church daily. She also spends much time, in between her Monteleone shifts, at adoration chapel with her husband. She said she often donates leftover food from the hotel and samples from vendors to local charities such as Ozanam Inn and Covenant House.
    Duong, who is a eucharistic minister, said it’s a beautiful life with God. She’s compiled a book containing two complete meals from appetizer to dessert with prayers. For example, she has spring rolls with sweet and sour sauce and the accompanying prayer reads, “Dear God, roll me in your love and dip me in your sweet river of love.” With her Beef Wellington meal, her prayer is, “God, please warm me up so I am always in you.” For Wonderland salad, she prays, “If you let the Holy Spirit come to you, you can change the wrong to right.”
    “You have never seen such a holy woman,” Sister of the Living Word Angela Ashbey said. “She gives so much away. Minh is good from head to toe.”

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