It is busy in the kitchen on this Thursday night at Tao, Executive Chef Hung “Eric” Tao’s second of two Vietnamese/Japanese restaurants he owns and operates. This amount of activity has grown to be a common thing here. Since opening in July of 2009, Tao has become a regular hotspot for locals; not only for Chef Tao’s vibrant, healthy Asian creations, but also for his extensive vegetarian menu. He is also famous for his homemade tofu and soy milk, something he makes fresh every day and incorporates into many of his dishes. It is something he is very proud of, and he has much to be proud of.
Chef Tao was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1969. After migrating to the United States with his family in 1985, he got a job at the young age of fourteen working as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. At the age of seventeen he had the opportunity to cook in the kitchen after the head chef called out sick, leaving nobody to cover for him. The owner of the restaurant asked Tao to help her with the cooking and as a result, by the end of the night he was complimented by many of the customers about his dishes. It was this instant gratification that prompted Chef Tao to want to become a chef. Unable to afford a formal culinary school, he sought out the guidance of his mother to teach him the art and traditions of Vietnamese cuisine. Later he used the recipes of his mother and grandfather to open Dao Son, his first Vietnamese/Japanese restaurant in University Heights, in 1994. The restaurant was a success and, having created many recipes of his own in the following years; Chef Tao finally made the decision to open a new restaurant in 2009: Tao Vietnamese Japanese Cuisine displays the Chef’s talents and offers even healthier vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.
I had the opportunity to speak with Chef Tao, catching him in between a busy lunch and dinner service. I was impressed not only by his witty sense of humor and bubbly personality, but also by his continuing success through self-determination and hard work.
You opened Dao Son in 1994. What prompted you to open another restaurant?
Well, for the past 10 years I have been creating a new menu. I finally had the menu I wanted, but I didn’t have the heart to do it. Finally one day I said, ‘let’s do it.’
What got you into creating vegetarian dishes?
I am a good chef and I like to try everything. I cannot just focus on one thing.
Are you a vegetarian yourself? Would you consider yourself a health conscious eater?
I am a part time vegetarian (He laughs). I’ll do 3 months of no carbs, and then I will do a couple months of just tofu, and then just fish, and then I will mix it up.
How did you learn how to make your famous tofu?
This tofu I learned how to make in China. I went there for 5 years straight in 1999. Where I went they sold a lot of tofu on the street. In China everybody is an entrepreneur, and they all have their little shops, and they don’t have any big equipment, and I was wondering, ‘How do they do this?’ They wake up at 4 in the morning and use a stone grinder to make the tofu. I paid someone to take me to their house and show me how to do it. It is so simple and so easy; you don’t have any additives, just fresh beans. You grind them, and there you have it. Tofu!
Do you have any inspirations or influences in your life that have helped you become the chef you are today?
My mom. She is a fine chef. She still cooks today, and I still can’t cook as well as her. We are still fighting about who cooks better! (He laughs)
When asked if he is planning to open any more restaurants, Chef Tao says now is not the time, wanting instead to focus on what he has now. It is clear that he has accomplished much already. With a smile in his voice he thanks me and says goodbye, preparing for what is sure to be another busy dinner service. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought about the last question I had asked Chef Tao before saying goodbye:
What is your all time favorite ingredient to work with?
He pauses. With excitement in his voice after a few seconds he answers… “Tofu!”