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SideDish on TV Audition: Brian Bui and Meditations from a Cutting Board

“Pho is the elixir of life,” says today’s contestant Brian Bui. Let’s get to it:

My name is Brian Bui, and I am submitting a video audition for SideDish TV.I have been cooking for 2 years now, and feel that I have a great, fresh perspective to add to SideDish TV, in addition to having industry insight and connections. I am highly interested in hosting a show, and have an idea for a segment called “Meditations from a Cutting Board.” I have attached an article of the same name that I submitted to a friend’s zine that reflects my thinking.

Zine? Pour another cup of coffee and jump for Brian Bui.

Meditations from the Cutting Board
Food Hack
By: Brian Bui

I’m guilty of being a food hack. No. Not a hack at cooking. That implies that I can’t cook at all, an implication that I vehemently deny, regardless of what slander past flings and play things may have slathered on me like butter on a biscuit. I admit no guilt or faults, other than having a healthy appetite… for food that is.

Not saying I’m the Greatest Of All Time (the GOAT), which would be overly presumptuous, and be a lead gloved slap in the face to all the real GOATs’ that have come before me; Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, David Chang, to name a few contemporary heroes of mine. However, I am confident enough I can hold my own in any kitchen I may venture into.

Which I guess is why I’m able to quickly and easily find work as a cook. Go figure. Or at least I like to think so; my job whoring stage is a few years behind me. Now about my personal life….. Ehhh, that sh@#’s personal brah.

See the thing about cooking and working in a kitchen for a living is that as cooks, we rarely have the time and maybe most importantly, the energy to cook for ourselves. I understand why outsiders that have not been initiated into a professional kitchen, with hazing involving burns, cuts, and tongue lashings from chefs’, amongst other verboten tasks, may believe that since we cook for a living all we want to do is cook.

But the harsh reality is we work eight hour shifts, at minimum, where we’ve literally stood the duration transmuting raw vegetables, fruits, meats and seafood into items first worthy for one’s eyes, secondly appealing enough for people to put said items into their mouths, and lastly, food good enough to be chewed, swallowed, and deposited with delight into an empty, hungry stomach.

I know, I know, most people aren’t that discerning about what they ingest, therefore the rise of the Twinkies, Taco Bell and oh, Tyler Florence’s concoctions at Applebees. But a true cook relishes when their food can touch a person’s heart beyond a fat clogging way. I’m talking about when food passes a person’s lips, dances over our delicate taste bud speckled tongues, awakening latent feelings and arousing maybe an inquisitiveness to take another bite, but after that second bite, a realization that they simply enjoyed what they just forked into their open, accepting and now happy mouth.

Please don’t read into it too much. As cooks we’re lucky if we can see the dining room, let alone voyeuristically watch our customers eat and experience food orgasms. That’s just creepy. Like anyone else we want validation for our blood, and sweat, no room for tears though, criers normally don’t make it, or are transferred to the pastry kitchen. No offense meant to all the wonderful pastry artisans I’ve worked with, but y’all are definitely cut from a different cloth. One made of delicious crusty, yeasty breads, decadent cakes, satisfying custard filled cream puffs, patience for exact measurements and gluten based architecture to rise that I don’t share.

Food hacking is something I now realize I’ve always done; even before donning the chef coat, clogs, and knife bag. It’s something perhaps a good deal of the population does also. You take something that is pre-existing, perhaps canned, frozen, or simply leftovers, and modify it into something that’s more palatable, using spices, acid, fat, and herbs. You know, basic cooking.

I remember distinctly as a 10 year old first generation Asian kid, who’s only know white rice, fish fried whole that stare back at you with dead, blank eyes, and soy sauce, Asian salt, being enamored with canned chili. Not only was chili my bridge to western food, chili to me represented Texas food culture. I wanted to eat like a man, like a cowboy roughing it in the plains. Romantic ideals for an Asian kid born and raised in Canada, a place known for poutine, cheese curd, and gravy covered French fries, a dish dually soothing and comforting, especially in frozen, snow drowned winters.

I had no choice to eat chili from cans. My youth, and inexperience kept me from trying to make it from scratch. My parents, though loving, were content with the food they’d know. Cumin, coriander, and cheese were unwelcome, unattractive ingredients for an Asian kitchen. So I ate chili from cans. But I digested the pictures on the labels as much as the contents inside the can. I learned that cheese, sour cream, parsley were all garnishes that elevated my humble canned foodstuffs into something I approximated as authentic. It made feel like I fit in. Like I could finally roam the plains of Texas, ride horses, shoot guns and meet beautiful cowgirls. A lot to expect from food, but for an awkward, out of place kid with cultural identity issues, it meant everything.

I still love chili, but I prefer my own homemade, from scratch versions. I could make the canned stuff good still, but my current food hacking obsession is leftover Chinese food. I love nothing more than taking my drunkenly ordered leftovers of twice cooked pork, Mongolian beef, or whatever my neglected, abused taste buds desire, and embellishing on their framework. Being Vietnamese, and a cook means that I’ll usually have cilantro, green onions, garlic, sambal (a chili sauce), limes as well as butter, chicken stock, and any arbitrary groceries that I’ll randomly pick up to liven up said leftovers.

I get my pan hot, dribble a little oil, roast off some garlic, then add the leftovers. Flicking the pan a few times, making the rice or noodles jump around like a lowrider on hydros, I make sure the oil and roasted garlic at once lubricate and flavorize my leftovers. Once reheated through, then I’ll add the subtle flavors of cilantro, green onions and lime juice. The aromas by then normally have me in a salivating frenzy. Hung-over and desperately in need of sustenance, the aromatics are just too much for me by then. Bare handed I’ll attempt to grab a cluster of rice, a clump of noodles, still steaming hot, straight-out of my blazing pan. I burn the roof of my mouth. But I’m still happy. I’m transported and reminded of my earliest experiences in the kitchen. No longer culturally confused, I realize that food is food, whether it’s chili or Chinese, I know that I can transform it into something personal, at once nourishing, rejuvenating, a time machine to times and places that I learned about myself.