featuring:

Tin Vuong

from:
Little Sister
Manhattan Beach, CA
recipe:
Douban Chili Crack Noodles

Manhattan Beach, right on. I’ll drive. Oh right, Alhambra first for the backstory.

Finish our coffee as we pull up to a tree-lined street and find Grandma’s address. It’s the one with Tin on the front step, coffee and cell in hand.

Tin grew up right here, he says, and we head to the backyard to find the hidden treasures of the family home…

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Who is the most influential person in your family?

My grandfather. He raised me. I mean, my parents were always working so he was babysitting me all the time, really. Telling me what’s right, what’s not. He’s just old school. Taught me how to plant things and respect shit and he did what grandfathers do. Just watch out for you, teach you the right things.

Did he cook or your grandmother?

Both of them. They would say if you couldn’t find it, grow it. What are you waiting for? [Laughing]. They moved here in the late ‘70s and they didn’t have Asian markets around, so what do you do? You have to grow your own shit. So my grandfather just started growing things that we eat. You know what I mean?

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When did food capture you?

Probably in college, trying to find something to eat and kind of cooking for yourself and fending for yourself. Finding cheap eats, that’s pretty much what it was.

You mentioned Costco’s Chicken Bake in a top ten list somewhere. Is that one of your cheap eats?

[Laughing] Yeah. Really nothing more you can say about it. It’s very inexpensive and it’s really good. It’s like a chicken pot pie, it’s just good. Caesar dressing and rolled in a puff pastry and… it’s good. It’s like junk food but it’s fucking good.

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What are your favorite ingredients to cook with?

Chili’s. Just because of the spice level and what it does to your food. Brings a whole new dimension to things, it brightens up a lot of things. It just has a very different aroma to it.

Is there a particular chili?

For me and the type of cuisine I do, it’s probably bird’s eye chili. I use a lot of it because it’s very pungent, it’s fragrant, it has a very unique flavor.

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When did you meet Craig and why do you consider him a mentor?

I met Craig back in 2000. He was just starting his coffee business and I guess our friendship and our relationship kind of grew as we went through time. 15 years later he’s where he’s at and he’s always been a mentor because he grew his business for himself and never really sacrificed his quality for anybody. He believed in himself and stuck with it, even in rough times. Never sacrificed his vision.

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Which chef would you drop everything to stage with?

Marco Pierre White. He is the original gangster of culinary. He’s just O.G., man. His drive, and his philosophy was just “you do you.” Fuck what everybody else thinks. There’s a lot of videos of him, they’re just awesome. He’s the original culinary gangster.

You ever met him?

No, no. He’s just an icon, man. But he wasn’t on TV doing all kinds of crazy things, you know what I mean? He stuck to what he was doing. It’s pretty fucking rad.

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What keeps your interest in food so fresh?

Eating out, knowing there’s a lot of restaurants that aren’t very good and that you can do better. Or other restaurants are doing great things and that you want to do great things like them. Finding a void in certain genres of food that you know you can do or that interests you at a certain point. Just like anything, there’s specific time frames in your life where you have different palates and your tastes are different.

Sometimes it’s like clothing, you know? Sometimes you bought a shirt 5 years ago or 2 months ago and then you’re like, “Dude, why did I buy this?” [laughing]. Food’s like that, too. It’s very personal. You wonder, “Why was I making this shit?” Some of the menus I look at from like 5 years ago, I have no idea what the fuck was I doing. Thinking this is dumb, what was I thinking?

Makes total sense.

It comes with age and experience and life. Anything that happens to you or comes into your life expresses you. Building Little Sister was an expression. It was doing the food that I cared to do most. It wasn’t for anybody, it was for myself. It was to showcase a food that was underrated.

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How did you choose the locations for your restaurants?

Organically. Sometimes it just happens. Broker tells me there’s a space open and it just happens. Everything up to now has been organic. This space came up, I wasn’t looking for it, but it just came up and had to hop on it. It’s expensive rent [laughing] but if you want to do it you have to take a risk.

Yeah, that seems to be the thread through you.

If it happens, it happens.

If there’s a “go with the flow” guy, it’s you.

Just go with it. Planned things don’t always work out, either, and you’re just going to get disappointed. Sometimes in your career you just have to just trust in yourself, in what you do and hope for the best.

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Describe your cooking.

My cooking is very thoughtful. I try to hit a lot of flavors to balance things out. No particular direction sometimes. For me it’s more about making sure that it tastes good and it’s exceptional. Make sure the flavors aren’t masked and not over complicated. No more than 5-ish ingredients, just keep it really simple and nice.

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What are a few words your sous chefs would use to describe you?

That’s something you have to ask them.

Not even a hint? [To Mikey, prepping behind the bar] Hey Mikey, give me a word? 

[Mikey:] Relentless.

There we go.

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Can you explain the process of creating dishes?

I cook things that I want to eat but couldn’t find, especially in the South Bay. A lot of family meals or staff meals become the menu. You cook things that you care for, that you crave, things that are simple and good and thoughtful.

So is Little Sister one of those simple, home-cooked places?

It sounds that simple, but it’s really not. It’s a lot of layering flavors and understand