Dao Le credits his family heritage for instilling his love of food. Originally from Vietnam, he moved with his parents to the United States when he was a year old and has lived in Chattanooga most of his life. Le is now executive chef at Eleven at DoubleTree Hotel.
"With my heritage and family back in Vietnam, cooking is a huge part of our culture," he says. "My mom cooks daily and stays true to traditional Vietnamese cuisine. And my dad used to be a baker in the Navy."
Though the foundation for his culinary interests began at home, he continued his education at Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts, Miami campus, then worked in restaurants in Florida, Pennsylvania, California and Ohio before returning to Chattanooga. Le has been at the DoubleTree since it opened in February 2016.
Q: What was your first restaurant job?
A: It was at Mandarin Garden Chinese Restaurant in Hixson when I was 15. I was a busboy and sometimes got to go in the kitchen and watch the chefs cook. They let me help cook some items when it wasn't too busy.
Q: Do your travels help you in devising your menu?
A: Yes, they help me learn more about new ingredients and cultures and also about new techniques in food. I enjoy experiencing seasonal food using local ingredients from all over the region I'm visiting to create new dishes that I wouldn't have known about here in Chattanooga.
I enjoy meeting new chefs and learning their way of cooking and their visions — how a chef might take a 100-year-old recipe and recreate it by using what is seasonal, making it more upscale and modern.
Q: You've worked in both independently owned restaurants as well as a hotel. How does the work differ? Are there any similarities?
A: There are a lot of banquets, meetings and wedding parties on a daily basis, ranging from 20 people to 400 at a hotel. Plus, I run a restaurant on top of that. Eleven opens at 6 a.m. for breakfast and stays open lunch through dinner. Then I have daily meetings with my executive sous chef and sous chef to go over all food items and make sure they are the highest quality possible. In a restaurant, there's usually just the customers with some small groups and some larger groups. But whether it's in a hotel or a restaurant, being organized and prepped is key to any kitchen.
Q: What's one thing people may not know about you?
A: I used to work for [celebrity chef] Gordon Ramsay (left). His passion and love for great food inspires me to make my last dish better than the next. As I've always said, you're only as good as your last dish.
Q: What's your favorite ingredient to cook with?
A: Lemon thyme — it's almost the same as thyme, but it has a sweet lemon taste and is very aromatic. It can be used in almost all dishes from basting steaks with butter, seasoning chicken, fish or even just as a marinade or sauce to go over the food. It's amazing with roasted potatoes, pasta and so much more for a fresh and flavorful taste.
Q: What would you do if you hadn't become a chef?
A: I'd want to be a professional baseball player. I have played baseball since I was 5. I've got a lot of love and passion for food and baseball.
Q: You enter a lot of contests. How does this benefit your work as a chef?
A: I have competed in a lot of culinary competitions, winning six gold medals, four silver medals and four bronze ones from the ACF (American Culinary Federation) and the World Food Championships. The contests help me to stay sharp, be more creative and also allow me to use local and seasonal ingredients from the area I'm competing in.
Q: Describe your perfect evening out in town apart from your own restaurant.
A: It would be at Terra Nostra Tapas and Wine Bar. The garden patio is a beautiful place to dine and sit outside when the weather is good. And they have specials on wine and the food that is some of the best in the Chattanooga area. One of my favorites there is the Bacon Stuffed Dates. The owner, Efren Ormaza, is one of Chattanooga's certified executive chefs. After dinner, I would just take a walk with a great cup of coffee, see the beautiful city at night or just to catch a Lookouts game.
Q: Are your children interested in learning your techniques?
A: My oldest son, Collin, isn't interested in cooking, but my 11-year-old, Ethan, is. He cooks at home and makes things from scratch. He got his first knife set at the age of 10 and is learning to use them correctly under my guidance.
Q: What's your style of cooking at home?
A: I use simple ingredients, whether its just spaghetti or roasted chicken with root vegetables. Simplicity to me is key. I like to let the food taste as it should, enhance it with spices without overpowering it. My burgoo is a one-pot wonder. It's one of my favorites to cook at home.
Chef Dao Le's Burgoo
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds chuck roast, cut into cubes (may substitute chicken, pork, venison or rabbit)
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped bell pepper
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped carrots
3 sprigs thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 cups beef stock
2 cups red wine
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 cup peeled diced tomatoes
Water as needed, just to cover
1 cup lima beans
1 cup corn
1 cup green beans
1 cup frozen okra
2 cups diced fresh potatoes
In a cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed Dutch oven on medium-high heat, add olive oil and roast. Brown meat on all sides, and season with salt and pepper; remove from pan. Add onions, bell pepper, celery, carrots, thyme, oregano, garlic, bay leaf and tomato paste; cook for 5-8 minutes until everything is slightly brown. Season with salt and pepper. Return meat to pan, scraping any juices that may have accumulated back into the pan with the meat and vegetables. Once everything is nicely browned and mixed together, add beef stock, red wine, smoked paprika, lemon juice, Worcestershire, diced tomatoes and water. Bring to a boil, then put in oven at 350 degrees, cover and cook for two hours. Remove from oven and add lima beans, corn, green beans, okra and potatoes. Check seasoning and liquid level, adding more seasoning or beef stock as needed. Return to oven and cook, covered, for one hour or until vegetables and meat are fork-tender.
Finish with a little hot sauce, if desired, and serve in a bowl with jalapeno cornbread or a nice crusty bread. May also be served over rice or mashed potatoes.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.