I met Lê Đình Tiến in Vermont in a church converted into an apartment/Airbnb in the first hour of the last day of 2016. He’s a pistol-toting, motorcycle-riding Marine with an appreciation for quiet theatrics and a highly sarcastic, bad dad joke-y sense of humor – as well as an incredibly accomplished home cook. Not only have I been spoiled enough with the gift of his friendship, but I have also been blessed many times over by the food that he makes. Listen to our conversation this past Friday when he shared delicious hot pot with me and his girlfriend in full below or read edited in this post.
What’s your name, how old are you, where are you from, what do you do for work?
My name is Charlie. [No, say your real name] That’s my name, that’s my American name. [No it’s not] Yes it is, I adopted that name. My Vietnamese name is Tien. My American name is Charlie. [[for reference, I’ve never heard anyone call Tien Charlie but he’s one funny guy]] For those who understand history, or modern world history, you get it.
Currently I work for REI in West Hartford. We just opened a new store, it’s going to be fun, but I’m 25 and I’m from Vietnam. I immigrated here [Connecticut] when I was 10 or 11, I don’t remember really…around then.
You don’t work as a marine anymore?
No, um I was on short term active-duty. My orders with my company were for year-and-a-half to two years but now I’m done with that. I’m still doing my reserve contract which will end in October 12 of 2018.
How long have you been cooking?
Cooking for myself? Probably around sophomore year of high school. That’s when I really started cooking for myself more. But, seriously cooking? Or cooking on more of a hobby level? That was around my first year of college.
How did you learn to cook; did somebody teach you or were you self-taught or was it some kind of combination of both?
Nobody really taught me… I just I grew up with my grandma and basically she’s a gourmet cook. She was brought up in a very traditional Vietnamese family, even though they weren’t really rich, they were landowners in Vietnam. I guess back with my grandparents, was probably what, 60s, 50s? Around ’50 is when she was growing up. If you owned land in Vietnam, you basically owned everything; it’s an agricultural country.
Even though she grew up in that kind of household, her dad still made her do everything – all the chores around the house, learn how to cook, learn how to sew. I grew up with her so I just watch her as she does things.
I learned from her, but when I came to America she was still in Vietnam, so I just cook for myself and just learn as I go.
How did you become interested in cooking? Why and how?
My mom worked a lot when I was back in high school. Well, not a lot but she worked normal hours, I guess 9 to 6, normal American hours, so I got home before she got home so I just usually cooked for myself.
I like a lot of different types of cuisines, [but in my cooking] I still lean towards Asian cuisine more. So, if I learn how to cook for myself then I can eat whatever I want. And that is generally what we have at home at my disposal ingredients-wise and seasoning-wise, that’s why I have [gestures at hot pot on table].
How would you describe your cooking style?
Taste cooking. I taste everything; I taste as I go. The first time I cook something I follow, most of the time, I follow it exactly what they asked for, and then after that I season it to my taste. Also, I like Asian cuisine more, a lot more. For home cooked meals I like Vietnamese, obviously, but for weekend food I generally cook more Japanese. We generally make sushi at least once or twice a month.
What types of foods and cuisines do you typically gravitate towards for cooking and why are you into them?
Vietnamese, I guess it’s because I grew up in it. That’s why I like it more, it feels more homey. Because I moved to America – I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love steak, probably as much as another American, it’s just something about Vietnamese cooking that really grabbed my attention. And I like Japanese cooking because I just like their spirits. When they do something they just do one thing and are the best at it. Generally Vietnamese cooking — and I don’t do a lot of Chinese and Korean cooking, but Vietnamese and Japanese cooking are very healthy. I guess I want to clarify that I gravitate toward Southeast Asian food more.
What is your favorite thing that you make?
For everyday eating – see, I can’t pick one thing, because there are so many different things – but for everyday food, I like boiled pork with shrimp paste. To Western people it probably smells like something dying, but it is so good. I like a lot of traditional everyday folks food, so there’s this tilapia in Vietnam when I was growing up, and we would deep fry them, deep fry the crap out of them so you can eat the bone and everything, and I like a lot of sauteed veggies, so yeah that’s what I like. But I guess my number one thing is still boiled pork dipped in shrimp paste.
For just street food in Vietnam, I like broken rice and grilled pork. You eat it with sweet fish sauce it is probably one of the most famous dishes in South Vietnam, and I grew up in the South so, that’s what I like. I ate that for a long part of my childhood. There’s something about broken rice, you can eat two bowls of it and not feel full. It’s so light, and it doesn’t feel filling. If you eat Korean or Japanese rice, most of the time the grain is very short and fat, but broken rice is smaller and half the size, so it just feels really fluffy.
For weekend food, my number one thing is probably sushi.
For night food, it’s hot pot. On a rainy night [it was a very rainy Friday night], I like hot pot. And it’s easy to make. The thing I like about hot pot is it’s cheap and easy to make. It’s probably one of the easiest things to make and cook for a big group of people, and it’s self serve. Most of the ingredients will be raw, and you just cook it in a in a big pot of soup, as much as you want. And the next day you will have a really sweet, flavorful broth for noodles.
What ingredients or dishes have you been really into using or eating lately?
I guess I’ve been using a lot of the Korean hot paste, but I guess that’s what I’ve always been doing…something new? That would probably be flute, for sushi. I generally don’t eat a lot of white fish for sushi, not because I don’t want to, but because the market where I get my fish from doesn’t have a lot of white fish. And recently we also tried uni, which is sea urchin…it’s very creamy. Not the biggest fan. Somebody might like it – and the thing about uni; I heard if you eat better quality uni, you might like it more than the $20 in America one. And we also tried salmon roe – that, I liked.
Who is your favorite cook in your life and what is your favorite thing they make?
My favorite cooks is probably my grandma, because I grew up with her. My favorite food she used to make for me is stuffed pigeons, steamed stuffed pigeons. She stuffed pigeons with pork, clear white rice noodles, mushrooms; she seasoned it, she stuffed everything together, and she steamed it.
Would you ever make that?
I would but there are no pigeons.
Have you been to any good restaurants? Tell me about that.
No, we haven’t been to any restaurant recently that like wowed me. But the last [we went to that I loved] was Sapporo in [Manhattan] New York, which is a noodle shop and it is probably the best. 49th Street, and it’s probably the best noodles I had in the state. 49th Street…I’m not sure which Avenue is on. If you type in Sapporo 49th Street it will pop right up.
What did you like about that place?
Noodles. It was the best ramen I’ve had in the state.
What are you looking forward to making and eating this spring and summer; like what ingredients are you looking forward to using that’ll be in season? What are you looking forward to eating in the warm weather?
Not really anything. Generally, I said most of the things I cook and eat are Vietnamese food. Since I cook a lot of Vietnamese food and Japanese, Southeast Asian cuisine in general, we don’t really have a lot of fresh ingredients [for those cuisines] around here. Most of the stuff we get is from the supermarket, and you don’t really need it to be in season for anything around here. They’re always there year round, so not really.
I’m not too crazy about seasonal food…If I lived in a better port city or harbor city where a lot of seafood is available, that might be a different story. Because I grew up next to a beach in Vietnam, so there are definitely some seasonal fishes there. But here, not so much.
Then how about in Vietnam?
There are definitely some seasonal fruits I like to eat in Vietnam, but not here. I just don’t have access to them, like durian, or jackfruit. Certain seasons in Vietnam have different jackfruit.
Another one, in Vietnam it’s called vú sữa, but literally translated it’s called breast milk fruit. The story is; it’s a folklore. The kid ran away and the mother went to work and was longing for her son to come home. When she grew tired and died she turned into that fruit, her body turned into that tree and produced that fruit. And when the kid came home he ate it and the food just reminded him of his mother’s milk.
It’s sweet. The meat of the fruit is white, not clear white, but like milk color. That’s why they call it that. Another one I like is chôm chôm, or rambutan in English. And I like lychee.
My most favorite one would be green mango from Vietnam. Even though it’s green, it can be sweet and now what I do is — it’s crunchy, I love crunchy stuff — you heat up fish sauce just heated up to warm and then you put sugar in it enough to melt the sugar and eventually it turns into this thick liquid and then you cut the red chillies, red hot peppers, you cut them in, as spicy as you want, and then you slice up the green mango, and then you dip it in the sauce and you just eat. It is sweet, spicy, and salty.
Some of the green mango, a certain type is actually very sour even though it’s ripe, it’s stupid sour and you dip it in there and you have all types of flavors in your mouth.
When was the last time you went back to Vietnam?
2012, before I joined the Marines. It’s easier to travel [once I get out of the military]. Because I work for Uncle Sam, when I leave the country I have to let him know. And certain countries are off limit for me; because I’m in the military it is dangerous, and depending on what clearance level you have you can be a security risk. So Russia, China – it’s not blocked off completely it would be very iffy – North Korea obviously, most places in the Middle East.
I want to go during this winter or New Year to Vietnam. Originally I wanted to go during summer, but with other trips I have planned…I going [with our friend Billy] to Utah. We’re climbing a freaking mountain somewhere out west. Montana, Washington – something like that. Apparently I have to buy a fucking mountaineering axe for safety.