Ally Nguyen is currently a line cook at the NoMad Restaurant in New York City. Originally from Seattle, Ally started her career cooking for some of the best restaurants in her hometown. Her journey brought her to the International Culinary Center and the ALMA School of Italian Cuisine, where she graduated top of her class. She completed her externship at Ristorante Gellius in northern Italy, and treasures the time she spent apprenticing under Chef Alessandro Breda, who taught her a love for the craft and a deep respect for the earth and its products.
Ally was not always working in the culinary world. Previously, Ally was a management consultant specializing in mergers and acquisitions. She also holds a Bachelors degree from the University of Chicago and a Masters degree from Harvard University. One would say that Ally made the right decision to pursue the culinary industry by studying at ICC, as she was just named one of the 2018 Bocuse Ment’or Grant recipients! We caught up with the ICC Italian Culinary Experience alumni to discuss the recent achievement, and much more below.
ICC: As a career-changer with a Bachelors degree from the University of Chicago and a Masters degree from Harvard University, tell us what made you decide to switch from business attire to chef whites?
Ally Nguyen: I worked before as a management consultant, which is a challenging and rewarding career, but the job required 4-5 days of travel every week. It got to a point where that lifestyle wasn’t working for me and my family so I took some time off to explore other career options.
I have always loved to cook, but I wasn’t sure if the life of a professional cook would be a good fit. So I gave myself a year to explore different professional kitchens and see if I could handle what was thrown at me. My first job was at a small French restaurant in Seattle where everything was made in-house. I loved my job, but I soon realized that my much younger colleagues had many more years of experience. I knew I needed to close the gap as quickly as I could. So I worked out an arrangement where I could split my time with two of Seattle’s top restaurant groups, which gave me exposure to a wide range of techniques and foodways.
After a year in three kitchens, I knew the kitchen life was what I wanted. Similar to my previous career, cooking requires high levels of organization, teamwork, and communication. I understood that it was often not glamorous, but I loved the intensity of prep, the rush of service, the team camaraderie, and the satisfaction of making your customers happy.
At that point, I was ready for the structured, professional training of culinary school. I visited a number of schools around the country, but I chose the International Culinary Center in New York because I felt immediately at home. I was impressed with the facilities and equipment, and I loved how engaged and knowledgeable the chef-instructors were. Curriculum-wise, I was particularly drawn to the Italian Culinary Experience. ICC is one of the few culinary schools that offers a four-month externship abroad, and it was important to me to get exposure to a different culture and understand how they approach and think about food.
ICC: You graduated at the top of your class in ICC’s Italian Culinary Experience program. What was your favorite part of the ICC program?
There are so many wonderful moments for me at ICC, so it’s hard to choose a favorite. . .
I loved chef-instructors Chef Guido and Chef Jeff of the Italian program and Stefania, my Italian language instructor. They are amazing individuals, and they make a great team. They made class fun and educational, and I’m so grateful to have learned from them.
I also enjoyed all the extra-circular activities available to the students. In fact, there were so many that it was hard to fit them in. I assisted with many of the amateur and recreation classes, like the ramen class, the food styling class, and the New York Culinary Experience. One of the highlights was working with ICC’s Chef Hiroko Shimbo. She’s a master of her craft and a true inspiration. And of course, all the amazing bread!
ICC: What would you say was the most challenging?
The most challenging for me was making the transition from culinary school in NYC to culinary school in Italy, where I had to adjust to a new culture, language, faculty and set of instructors. Our ICC class of seven people were now part of a class of 40 or so students from all over the world. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but it was also one of the most enriching and educational times of my life.
ICC: Describe your experience completing your externship at Ristorante Gellius in Northern Italy and apprenticing under Chef Alessandro Breda?
I spent my four-month externship at Restaurant Gellius, a Michelin starred restaurant in Oderzo, an ancient Roman market town north of Venice. The restaurant is run by Chef Breda, one of the warmest, most gracious people I’ve ever met. He was a wonderful teacher and mentor, always patient but thorough with his instruction. Under his tutelage, I became the first non-Italian cook to lead the pasta and risotto station at his restaurant. He loved telling his customers that their very Italian pasta was being made by a non-Italian cook. But that just proves how good of a teacher he was — under his coaching and watchful eye, I could cook food that met his high standards.
ICC: You’re currently a line cook at the NoMad Restaurant in NYC. Have there been any personal highlights for you since starting this position?
The NoMad is one of the best teaching kitchens in New York so I was very lucky to work there right out of culinary school. It’s a large operation with a Michelin-starred kitchen, a bustling bar (that’s the 3rd best in the world!), an impressive private dining kitchen on the rooftop, and a busy room service department. The NoMad is made up of many moving parts so there are always opportunities to learn and grow.
As a new cook, you usually don’t get many opportunities to cook “your own food,” but one of the special things about the NoMad is that the chefs want you to get to know your ingredients and start thinking about how a recipe comes together early on in your career.
A couple times a year, the NoMad holds a “Cooks’ Battle” where every cook in the restaurant proposes an original recipe for the next season’s menu. The cooks with the best recipes get paired with a sous chef mentor to develop and test their ideas. It’s an amazing experience that taught me so much about the restaurant’s style, about my strengths and weaknesses, and about how to think like a chef. It has helped me develop my own voice and style, and has definitely encouraged me to start thinking about my own recipes in my spare time.
ICC: Tell us what it means to you to be chosen as one of this year’s recipient of the prestigious Bocuse Ment’or grant?
It’s a tremendous honor. Each year, the Bocuse Ment’or Grant gives young cooks the opportunity to live and work in any city and any restaurant they choose, allowing them the chance to learn new techniques and experience different kitchen cultures and approaches to food and cooking. Additionally, the organization offers a stipend to cover housing, transportation, and salary, which gives young cooks financial support to further their education without the burden of debt. That’s invaluable for young cooks who don’t always have the resources to cook abroad.
I have so much respect for the Bocuse organization, and I’m so excited about this upcoming experience
ICC: What do you hope to learn/take away from this experience?
In this conversation, you’re probably getting sick of listening to me say the word “learn,” but I think that’s the most important goal for any cook. Accumulating knowledge and passing it on is the heart of the apprenticeship model.
The time I spent at Ristorante Gellius was some of the most educational time in my culinary life, and there’s nothing that can replace true on-the-job experience. For my grant restaurant, I hope to receive many humbling lessons, and I hope to get a lot of “ah ha” moments where a technique finally makes sense or a concept suddenly clicks into place. When I’m in the kitchen, I try to ask as many “why” questions as possible, and I hope to get some of those “why” questions answered during my time on stage.
ICC: Have you selected your stage location for the grant? If so, where and why did you choose this Chef/Restaurant?
I gave Ment’or my top 3 choices, which are L’Astrance in Paris, France, Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan, and Maeemo in Oslo, Norway. The final destination hasn’t been decided yet, but I’d be thrilled to work at any of these restaurants.
ICC: What advice would you give to other individuals out there potentially looking to change careers and dive into the culinary world?
I’d give the same advice that Chef Guido has always given me because it’s the best advice I’ve ever received: Follow your heart and whatever choice you make will be the right one, as long as you are willing to learn and put in the hard work.”
ICC: What would be your dream position within the culinary industry? Why?
Funny you ask this question, because I will be starting my dream job in a couple of days. My last day at the NoMad was on Wednesday, and I’m moving to Eleven Madison Park next week. EMP was the restaurant that inspired me to move to New York, and it’s the place that I always wanted to work. I admire Chef Humm’s philosophy on food and hospitality, and it will be a dream come true to work at the flagship restaurant.
- I’ve been with the Make It Nice group for a year, and I love how good the company is to their people. I’m so happy stay within the family, and I’m excited to continue learning and contributing to how we make our customers happy. Because happiness is the end goal, isn’t it?