When VnExpress asked her for an interview, Ola Nguyen said she would speak in her mother tongue. Her family had left Thai Binh Province in northern Vietnam to settle in Poland when she was seven years old.
Her claim to fame was winning the seventh season of Masterchef Poland.
The 21-year-old Ola, real name Nguyen Hoang Minh Tam, had competed in the event during the summer break because she felt she could not find “anything appealing enough to do” unlike other years when she did part-time jobs or charity.
But as a long-time fan of the reality show, she had always wanted to try.
First she had had to ask SGH Warsaw School of Economics to permit her to take time off in mid-July to compete. Luckily, the school was not too strict.
Ola and her parents. Photo courtesy of Ola Nguyen
Acquainted with cooking since the age of 10, Tam says she felt quite “pressured” when her mother would say Asians believe girls must learn domestic skills to be able to marry.
Her mother would also give her clear instructions about which foods go with which spices, but she has not always conformed to these rules.
“I like to watch videos online and see how I can combine different ingredients and spices together. That’s how I can make a lot of new things.”
The big influence on Tam’s inner cook was her grandmother. Because her parents were busy with their business, from a young age she and her brothers would spend a lot of time at home with her.
When it was time to cook she would often call Tam in to the kitchen so that she could watch and learn. Tam especially loves the pork cake served with eggs, coriander and tomato soup her grandmother makes.
In the Masterchef final, Tam made pig tongue and smoked fish. To make the former, she put the tongue in a pressure cooker to soften it, added ginger and vinegar and presented it with pineapple, laksa leaves, basil, prawns, and rice paper.
“I wanted to show people the clear distinction between Asian and European cuisines through these two dishes. If the smoked fish is pure European, the pig tongue represents Vietnamese cuisine, is quite chewy and filled with the aroma of herbs.”
She reckons she won because the judges fell for the uniqueness and creativity in her dishes. In the dessert contest, she had made tiramisu with potato in it.
Olas book cover as the Polish MasterChef in the seventh season. Photo taken from her Facebook.
What the future holds
Winning gave her the right to publish her own Masterchef cookbook. To do it however she had to give her exams a miss and write them later.
“The time pressure was very stressful but I found it worthwhile, because I have proven to my parents I can do different things.”
Tam’s book has 78 recipes. Besides typical Vietnamese dishes like caramelized pork, pickle soup, sour fish soup, and pickled vegetables, Tam also included many of her own creations, including Asian dishes whose ingredients can be found in Poland.
“I realize I have a great advantage of being able to enjoy both Vietnamese and Polish cultures, so I will make the best of [both]. I want to use French or European techniques to create dishes with Asian ingredients.”
She has just graduated but admits with a loud laugh she is no longer interested in the economics-finance major she did.
Tam is considering “opening something” of her own though she is yet to flesh out the idea. What she knows is she wants to change the reality that there are no high-class Vietnamese restaurants in Poland.
She plans to apprentice at restaurants to learn the trade.
Sitting beside her daughter to assist whenever her Vietnamese needs help, Hoang Thi Ngoan says she is extremely happy about Tam’s achievement.
She was super proud when congratulations poured in from the Vietnamese community in Warsaw. She was also surprised when her daughter had a “180 degree” change of mind from studying economics to cooking, but the family respects her decision.
Ngoan says Vietnamese in Poland eat just like their compatriots back in Vietnam. Thus, in summer it is stir-fried or boiled morning glory and crab soup, and in winter it is fish soup.
Tam has had the opportunity to eat traditional Vietnamese food during the four visits to her home country, the last time in 2011.
Her eldest daughter in a family of three siblings has always been confident and persevering, Ngoan says.
“When she likes to do something, she will do that by any means. Though her father and I would warn her against staying up late, she would stay up at night learning stuff.”
She is not bothered by some people’s view that Tam does not deserve to be Polish MasterChef because she is an immigrant.
“I do not feel angry or bothered; this is like when Vietnamese watch football, they support the Vietnamese team. The important thing is that Tam must make an effort to show that she is a real MasterChef.”
Tam does not pay much attention to possible discrimination because she is young and does not feel the pressure to succeed, she says.
Ngoan and her husband always tell their children to do well in school and conduct themselves well to create a positive image of Vietnamese in Poland.
Tam is not sure yet what she will do with the MasterChef prize money of $26,300.
“I used to like shopping for cars to travel to other countries, but now I think I should spend money on investing in something to ensure financial stability. So I can pursue my dreams.”
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