Not only has chef Thien Nguyen brought new tastes to Soji Modern Asian, he’s brought his passion and new ideas, too.
Having attended culinary schools in Thibodaux and across the pond in France, and growing up in a Vietnamese household, his background gives him a unique perspective on food. Having started at Soji just two months ago, he’s already made an impact at the restaurant.
225 Dine recently caught up with Nguyen to discuss what makes him perfect for a place like Soji and what he hopes to bring to the Mid City restaurant.
From the beginning, what made you want to start cooking?
I kind of grew up in the restaurant industry. When I was a kid, I’d sneak into the kitchen of my aunt’s restaurant. Just growing up in south Louisiana, everything is centralized around food. Any kind of party or get together, everyone’s in the kitchen having fun. I was always drawn to that kind of energy. My grandmother would always let me help her cook, and I fell in love with it.
How do you think being raised in a Vietnamese household influenced your cooking?
Oh, big time. Everyone in my family is a self-proclaimed chef. It’s kind of intimidating sometimes, because everyone’s kind of a critic. We have a really big family—there’s more than 50 of us. So every time we get together, it’s like a potluck. But growing up in that environment pushed me to do what I wanted to do, and becoming a chef was kind of paying homage to my roots. My parents and grandmothers are a big reason why I decided to become a chef. They always knew I enjoyed being in the kitchen, and cooking with them instilled in me valuable life lessons. They’ve always supported me in chasing my dreams.
You attended culinary school at both Chef John Folse Culinary Institute in Thibodaux and at a school France. How did that influence how you cook?
Going to school in Thibodeaux was a blessing I never saw coming. Being in that small town was very important for me, and the connections I built there were so strong. Going to Nicholls opened up my entire career. I would not be where I am without going there. I would’ve never met Kelley McCann from Kalurah Street Grill, who gave me my first job out of school as a sous chef. Going to school in France was part of my senior externship program, and the students lived and went to school together. We were from 14 different countries, and being in that environment and learning from them was life changing.
What brought you to Baton Rouge?
I was born and raised in New Orleans, but in 2009, my family decided to move to Prairieville. I went to Dutchtown High School and was in the ProStart Program, which gave me a jump start to the culinary field. My wife and I moved to Orlando for me to pursue a job at Disney World, and everything was going well, and I was in line for a promotion. Then, as soon as we found that out, the pandemic hit. We decided to pack everything up and move home, and that’s how I ended up back in Baton Rouge. My wife was the biggest deciding factor in me taking the job at Soji. She knew I’d be happy there and has always been my rock when it comes to the support and stability needed to be a great chef.
What drew you to Soji? What makes the restaurant special to you?
There’s nothing like it in Baton Rouge. There’s sushi restaurants all over the area, but there’s no one doing what we do, which is the modern Asian thing. All of the recipes that we use have authentic roots. Whenever they were developing the recipes, previous chef Ryan Andre went to Asia himself to see how they did it and find out what he could do to make it more enticing to the modern palate. Trends are always changing, so you have to stay up to date to compete with everyone else. When I was looking for a job, I was looking at other different places. But when I found out Soji had opened up, I talked to owner Chase Lyons, and we really talked like we were friends. I knew it would be a good fit. And coming from my background, I have the Vietnamese side, I studied Cajun Creole and classic French, so I have a pretty solid foundation. Also my team I’ve brought on—my sous chef Derek Roth is my righthand man. We’ve been together since Kalurah Street.
What have you brought to Soji, and even added to the menu? What have you changed up so far?
I’ve been introducing some Vietnamese dishes that I grew up eating. This past week, we ran a calamari special. We take calamari, toss it in rice flour and deep fry it. Then we throw it into a wok with some onions, peppers and serrano chiles, and hit it with some Thai spice blend that accentuates the calamari flavor. Then, we top it off with some sweet and spicy gochujang aioli. We sold out of that the first night. I also brought in a shrimp tempura bao, and a classic Vietnamese salad. We did mango, cucumber and carrots, and tossed that in a nuoc cham fish sauce with grilled shrimp.
What are you looking forward to in your future with Soji?
I’m looking to grow. The restaurant, and me personally. I’ve always had my own vision for what I want my restaurant to be, and I’m just very excited for the future there.
Visit Chef Thien Nguyen at Soji Modern Asian. It’s at 5050 Government St., and open Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m and 5-9 p.m, and Sundays, 5-9 p.m.