Demi chef de partie at Russell Bateman's Colette's at the Grove, Danny Hoang tells Hannah Thompson how it feels to be crowned Young National Chef of the Year 2016
Congratulations on your win. How does it feel?
It's a bit overwhelming and pretty surreal. On the morning of the contest, it could have been anyone. I just wanted to focus on trying to cook really well, and to enjoy it as much as I could.
You trained at Westminster Kingsway, but what about before that?
My parents are immigrants and came over in 1980, from China and Vietnam. They opened up their own little takeaway in Erith, south-east London. Food was a big deal for me growing up; it was so special, coming together as a family. The thing I love about food most is eating it. So I had to decide what to do. I never really enjoyed school, but I always loved cooking.
Why did you want to enter the YNCOTY?
This one is so special. All you've got to do is look at all the previous winners and see where they are now.
Who did you look to for inspiration?
Definitely [former winner] Mark Sargeant. What's he's done with his career is amazing. I see the previous winners as being in a kind of club.
How did you decide what to cook?
It's a mix of what I really like to cook and also the mentor day we had [at the Unilever Knorr training kitchen with Sargeant]. Watching Mark do his demonstrations… it was just honest cooking. He made a quick parsley sauce, and I used it in my starter.
You seem to be driven by what you personally like, and you know your style quite clearly?
Well, I do like to eat out a lot. There is a really famous quote from Ferran Adria, which is really cheesy, but it's so important: "To cook well you must eat well."
What's been the most inspirational technique that you've learnt?
At Colette's we cook dishes and get everyone to try them, which helps, because not everyone looks at food the same way.
Which other chefs do you find interesting?
My opinion on this changes all the time! When I first got into cooking, Heston [Blumenthal] was the main thing; it was extraordinary, beyond cooking. And then I started getting into Thomas Keller. There are so many chefs I could name. Michel Bras, Pascal Barbot…
You work with last year's National Chef of the Year, Russell Bateman. How did that help you?
It also had its added pressure, because the first thing he said was, "You better win it!" But, of course, he was also very supportive and it was great talking to him. It's inspiring to see a guy who not only runs a kitchen, but outside his work time wins those competitions.
How much did you train?
I used to come in on Sunday and Monday when the restaurant is closed and practice. It wasn't that long ago that I had the WorldSkills competition in Sao Paolo in Brazil, which obviously took a lot of effort and energy too. I didn't quite get the result I was expecting then, so it was hard to motivate myself again.
So you weren't pleased with how it went then [Hoang won a Medallion of Excellence]?
It was exceptionally tough. I did so well at EuroSkills [Hoang won the gold medal], so I had quite high expectations. I'm proud, but I had wanted a better result. I saw YNCOTY as another chance to do well and I'm so glad I did.
How do those competitions differ?
I approach it with the same mindset. Going through the WorldSkills process was one of the biggest things that helped too, as we had psychology and confidence training from Olympic sports psychologists. That was some of the best, non-skills related help I've ever had.
Have you got your eye on any other contests?
I'd really love to do National Chef in many years to come.
In your career overall, what's your goal?