October 29, 2014
Yesterday I heard that an old friend had died. She was from the city of Hue, formerly the imperial capital of Vietnam. The Vietnamese regard Hue cooking as the best in the country; cooks from there have legendary reputations. Thi deserved a place in that pantheon. We worked together for twelve years at the catering company my husband and I owned. Thi was one of the truly great cooks I have ever known.
Her broths were crystal clear and sparkling with a stunning depth of flavor. She had the capacity to refresh ingredients like fish or salad greens and herbs, even those that had been left lurking around the walk-in, so that they seemed just brought from the sea or picked in the garden. After being shown once, she could work in any vernacular, unless the dish revolved around dairy, to which she never adjusted. There was a clarity of flavor in all her preparations. Thi’s cooking could be simultaneously delicate and hardy and always seemed in tune with the season and nature itself.
In our kitchen there was a famous rivalry between Thi and another fabulous cook from Hue. Each woman had their own specialties and Thi kept the exact details of her recipes top secret. Owning the recipe was power and she was not about to relinquish it. When she decided to retire I asked her to come over to my house and share some of our customer and staff favorites. She didn’t measure, so I had to leap around putting cups and spoons under her hands as ingredients fell into the bowl. At the time I was sworn to secrecy but I think now is the moment to share.