Truckin’ with Han

Did you catch the recent food truck-themed episode of Chopped? As fans of the show and of food trucks, we made sure to check it out! After the show, we caught up with contestant Han Ly Hwang to get the inside scoop on his experience as well as his journey from dishwasher to chef.

Chef Han Ly Hwang
Chef Han Ly Hwang

FP: How did you get your start with cooking? 

HH: I started cooking very young. I think I was about 7 or 8 yrs old when I learned how to make instant ramen. I was a latchkey kid so I was home alone a lot. My first cooking job was at a Boston Market in Burke, VA (outside of Washington DC). I was 16 at the time and I was forced to get a job to comply with probation. My probation officer at the time got me the job. I started as a dishwasher and then worked my way up to “utility cook.” It was a horrible job. The worst part of it was that if I got fired or quit, my P.O. would hear about it and I could potentially get in a lot of trouble. When I started cooking as a job, I truly hated it. There was no passion, I just knew I could cook and it was the only job that I could do. I hated people and there was no way I could do retail, or be a server.

FP: How did the concept of your food truck come about?

HH: The concept of the truck came along in early 2010. My then girlfriend (now fiancé) and I were in Maui and she asked me what I wanted to do with myself. At this point in my career I was working as a line cook part time at a shitty club and I also would pick up shifts at a few other restaurants, I was a total mercenary. No kitchen to really call home. My fiancé suggested that I open up a Korean BBQ cart and truth be told, I owe it all to her. My buddy and I came up with the name Kim Jong Grillin after a long night/morning of drinking and throwing around menu ideas. The concept was simple. Make good, approachable Korean food.

FP: We’re all grateful to your fiancé for pushing you to be your best!

Tell us about your experience on Chopped from casting to being in front of the bright lights.

HH: Getting cast for Chopped was a pretty intimidating process. There were so many chefs that auditioned. And it is hard for me to talk myself up in front of a camera. I honestly didn’t think that I was going to make it on the show. When I did my first on-camera interview, I was in the waiting area and when they called my name, Nong was coming out of the interview room. It was a relief to see a friend. We both laughed when we saw each other in New York.

FP: What did you learn from being on the show?

HH: The. Clock. Is. Real. That is about all I can say regarding cooking in front of the camera. And honestly I barely remember running around in the kitchen. It was so stressful.

FP: Your first reaction to Scott Conant’s strong words?

HH: I was absolutely humbled by Scott Conant’s words. To have a renowned Chef say to me that I have talent and to not give up was surreal. He could have said any thing to me. He doesn’t know me. He owes me nothing.  It truly re-inspired me to cook again.

FP: We were inspired, too!

What are some of your favorite meals to cook at home for yourself or for friends and family?

HH: Well, when I was not cooking professionally full time I cooked a lot of ramen at home. I made everything from the broth to the noodles. I also love cooking pizza at home. From scratch dough to sauce, all of it. I also would cook for my beloved dogs, I would make a high protein chicken and lentil slurry for them. Now that I have opened the truck back up… I generally eat complete garbage. Peanut butter jelly sandwiches with a square of cheddar OR American cheese, late night Taco Bell runs, and popsicles. I also eat a lot of kim chee and rice topped with an egg and sesame oil.

FP: Sounds like your dogs eat better than some people we know! 😉

Name three chefs you would like to cook with in the same kitchen and why.

HH: This is a tough question! There are so many variables… If I may, I will give you two.

Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Gweneth Paltrow:

~Simply put, I just want to see how many minutes I would make it in the kitchen before my self esteem melted into the drain. Mind you, I like all three of these chefs. I really think it would be interesting to see what the menu would look like. (Gweneth Paltrow is a Chef because she said so.)

Gregory Gourdet, David Chang, Marco Pierre White:

~These three are chefs that I look up to and really admire for different reasons. I have never had their food, and that is why I would love to cook with them. I have no reference to how their pallet is first hand and it would be cool to see what we could make with out the reputations of being a “great” chef. Sometimes the accolades and awards make it hard to make approachable food. For me, cooks are cooks until they start making plates for the next accolade, write up, award, etc. and not to make good food. These three chefs, to my knowledge are still cooks. Also selfishly, I would love to party with all three of them. Probably end up dying.

FP: It would be quite a party indeed!

When you go out to eat, name some of your favorite places in Portland or other cities you’ve visited.

HH: OOOooooooo…. Well, in Maui there is this place called Star Noodle. Absolutely the best restaurant on the island. Great food, atmosphere and the people are really nice. Then there is Eskimo Candy also in Maui for the plate lunches. Its not just really really delicious food, it is also reasonably priced for Hawaii. In Portland, I love Laurelhurst Market. It is a great representation of a steakhouse. Really the only place I go to for a steak. Then there is Binh Minh bakery. I get my baguettes there and they have the best Bhan Mi in town. I love going to Nong’s Khao Man Gai for daddy daughter dates. Nong is a friend and truly makes great food. The ice cream there is killer! Lemongrass and Pandan leaf ice cream with toasted coconut flakes. Then I have a bunch of secret spots for Chinese and Vietnamese. If you want to know, you just have to come out to Portland and hit me up.

FP: Portland is on our list of places to visit so we’ll certainly keep you posted!

What are some of your guilty pleasures (if any)? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name 🙂

HH: I love vegan food when it is done right. I also love to cook vegan food. Col Robinson is one of my closest friends and he has made some the best vegan food I have tasted. I can not wait for him to get a place open so I can eat his food all the time. You have to be really clever to cook with out butter, cream or bacon. My man does it on the daily and it is awesome.

FP: We agree that vegan done right is something else!

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing? What are some of your non-cooking related hobbies and interests?

HH: Well, I was a freelance animator for a few years. Mostly 3d stuff. I cooked in kitchens and did freelance graphic design for a few years. I eventually just walked away from it because at the end of the day, I had to really ask myself, “Do I suck at this?” I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t cooking… Selling drugs and being as gangster as possible? Ha ha! I really don’t know. When I am not cooing or prepping for the next day, I spend time with my awesome family. My daughter and lady are my happiness.

FP: Well, we think you’re pretty gangster in the kitchen. Thanks for your time, Chef Han, and much continued success!

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