With 14 restaurants, ten different gastronomic concepts, and a staff of 100, The Duc Ngo is one of Berlin’s most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs, having made a name for himself far beyond the city limits. For Jack Wolfskin’s Van Adventure series, the devoted city dweller went to the wilderness of Brandenburg, where he demonstrated how easy it is to prepare a gorgeous outdoor dinner with fresh ingredients found in nature. We spoke with The Duc Ngo about success, adventure in the vast hinterlands of Alaska, and his plans for the future.
What is your affinity to nature?
I am a city kid. I lived in Hanoi until I was five years old and then came to Germany as a refugee. We moved to Berlin right away, so I’ve always lived in a big city. We initially lived on the city’s outer rim, where there were woods and lots of nature. Perhaps this left its mark on me. As an adult, I toured the Mecklenburg Lake District with a tent and all that. Today, I continue to enjoy traveling around the world. Sometimes, I take my tent and go camping in Alaska for two weeks all by myself in the wilderness and spend my time fishing, hunting, and gathering. When I need to recharge, I always feel a great sense of freedom. I enjoy having a wide-open view, somewhere with a lot of space, whether it’s in the mountains or by the sea. In my opinion, the greatest luxury is to experience the vastness and open spaces.
With all of these different activities, how would you describe yourself?
I started as a cook but quickly became self-employed. Nowadays, I see myself as more of a cooking entrepreneur.
Was that your plan?
I did have a master plan outlining what I hoped to accomplish within 20 years. But I also left a great deal up to chance. I followed a different path and took a lot of detours. Yet, I still ended up where I am right now. I am not the person who says that I have to have ten restaurants within ten years. But, of course, I wanted to be successful because success provides feedback, like whether people accept what you are doing and like it or not. If you’ve waited on tables, as I did as a young man, you know that you need feedback from the people you serve. And feedback is something you get very quickly in the restaurant business. That’s the beauty of it.
How would you define success for yourself?
On the one hand, there is the simple definition – success means money or prestige. On the other hand, being successful means doing something you enjoy and being able to give something back to those around you, whether in the form of money, affection, or friendship. That, for me, is success. Not being envied, but instead supported in what you do. I could have easily earned two or three times as much if I had chosen to, but I wanted to follow my path a little differently and not be in such a rush. As a result, there are many people today who are happy about my success.
Of course, some successful people you just feel a grudge towards because they are aggressive or don’t care about anyone but themselves. I prefer to share what I have with my partner and with my family.
This attitude is somewhat unusual in the highly competitive environment of the restaurant trade. So how were things for you in the beginning?
I began as an outsider in this industry and opened a kitchen that none of the critics could really figure out. No one ever said that I wasn’t cooking right. At the time, I was serving a mix of Japanese and Pan-Asian cuisine, and I simply cooked what I found to be best. Although the critics didn’t take me seriously, they liked what I did and thought it was fun. And the guests understood right away that this place was cool, enjoyable, and delicious. It allowed me to carve out a niche for myself very quickly. It was unique in the sense that we offered a special menu and atmosphere. There’s no way you can succeed if you just pretend to be original, try to cook like someone else, or, in the worst case, copy others instead of working out your personality.
Where do you find your inspiration, and how do you orient yourself in your work?
So far, I have created very thematically unique restaurants serving ethnic cuisine, which, nonetheless, have a completely contemporary ambiance and style. Whether it is Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Mediterranean, I always strive to make things as modern as possible. I do this together with Hyunjung Kim, my interior designer, and partner, who is also my best friend. She has mastered the art of expressing emotion with her design. And on top of this, there comes the food. Our clients experience not only fine cuisine but also a special atmosphere, even though they may not be able to comprehend it at first.
What’s your next project?
I’m planning a small restaurant where I’ll cook the finest possible food together with good people. It will be a place where I can spend the whole evening and give it my best. I’d like to have a hand at the gourmet world because I think I can cook that way if I take my time. After 22 years of being self-employed, I deserve to be able to take my own time. So, I’ll be opening a small fine dining restaurant soon, probably in November. But, of course, this gourmet restaurant will have the Duc signature so that it will be somewhat on the unconventional side, and I’ll try to surprise my guests.