Chef Big Boi Roy Hits the Ground Running in Hanoi

Chef Big Boi Roy

Chef Big Boi Roy getting his grill on at Bamboo Bar in Tay Ho.

“People know Cajun food, which I guess you can kinda separate because in America, race has always been and still is a big thing, so when people speak of Cajun food, they’re mostly talking about the white heritage of Louisiana folks, as a black guy, we call it Creole and it’s pretty much the same thing, but that’s why I’m advertising what I do as Louisiana style cuisine.” Sean Uaam Roy – a.k.a. Chef Big Boi Roy may have only landed in Hanoi some three weeks ago, but he’s already making waves in the F&B world.

“I hit the ground running when I got here, by the end of my first week I’d already been cooking at my first event – that shows how passionate I am about my cuisine and my cooking.” With a larger than life attitude and a fervent enthusiasm to dive straight into the thick of Hanoi’s caffeine-soaked breakneck pace of life, Chef Big Boi Roy has big plans for his time here. “As a chef, you want to showcase yourself, but also the local ingredients around you, so I’m gonna call my place Asian Cajun Fusion and it works well with Vietnamese ingredients, because – a long time ago – Vietnam was being run by the French and so they have a lot of the same influences in their food, the same spices, the same bread, so – yeah there are differences, but there’s a lot of similarities to what I grew up with too.”

Chef Big Boi Roy

Prior to exploding onto the streets of Hanoi, Chef Big Boi Roy was holed up in the kitchens of fine dining establishments across New Orleans, until his cousin finally succeeded in convincing him to grace Vietnam’s shores with his unmistakeable presence. “I’ve been cooking professionally for about five years now, but I’m the only-child of a single-parent household, I learned to cook when I was in the second grade, the first thing I ever cooked was scrambled eggs and my mum taught me how to do it over the phone, I think it just sorta went from there.”

Chef Big Boi Roy is one of those instantly loveable characters who wears his heart on his sleeve – the only thing matching his enthusiasm is his ambition and honestly, it’s infectious hearing the passion in his voice as he tells me his plans. “I want to create an internationally renowned restaurant, but really as a black man, that’s unheard of – outside of fast food chains and I don’t wanna be that guy, those places are owned by the man and the man could be anyone who don’t care about the little guy.”

Having been raised in Louisiana and having worked across the southern United States of America, Chef Big Boi Roy’s boundless ambition seems to stem from a common desire that unites all of the foreigners who bask in the heat of Hanoi – the unflinching need to escape the gutters of whence we came. “I wanna make a difference and I wanna show the world that you don’t have to look a certain way or be a certain way to make your dreams happen, looking at where I’m from, nobody back there thinks this big – they’re OK staying at home and never even leaving the state of Louisiana, they’re OK with that, I’m not.”

Chef Big Boi Roy

The stage is set, the plans are laid and Chef Big Boi Roy is content to be his own hero. The intensity of his drive is ferocious and it’s hard not to take stock of your own dreams when you see him pursue his with the sort of energy usually reserved for an entire pack of rabid dogs. “For Hanoi, I do wanna build a restaurant that showcases Louisiana’s cuisine because I’m a Louisiana boy through and through – as much as I don’t like being there, it’s home and I can’t change or deny that, so I’m embracing it. Maybe it’s gonna bring me some good fortune after all, I’ve been running from it for so long, but now I’ve embraced it, here I am sat, talking to you for a magazine in Hanoi, who would’ve thought that?”

It’s not just his dream of owning an internationally acclaimed restaurant that he throws himself into with gleeful abandon, but Vietnam has enthralled him. “I want to incorporate everything I encounter around me into the food, there are things you can’t change – I’m not gonna change gumbo, I’m not gonna change jambalaya or dirty rice, but I can play with shrimp and grits, I want to push the boundaries and find that combination of Vietnamese ingredients and Louisiana cuisine that nobody’s tried before.”

Chef Big Boi Roy

Almost in spite of his own wide-eyed exuberance, Chef Big Boi Roy notes that, “Vietnamese tastes are very traditional, there’s a ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’ kinda mentality, but I’m not sayin’ it’s broke, I just wanna give it an upgrade and do something different with it, the difference between a cook and a chef is elevation, what can I do to improve this?”

This isn’t the only challenge that Chef Big Boi Roy has acknowledged since arriving in Hanoi and despite being relatively fresh off the proverbial boat, he’s picking up the local customs fast. Vietnam is not America and things happen differently here, but Chef Big Boi Roy is coming at it like a freight-train of culinary wonders. “Here I get the feeling that a lot of it is not what you know, but who you know – you gotta play the game in Vietnam, I’m good at Xbox, how about you? I’m gonna play the shit out of it! You can’t stop someone who’s focused and has a good work ethic, determination is the best weapon in any fight.”

This plan is something that’s rattled around for three years in Chef Big Boi Roy’s head and now that he’s finding his feet here, the plan is finally in motion. “I’m trying to open my first establishment in the next six months, whether small or big, you’re gonna see my name on a door somewhere in Hanoi. In the meantime, I wanna do events, get my food out there and take every opportunity Hanoi throws me.”

Chef Big Boi Roy

Chef Big Boi Roy’s taking on all the pop-up events he can find.

Between now and then, he’s developed his menu and is on the hunt for that first special place of his own. “After I left culinary school in Louisiana, I kept on learning until I reached a point I was asking myself, can I do this on my own? Right now I miss cooking professionally, I enjoy it the way a footballer enjoys it when he puts on his helmet before going out on the field.” His grin is wide and genuine, but the glint in his eyes tells me not to try and stand between him and his dreams, “I get that wave of feelings right before the dinner rush, I get pumped up, the adrenaline’s going – I love that energy of the moment, but working in the kitchen isn’t for everyone.”

Hanoi’s international food scene is expanding at a rate faster than the universe itself, which is no bad thing, but Vietnam’s still on the ascent and some things just haven’t made it here yet. Cajun or Creole food is sadly one gap within this emerging market that the rest of the world has been infatuated with for years now. Chef Big Boi Roy sees this not only as an opportunity to plug that gap, but also to influence the perception of traditionally black cuisine. “My thing is this right, Louisiana food has been seen as a peasant man’s food, it’s poor man’s food, but why can’t poor man’s food look good? Why does fine dining have to lack flavour? The holy trinity of Louisiana is onions, bell peppers and celery, just like the Vietnamese have their herbs that find their way into everything here – so I’m here to make a statement, I’m here to make a name for myself – Chef Big Boi Roy is gonna be a household name in Hanoi and beyond by the time I’m done.”

Chef Big Boi Roy

Chef Big Boi Roy

HOT TABLE. Photography by Mi Nguyen.

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